“As to confessing one’s sins to a priest, all may do so, none must do so, some should do so.” I was in seminary when I first heard that bit of folk wisdom meant to summarize the Anglican teaching on private Confession. It is a crude formulation and it begs a number of questions, not least the one raised in an Anglo-Catholic manual of devotion that I read on retreat long ago, “How do you know that you’re not one of the some?” Nevertheless, while it doesn’t capture the nuances, this famous phrase does set forth what amounts to the Anglican position. But it takes a bit of a deeper look to understand why Anglicanism teaches this understanding, as the teaching developed gradually during the sixteenth century, coming to maturity only in the seventeenth century.
The Reformers on Confession
The sixteenth century Anglican Reformers were not all of one mind on the subject. Those who held to a more continental and Calvinist bend tended to come close to dismissing Confession altogether as a frivolous superstition. Those influenced more by Luther than Calvin tended to hold what we might call a more sacramental view of Confession, though they would not have characterized it that way for fear of aiding the assumption that Confession is a sacrament in the same way that Holy Baptism and Holy Communion are sacraments. The Reformers wanted to reject what they perceived to be the Roman view, that the Blood of Christ was only sufficient to wash away original sin and that any subsequent sin would have to be absolved by a priest or else it would remain. At the same time, though, they recognized the biblical injunction that gave the power of binding and loosing to the Church (Matthew 16:13-19) and the power and authority to absolve sins to the apostles and their successors (John 20:21-23).
Thomas Becon, the chaplain to Archbishop Cranmer, wrote in The Potation of Lent that private Confession to a priest is not an absolutely necessary thing but that it is a very good thing. “Confession bringeth high tranquility to the troubled conscience of a Christian man,” he said, “while the most comfortable words of absolution are rehearsed unto him by the Priest.” He acknowledges the priest’s role to absolve, but places it in the context of Christ’s work. Absolution is “a preaching of the free deliverance from all our sins through Christ’s blood. How say you, is here anything to be condemned in auricular confession thus used?”
While Becon attempted to calm the fears of his fellow Protestants about the practice of Confession, John Jewel pushed hard in the other direction, trying to distance the practice of the Church of England from that of Rome, even suggesting at one point that Christians might seek to make Confession to any man, using James 5 as a proof text. Nevertheless, Jewel acknowledges the authority of bishops and priests, as Ministers of God’s Word, to exercise godly judgment:
Moreover, we say that Christ hath given to His Ministers power to bind, to loose, to open, to shut; and that the office of loosing consisteth in this point, that the Minister should either offer by the preaching of the Gospel the merits of Christ and full pardon to such as have lowly and contrite hearts, and do unfeignedly repent them, pronouncing unto the same a sure and undoubted forgiveness of their sins, and hope of everlasting salvation; or else that the Minister, when any have offended their brothers’ minds with a great offence, and with a notable and open fault, whereby they have, as it were, banished and made themselves strangers from the common fellowship and from the body of Christ, then after perfite amendment of such persons, doth reconcile them and bring them home again and restore them to the company and unity of the faithful. (Apology for the Church of England)
What is important is not whether or not a man is able to rack his brain and come up with every sin, in excruciating detail, for the priest to hear, but whether or not that man is willing to repent.
Confession in the Book of Common Prayer
Whatever individual Reformers believed, the BCP sets out an important place for private Confession found in the office of the Visitation of the Sick. After having the Baptismal Covenant recited, the sick person is invited to confess any sins that weigh on his or her conscience. The priest then says, “Our Lord Jesus Christ, who hath left power to his Church to absolve all sinners who truly repent and believe in him, of his great mercy forgive thee thine offences: And by his authority committed to me, I absolve thee from all thy sins, In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.” The 1549 rubic said that this form of absolution was to be used “in all pryvate confessions.” That part of the rubric disappeared in 1552, but it was nevertheless the practice of the Church to use this absolution in all manner of private confession, as we shall see below.
The Divines on Confession
While the Reformers struggled to make a clear distinction between Roman practice of Confession and what they believed to be a more primitive and biblical form, the Divines of the seventeenth century articulate a more transparently positive position. Francis White, writing in 1624, commends Confession broadly as a wonderful and holy office which offers the penitent counsel, reproof, comfort, absolution, and preparation for receiving Holy Communion. While it is not required for all, White commends it to all as a godly practice, “consonant to the Holy Scriptures and anciently practised by the Primitive Church.” Moreover, he goes to great pains to accentuate the fact that bishops and priests have the exclusive authority to offer this service:
Bishops and Ministers of the Church are Shepherds, Stewards, and Overseers of God’s people committed to their charge (1 Peter 5:1-2; Acts 20:28). They have received the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven and power to loose and bind sinners (Matthew 16:19; Matthew 19:18; John 20:23). They have power to direct and govern their whole flock and every sheep and member of the same in things concerning their salvation. The people are subject to them in such offices and actions as concern their spiritual state (Hebrews 13:17; 1 Thessalonians 5:12). And if Christian people must confess and acknowledge their faults one to another (James 5:16), then also when there is cause why should they not do the same to the Pastors of their souls?
Bishop John Cosin goes even further. Cosin was an exceptionally learned man. He was prominently involved in the post-civil war revision of the BCP in 1662. His Notes and Collections on the Book of Common Prayer examined at length the theology of Confession in the Prayer Book, commending the form in the Visitation of the Sick as normative for Anglican theology. Cosin is careful not to call Confession a Gospel Sacrament, but nevertheless refers to it as “sacramental.” He points out that the words of the absolution are the same in the Church of England as in Rome and that they are also the same words used in liturgies in the ancient Church. He even goes so far as to draw a distinction between “venial sins” and “mortal sins,” just as the Roman Church does from medieval times forward:
Venial sins that separate not from the grace of God need not so much to trouble a man’s conscience; if he hath committed any mortal sin, then we require Confession of it to a Priest, who may give him, upon his true contrition and repentance, the benefit of Absolution, which takes effect according to his disposition that is absolved.
This distinction between “venial” and “mortal” sins is certainly unusual in Anglicanism, yet we see again here that private Confession is upheld and encouraged strongly, that the priest offers absolution exclusively, and that penitence is required if the grace is to be properly received. Yet Cosin makes abundantly clear that the grace that one receives in Confession is not self generated, lest a penitent worry that his or her lack of feeling contrite would nullify it. Cosin says, “The truth is, that in the Priest’s Absolution, there is the true power and virtue of forgiveness, which will most certainly take effect, Nisi ponitur obex, as in Baptism.”
This deep regard for private Confession runs throughout the work of the divines of the seventeenth century, from the better known divines like Lancelot Andrewes and Jeremy Taylor to the less famous names like White and Cosin. Oddly enough, the one exception to this seems to be Richard Hooker, who seems to have believed that all acts of Confession in the primitive Church were public rather than private, happening in front of the whole assembly. Yet even Hooker acknowledges the authority of bishops and priests to offer absolution, writing in Book V of the Ecclesiastical Laws that such ministers, through “the power of the Keys” may offer absolution which the penitent should “accept the benefit thereof as God’s most merciful ordinance for their good, and, without any distrust or doubt, to embrace joyfully His grace so given them, according to the word of our Lord, which hath said ‘whose sins ye remit, they are remitted.'” The penitent is to accept the absolution that the priest offers “as out of Christ’s own word and power, by the ministry of the keys.”
Confession is a Comfort
As with so many other things that we find in Anglican theology, the key to understanding Confession is scriptural and patristic. Scripture gives no requirement for private Confession, so neither does the Church. Yet Scripture does offer a ministry of Absolution, carried out by the apostles and their successors, and so it is imperative that the Church make provision for the carrying out of this ministry. Certainly this includes a great many things, such as the General Confession offered during the Eucharist. Nevertheless, as the Exhortations in the Eucharist make clear, there are times when a General Confession simply will not be enough to quiet the conscience. Moreover, all Christian people are entitled to the grace of absolution and the great comfort it provides. Private Confession has an honorable heritage, both in the Church at large throughout her history and in Anglicanism. In an age in which many people have lost a sense of what a sin is, and where more and more Christians are brought to despair by worry over whether or not their repentance is genuine, it is with gratitude that we may receive this ministry delivered by Christ through His Church to remove the burdens from our souls and allow us to walk spotlessly in the light of truth.