On Hearing Confessions
Let’s just face it, many Anglican priests today are ordained with little to no training in hearing confessions. Many attended seminaries in the Evangelical or Reformed traditions and for them, the practice is foreign. Many came into Anglicanism in churches which never emphasize it, and so, they have never really thought about it. After my last article was released, I realized that it was perhaps a bit premature, for these and other reasons. So, for this post, I intend to speak to the best ways to offer this ministry. In the next one, I’ll offer a practical guide for those who want to begin making their confessions.
Be a Doer of the Word, and Not a Hearer Only
The first advice to those who would take up the ministry of confession is always this: “Don’t hear confessions if you don’t make your own.” The best help in becoming a better confessor is to know and confess your own sins thoroughly. More importantly, we must not become “the blind leading the blind,” or the one who points out a speck in his neighbor’s eye, hindered by a plank in his own. The greatest help in being a compassionate pastor who offers absolution and counsel is knowing yourself to be an object of the Lord’s grace and mercy.
In addition to this, we must realize that sin is not merely vertical in orientation. We don’t sin only against God. We sin against our neighbors, against ourselves, and against creation as well. It is essential that we regularly hear the assurance of God’s mercy upon us from a representative of those whom we sin against – another human being. Through this, we learn, through an apprenticeship of sorts, how to be merciful and patient ourselves. The best kind of confessor is one who filled with compassion and who offers this compassion and comfort to sinners.
I remember one time making my confession before a beloved bishop of blessed memory. It was a difficult one to get through for me. I was in tears much of the time. At the end, he raised up his right hand, and I thought he was going to hit me! “Praise Jesus,” he said, with tears in his eyes, “you’re clean now.” Thank the Lord for that man! He was able to assure me of the Lord’s mercy because he was likewise assured.
Pray, Pray, Pray
To act as a witness to repentance and to hear a confession is to be put in the position of absolving sins we wouldn’t excuse in ourselves. We can only do this by grace. The priest is a man of grace, who lives animated and compelled by it. To do anything right, we must pray, specifically for grace, but also for attentiveness, for wisdom, and for patience. To regularly hear confessions is to be acquainted, not only with our own weakness, but that of the people we serve. This is, without doubt, a great help in the life of a pastor. In preaching and teaching, knowledge of the deepest struggles of our people is a great tool in meeting their needs. To do this without standing in judgment, the confessor has to be steeped in prayer, asking the Lord daily to make him merciful.
Prayer also drives the people of the Church to continual repentance. We must shed the idea that people repent because they’re sick of sin. No, they repent because they are called by God to faithfulness. I find that if I can regularly pray for the people of my church, I pray for their repentance in ways I’m not even aware of. On many occasions, these prayers have been answered! Repentance has been worked in the people for whom I pray. This leads me to a) be pastorally sensitive and seek people out and b) to be that much more approachable as a confessor.
Make the Appeal
My friend Jon Jenkins wrote a D.Min. dissertation and later a book called “The Modern Confessional.” It’s great reading. His main thesis is that when confession is offered, it is put to use. So, if I have a regular time for it, people will come. If I regularly speak of the opportunity, people will come. If I encourage people to it, they will come. So, the next step is to make the call. This can be done in preaching, teaching, newsletters, announcements, and one-on-one pastoral care. In my own ministry, I have encouraged brides and grooms to make their confessions before the rehearsal dinner. I have asked parents whose kids I’m about to baptize to consider making their confessions. I have shown up in hosptial rooms ready to hear a confession, I have sat in a chapel waiting, and I have scheduled them regularly. The point is, see this ministry as a central part of your ministry, tell people about it, and watch for the fruits of it.
The Confession Itself
The Book of Common Prayer (1979) offers an excellent rite for confession under the title “Reconciliation of a Penitent.” Most confessions don’t take place like they do in movies, in a “box” with a screen. Most often, they take place in either a private office or in a church building. In an office, the penitent will either sit or kneel, the confessor seated and wearing a purple stole. In a church or chapel, they can sit or kneel in a pew or the penitent can kneel in the pew behind the confessor, and just a bit to his left.
The rite begins with the penitent asking for a blessing and then the giving of a blessing. Then, the penitent takes up the confession, “I confess to Almighty God, to His Church, and to you, that I have sinned.” During the blank space provided, the content of the confession is given.
Three things should be kept in mind:
First, that not everything confessed will be sin. The confessor should say so, to the relief of the penitent, as well as why this is so. This is a great relief, especially for those who feel incredible guilt for doing the right thing, which is not often easy to understand.
Second, asking for clarification (as to the severity and frequency of sins) can be a huge help in aiding the penitent to be “brutal” about owning up to their particular sins. “I stole [a pencil]” is a very different thing from “I stole [a woman’s husband or a billion dollars]” When such details are left out, it hinders the ability of the confessor to give helpful counsel. More important, it hinders the penitent from experiencing the depths of God’s forgiveness.
Third, counsel need not be saved til the end. I often find that offering good counsel in the midst of the confession helps to put people at ease. Rather than unburdening themselves on a silent priest, they are receiving encouragement, counsel, and pastoral direction as sins are disclosed. While counsel should also be given following the confession, I find it to be very helpful to offer it in line with the confession. The confessor should listen attentively and prayerfully, no matter how comical the sins confessed can be (and they are often that!) or how boring they are (the most common). Objective counsel can be a great relief. Deep sin has a way of clouding our judgment, allowing us to neither see the way out nor our sin for what it truly is. Many people wallow in sin for this very reason. Counsel, next to absolution, is a most important ministry of a confessor.
Penance is traditionally given as a way to give thanks for this event of God’s grace and mercy. This should be a prayer or a reading simple enough to be done in under five minutes. It should never be onerous or difficult, or ask for restitution. These things can be suggested, but never “required” for absolution. My favorites include the Lord’s Prayer, the Magnificat, Psalm 51, and readings from the Sermon on the Mount.
The confessor then offers, on God’s behalf, forgiveness and absolution according to the form given, assuring that these sins have been put away, and asking the penitent to pray for him.
Keeping the Seal
Some practical considerations regarding the keeping of the seal are important. I have often had conversations with parishioners who say “remember when I told you about my …” I must resist the urge to say “Oh yes, that!” and instead say “No, you’ll have to remind me.” These conversations as well are kept under the seal.
In addition to never speaking about the content of a confession, the confessor must take care to never act upon a confession, no matter how “helpful” it might be. The best way to do this is to truly act as if the confession never even happened, put out of mind and into the realm of forgotten things. Many priests I know have been given this miraculous gift of forgetting completely. I’m not one of them, but I wish I was! I must instead act as a guardian of complete confidence.
All of this can become rather complicated, especially when hearing the confessions of a husband and then his wife immediately following, or a mother and her children. If you simply stick to asking for clarification and offering succinct counsel, you can avoid this temptation. As a general rule, never mention other people at all during a confession. Outside of it, I find that simply refusing to speak of the shortcomings of others in public is enough to keep the seal.
The Fruit of Confession
This is not something anyone usually talks about, but I must say that in the ten years I’ve been a priest, I have seen men and women delivered from pornography addictions, habitual anger toward family members and spouses, financial disarray, cursing, pride, and all kinds of other sins. What a great joy that has been! That relationship of the confessor priest to a penitent parishioner has been fruitful in ways I could not imagine. A trust and confidence develops, real leaders have been identified, and God’s people have been encouraged and strengthened. I have seen parishioners so moved by the experience of receiving absolution for the first time in their lives that they stepped forward with major anonymous gifts to the Church. Most have become regular in tithing. In short, I have seen the ministry of confession set the Church free for mission and ministry. We might not often think about it, but it’s a great place to start!
The Rev. Lee Nelson, S.S.C. is a priest, church-planter, and catechist. He is currently planting churches in Waco and College Station, Texas with the aim of making disciples on college campuses through the planting of Anglican churches. For the last several years, he has served on the Catechesis Task Force of the Anglican Church in North America which produced To Be a Christian, an Anglican Catechism. As a part of this work, he is currently developing a catechetical consulting practice, aimed at coaching and training clergy and laypeople for the work of catechesis.