In Anglicanism, it is believed that only God through Christ can forgive sins in the legal sense. But Anglicanism also focuses on both the conscience of the sinner and the teaching of the Church in relationship to forgiveness. We follow have a process of challenge and reconciliation, based on both Matthew 18:15-20 in which we are commanded to face our sins, but also in light of Matthew 13:24-30, in which we are warned not to take the final judgment into our own hands.
In order to keep this in mind and to maintain a proper attitude of grateful repentance, our service includes a regular confession of sin by the congregation, followed by the absolution. The people of God, in community and present with each other, confess our sins. We stand there and admit, in the presence of others, that we, as a body and as individuals, are sinners “in thought, word and deed.” And not just those things we do on purpose, no, those and also “those things which we have left undone.” And this sets a tone that, perhaps, no contemporary theologian or pastor would have chosen. It is a stance of penitence, something almost completely absent in contemporary culture, even in the church. It directly confronts our idea that we are righteous in ourselves, and reminds us that we are still sinners and we still need salvation every day. And then the absolution provides a human voice, set apart by the church to represent the Church to the people. The voice speaks, and the people hear audibly that God has mercy, that he forgives, and that he does so through Jesus Christ. The human conscience needs to hear that voice.
Why does it have to be a priest? While it is true that any brother or sister in Christ can affirm to us that we are forgiven through Christ. But our conscience is often disturbed. We just aren’t sure it we have accepted forgiveness. And the voice of one who is set apart to represent, not himself, but the Church, has a powerful affect on freeing the conscience.