The Reconciliation of Penitents: A Rookie Anglican Guide to Auricular Confession

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When I first explored Anglicanism, I was surprised when I came across the Reconciliation of Penitents in my Book of Common Prayer. I was shocked as I read through the rite: this was confession! But wait, isn’t confession a “Catholic” thing? We can approach God without going through a priest! It’s one of the hallmarks of Reformation theology! And yet, there it is in our 2019 Prayer Book, with a substantial tradition of practice behind it. Indeed, now, after only nine months as a priest, I have gladly heard several such confessions. So, what is confession from an Anglican perspective, and how do we practice it?

What is the Reconciliation of Penitents?

The Reconciliation of Penitents, commonly called auricular confession (auricular roughly means audible), appears on pages 223 through 224 in the 2019 Book of Common Prayer as one of the pastoral healing rites. Like the ministries to the sick and dying, the priest stands in on behalf of Christ and the Church to appeal before God on behalf of the person and communicate to the person on behalf of God. Thus, the priest fulfills Jesus’ commission in John 20:23: “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.” Like other healing ministries, reconciliation actively works against the curse and demonstrates how God repairs what is broken in us and our world.

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Is Anglican Reconciliation like Catholic Confession?

In contrast to the Roman Catholic practice of confession, most Anglican do not consider the rite a sacrament (though, as we receive a type of grace through it, many consider it a “sacramental act”). It is not required to be an obedient church member. Confessing privately to God is still the way most Anglicans will practice repentance. However, it is an available discipline that can lead to much healing and spiritual growth if practiced.

How Do Anglicans Practice Reconciliation?

The rite begins with the penitent petitioning the priest,

Bless me, for I have sinned.

The priest then asks about the penitent’s sins. The penitent will then recite the confession part of the liturgy, beginning,

I confess to Almighty God, to his Church, and to you, that I have sinned by my own fault in thought, word, and deed, in things done and left undone…

Then the penitent names the sins they have committed, voices their remorse, and asks God and the Church for forgiveness and the priest for “counsel, direction, and absolution.” At this point, the priest can offer counsel or suggest an act of penance. Acts of penance are not some ways of punishing oneself for sin. Instead, they are disciplines to help one grow and resist sin in the future. Finally, the priest pronounces God’s forgiveness on the penitent, often making the sign of the cross or placing his hand on the penitent’s head. He ends by saying,

The Lord has put away all your sins.

The priest then offers a prayer. As the time together ends, the priest then requests,

Go (or abide) in peace, and pray for me, a sinner.

This last line is significant because it recognizes and reminds penitents that the priest is a sinner like themselves.

Why Should We Practice Reconciliation?

An oft-quoted mantra regarding auricular confession is attributed to Richard Hooker: “All may, some should, none must.” Obviously, since we have “an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous” (1 John 2:1) and we have the Holy Spirit within us who “intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words” (Romans 8:26), we can come before God on our own. And yet, in the Anglican tradition, we have a long history of confessing our sins and receiving absolution. The corporate version of this is an essential part of every Eucharistic liturgy. However, personal confession offers two additional benefits:

  • It provides a personalized expression of both the sins surrendered to Jesus and the pardon delivered to the penitent.
  • It brings with it an element of individual spiritual guidance specific to the struggles of the penitent.

Just because we can confess our sins to God directly doesn’t mean we shouldn’t practice confession with a confessor. Quite the opposite is true. By practicing the Reconciliation of Penitents, we lay our sins before God, are assured of his forgiveness, and receive pastoral guidance for the future. It should enhance, not replace, our personal relationship with God.

What If I’m Nervous?

It’s easy to feel intimidated the first time you confess to a priest. After all, you are about to lay all your cards on the table about your failures. It’s as vulnerable as a person can be. However, two pieces of comfort are important to remember:

  1. First and foremost, you are confessing to God, not the priest, and God already knows everything you’re about to tell him. No sin is kept in the dark from God. God welcomes you to acknowledge your sin in the light, place it on Christ, and accept his forgiveness.
  2. The priest hearing your confession is as much of a “miserable offender” (in the old Prayer Book’s words) as you are. He has also likely heard many other confessions besides knowing the weaknesses of his own heart, so you’re not likely to shock or disturb him.

A Quick Thing to Note

Before confessing, you should know that the conversation between the penitent and the priest is entirely confidential. This long-held sacred principle called the Seal of the Confessional should be upheld whenever possible. However, according to the guidance of many dioceses, an exception may occur when the life or well-being of the penitent or another person is in potential danger. This exception is becoming more prevalent as many states have attempted to pass laws that compel clergy to breach confessional privilege in these situations. Please check with your clergy about their practice on this issue.


Photo by Josh Applegate on Unsplash

Author

Jacob Davis

The Rev. Jacob Davis is the editor of Anglican Compass. He is a priest in the Diocese of Christ Our Hope and lives in Louisville, Kentucky, where he serves as assisting clergy at Grace Anglican Church.

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