“Reconciliation of a Penitent is the right in which those who repent of their sins may confess them to God in the presence of a priest and receive the assurance of pardon and the grace of absolution.” The Book of Common Prayer, p. 859
The Episcopal tradition is full of many hidden treasures. And one treasure that is often overlooked and least understood is the discipline known as Reconciliation of a Penitent. Many may ask why do I need to tell God something that God already knows in the presence of another person? Or if I confess at every Sunday service why is a private confession necessary?
There are times in our lives when things that we do (or don’t do) inhibit us from growing spiritually. These are things that stand between us and God and we can’t get around them. This sacramental rite of Reconciliation of a Penitent is a way of removing the barriers that our brokenness and sin creates.
It is true that God already knows our sins even before we speak them. But in the book of James, we are encouraged to “Confess your sins to one another”. As Episcopalians, we confess our sins in private devotion and in public worship, as we acknowledge before Almighty God “our manifold sins and wickedness, which we from time to time most grievously have committed, by thought, word, and deed.” Nearly all our liturgies make provision for a general confession of sin. Sometimes we confess our sins privately to our brothers and sisters in Christ. And sometimes we take advantage of the gift of sacramental confession by confessing our sins to God in the presence of a priest.
To make a confession in the presence of another is a powerful and helpful practice in our spiritual journey. Any Christian may hear your confession, but only a priest or bishop may pronounce the priestly absolution; a deacon or lay person may use the “declaration of forgiveness” provided in the Prayer Book. The reason for the restriction of absolution to those in priestly ministry is the Church’s teaching that it is part of the authority the Lord Jesus gave to his apostles and their successors.
In John’s Gospel, we read how the risen Jesus appeared to the disciples and said to them, “‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I send you.’ And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained’”. Episcopalians believe that the Lord Jesus has given the Church, through the ministry of priests and bishops, the authority to absolve penitents of their sins. By God’s gift, the priest can say truly these life-giving words to the penitent, “The Lord has put away all your sins.”
It is important to take time and prepare when making a confession; by self-examination, prayer and fasting, acknowledging our brokenness and our sins. And when we come before a priest to confess our sins aloud this helps us get a clearer perspective about the realities of our brokenness. Because our perspective on our own sin and brokenness is limited, and we are not necessarily the ones best able to assure ourselves that God forgives us. In this form of a confession there is an opportunity for shared perspective and encouragement from another who is on the same journey.
When making a sacramental confession the priest is absolutely bound to keep confidential the contents of each confession, and never to bring them up again unless invited to so by the penitent. Episcopalians like to say about confession, “All may; some should; none must.” The idea here is that sacramental confession is a gift. Like any gift, you may choose not to receive it. But sacramental confession may be a gift you desperately need to receive.
Sacramental confession is a good gift of God to the Church. Experiencing God’s forgiveness is a crucial way of experiencing the victory of Jesus’ resurrection. It is a remarkable weapon in the fight against sin, and the pursuit of holiness. It cultivates humility; it discourages self-deception; it renews the joy of baptism. If you are new to this way of growth in the Christian life, you are encouraged to consult with one of our clergy in advance so that he or she may answer any questions and help you prepare. Spiritual growth depends upon self-knowledge and shared perspectives in community, both of which are part of the Reconciliation of a Penitent.
Lent is a particularly good time to receive this gift of God to the Church. If you are wanting to make a private confession, please contact Fr. Tom or Mtr. Elisa and they will schedule either a Zoom meeting or FaceTime call. If you prefer to make your confession with another priest, they will be happy to guide and direct you. Our clergy enter into this holy sacrament humbly and believe it to be a sacred honor and a holy privilege.