Sermon given at Matins on Sunday 8 May 2011
8 May 2011 at 10:00 am
The Venerable Dr Jane Hedges, Canon in Residence
If you go into the Roman Catholic Cathedral just along Victoria Street you will find all along the side of the Nave wooden booths where people can sit or kneel to make their confession. A priest sits in the other side of the booth and after hearing a confession and giving some spiritual counselling, will pronounce absolution to the penitential person ~ assuring them that God has forgiven their sins, and then asking them to pray for him, a sinner too.
You will not find such booths or Confessionals as they are called, in this Abbey or indeed in most Anglican Churches and for this reason people often make the assumption that the hearing of confessions is something which happens in the Roman Catholic Church but is not part of the practice of the Church of England. But this is not the case.
Confession or Reconciliation is one of the seven sacraments of the Church, the other six being Baptism, the Eucharist, Marriage, Confirmation, Ordination and Anointing the Sick. And during this month of May in my sermons at Matins I am looking at five of these seven.
Last week, following the excitement of the Royal Wedding I talked about the sacrament of marriage and in future weeks I will look at Confirmation, Ordination and Anointing.
Today though I would like us to spend a few minutes thinking about Confession and why this sacrament is such an important one for Anglicans as well as for Roman Catholics.
At the start of almost all of our liturgies we make a Confession, so if you stay on for the Sung Eucharist this morning or return for Evensong this afternoon you will be invited along with the rest of the congregation to confess your sins.
However, although in our own minds we might think about specific things we have done wrong, the words we say are very general ~ along these lines:
Almighty God, our heavenly Father, we have sinned against you and against our neighbour in thought, word and deed, through negligence, through weakness, through our own deliberate fault. We are truly sorry and repent of all our sins.
At the conclusion of that general confession the priest pronounces absolution saying:
Almighty God, who forgives all who truly repent, have mercy upon you, pardon and deliver you from all your sins, confirm and strengthen you in all goodness and keep you in life eternal.
For many Anglicans, making a general confession and receiving absolution along with the rest of the congregation seems quite adequate. However, there are times when people may feel the need to make a more specific and personal confession.
Some people for example have the discipline of making their confession before all the major festivals; others may wish to do so before a particularly significant event in their lives e.g. their wedding, confirmation or ordination; while others may have done something which has played on their conscience and they feel the need to talk about it with a priest.
There are some Anglican Churches where the priest makes him or herself available at a regular time each week so that anyone can come to make their confession. There are others like this Abbey, where an appointment needs to be made with one of the clergy.
So what happens when you make a confession in this way?
Beforehand you begin by preparing yourself ~ examining your conscience. This involves looking back over a period of time and perhaps writing down the list of particular sins which you know have hurt other people or left you feeling troubled about yourself.
When you meet with the priest you will usually be invited to introduce your confession with a set form of words which begin:
“Bless me, for I have sinned. Since my last confession I have ….” and here you read your list or put into your own words the things on our mind.
The priest will then talk to you and give some guidance and encouragement before giving you a penance which usually takes the form of a prayer, reading or psalm. Following this the priest will pronounce God’s forgiveness and dismiss you with words such as: “Go in peace, your sins are forgiven and pray for me a sinner too.”
All of the sacraments involve God pouring out his grace upon us; they express his absolute and unconditional love for us and in the sacrament of Confession & Reconciliation we are made particularly aware of this.
However, in common with the other sacraments a two way process is involved. In this instance, we say sorry to God and ask for forgiveness and in return we receive his forgiveness; we are reconciled to him and very importantly we are called then to be channels of forgiveness and reconciliation to others.
This is all very positive, but you might be left with questions or misgivings about this process.
I remember as a child my parents describing a former neighbour who constantly rowed with her husband and after each row ran along to the local church to confession, only to return to begin the process all over again!
So we might ask, what’s the point of this ~ doesn’t the sacrament of confession simply encourage people to go on sinning?
In the gospels Jesus teaches his followers that they must forgive others over and over again. On one occasion Peter asks him; “Lord how many times must I forgive my brother if he goes on wronging me, as many as seven times? Jesus replies, “Not seven times but seventy times seven” in other words, more times than you can keep count of.
God’s capacity for forgiveness is far greater than ours can ever be, so if this is what Jesus expects of us, we can be confident that God will forgive us as many times as we repent of our wrongdoing and turn to him for forgiveness.
However, this should not lead to the attitude that sin does not matter; that we can just do as we wish as God will always forgive us.
Jesus demonstrated this in his ministry by not only reaching out to people in compassion but also challenging their behaviour. So for example, in the story of the woman caught in the act of adultery, he challenges all those who are wishing to stone her and they are shamed into leaving her alone. He then tells her that he does not condemn her, but follows this by saying: “Go and do not sin again”.
So forgiveness is a gift which sets us free to start our lives afresh. Participating in the sacrament of confession and reconciliation can enable us to realise this gift in a particular way; feeling that a great burden has been lifted from our lives.
This experience has the power not only to transform us as individuals, but through us to transform the people and situations with which we interact day by day.