I am always grateful for the prayers of confession and absolution in the Sunday Liturgy. There have been times, when the week preceding has been particularly bumpy, when they are essential for the continuation of life. We struggle with familiar demons that dog us regardless of our best intentions and confession consists of recognition, yes, that was me, the same old lack of the Christian virtues of faith hope and love.
Confession gives us a chance to take hold of our own and absolution gives us the assurance that “nevertheless” the future is not poisoned by the past.
There is, of course, a whole structure of understanding of the nature of Church without which confession and absolution seems quaint. For the church is not just a collection of like minded people formed under some kind of social contract and the priest is not just a layman dressed in an alb and stole. The Church is a gift of God established in the creation based on the truth that is Jesus Christ. The Basis of Union of the Uniting Church in Australia puts it nicely:
The Uniting Church acknowledges that the Church is able to live and endure through the changes of history only because her Lord comes, addresses, and deals with men in and through the news of his completed work. Christ who is present when he is preached among men is the Word of God who acquits the guilty, who gives life to the dead and who brings into being what otherwise could not exist. Through human witness in word and action, and in the power of the Holy Spirit, Christ reaches out to command men's attention and awaken their faith; he calls them into the fellowship of his sufferings, to be the disciples of a crucified Lord; in his own strange way he constitutes, rules and renews them as his Church.
If the church does not believe this, or something very much like it, then confession and absolution would be something we do to make us feel better under some terms of mutual agreement. It would be a convention based only on our desire for psychological health and would carry no authority but our own and be based on no certain foundation but our good intentions. Rather, the Church claims that it has been given authority by Jesus Christ himself:
And Jesus answered him, "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven." (Mat 16:17-19 NRSV)
If we do not believe that these words are true, that the Church has the power to bind and loose, to retain or forgive sin, then confession and absolution will be meaningless and we will have to rely on self forgiveness, self deceptive as I know that can be, to give us a future not weighed down with misgiving.
I know that there have been abuses in the way the Church has used confession as there have been abuses of any institution you can name. But that need not keep us from seeing what is actually meant here. Confession and absolution is not a mere form for dealing with guilt that will allow us to repeat our actions but entails genuine regret and determination not to repeat them.
Unfortunately our society has gone a different way, particularly in what has been called the self esteem movement which understands all of our failings as an inability to believe in ourselves. Introspection and confession of failure is anathema to this movement because it produces bad feelings resulting in a bad self image.
In the absence of belief in confession and absolution what other choice is there? As the father in the film Little Miss Sunshine says, “Never apologise, it is a sign of weakness”. Fortunately this movement is going the way of all fads but it is capable of producing a whole generation of unreflective sociopaths who will go through life feeling good about themselves regardless of the havoc they have caused in other people’s lives as they resolutely strive for their life goals.
When Time magazine produced a front page declaring Stanley Hauerwas America’s best theologian he quipped that “best” was not a theological category. We could expand the list to include “excellence” and “quality” those two buzz words of the current fad in managerialism that haunt our educational institutions. Humility obviously has no place in this brave new world. In the Church, superlatives may be used but only as they refer to sin: I may boast that I am a great sinner. Christian humility forbids any other boast except in the Lordship of Christ.
As an Augustinian monk Luther was obsessed with sin and spent long hours with his confessor. His rediscovery of the righteousness that comes from God released him, not from the knowledge of his own failings, but by meeting a God who forgives the ungrateful. We have the opposite problem; we do not know that we are sinners and have to learn that we are.
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