There is a saying in Anglican circles regarding the Sacrament of Confession: All may, none must, some should.
I admit to initially liking this aphorism. Mostly because I had never made my confession and I had no intention of ever doing so. I liked the “none must” part; it felt non-threatening. I also liked “all may”. To each their own, right? And the “some should” tag on the end provides a bit of smug self-affirmation, an obvious reference to all the other folks with a lot worse sins than mine.
It was a catchy way of codifying yet one more instance of classic Anglican noncommittal theology.
If you have been through the catechumenate class at St. Michael’s, you have heard my story about the sacrament. I made my first confession the morning I was ordained to the Sacred Order of Priests. My life has never been the same. From that day onward I have made my confession three or four times a year. It has become part of my spiritual discipline and a great aide on my journey of salvation.
I liked that adage about confession because it made me feel safe. But the truth is that there is nothing safe about holding on to one’s sins. To the contrary, sin is the most destructive force to human life; it is this very force that Our Lord’s passion and death set out to destroy.
When making sacramental confession in the presence of a priest, the sting the conscience feels is the reality of the danger of sin exposed to the light of day. In the sacrament of confession we experience the dangerous affects of our sin in real, tangible ways. The part that is often overlooked is that we also experience the grace of God’s forgiveness, the eternal life which is the fruit of the cross, in real, tangible ways. The words of the penitent fall out of a real mouth and onto real ears. But so too do the words of council, comfort, absolution, and forgiveness fall out of a real mouth and onto real ears.
As the catechism in The Book of Common Prayer says of all the sacraments, confession is just one more “sure and certain means” by which we receive the healing and saving grace of God.
I feel differently about that saying now, as I do the sacrament of confession. It is usually offered as instructive: As an Anglican do I need to make my confession? Well my child, “As the saying goes, all may, none must, some should.”
I’d like to reorder the saying just a bit, and suggest it is descriptive of what actually happens in parish life. Regarding the sacrament of confession, some may, none must, all should. It is true that some have chosen to make the sacrament a regular part of their spiritual discipline. I doubt you will find a person who regrets it.
It is also true that none must make their confession. This bears particular emphasis, because the truth is none of the Christian life is mandatory. To see it as such is to radically miss the point. We don’t have to go to church. We don’t have to say our prayers. We don’t have to love God or our neighbor. We don’t have to be baptized or receive the Eucharist. We don’t have to make our confession. We don’t have to pray, or fast, or tithe, or serve in ministry, or study the Scriptures. We don’t have to do any of it! The sacraments of the church — Our Lord himself being the chief sacrament — are God’s gift of life and salvation to His beloved. And like any gift, we do not have to receive it. We can leave it on the table, all wrapped up, until the end of the age. We cannot receive the benefit if we do not receive the gift, but that is our decision. As with all the spiritual disciplines, they exist for our own health and well-being. We choose our own path and its resultant outcomes.
Of course “none must” partake of the sacrament of confession. None of this stuff is required! However it is my strong conviction that this sacrament is one of the most overlooked gifts of the church. So I would say the same thing for confession as I would of any spectacular life-giving gift from God, “All should” receive the gift.
The Sacrament of Reconciliation is available Saturdays from 4:00 – 5:00 pm in the Chapel, during the season of Advent.
Written by Fr. Doran Stambaugh, Rector.