I had a “Duh–obvious” moment this morning–you know, one of those moments where something that you’ve always known bubbles up in a new and interesting way and makes a bunch of connections that you’ve never quite seen before…
My recent thinking about the sacraments–especially Baptism and Eucharist–has been moving very much to their communal nature and the importance of the covenant community both signified and enacted through these rites. What struck me this morning is how much the Confiteor participates in these same ways of ritual sense-making in ways that the more usual Anglican forms of general confession don’t.
For those unfamiliar with the Confiteor, it is a form of general confession that within the old (pre-Vatican II) liturgical paradigm would be used at least three times a day: at Prime, at the prayers at the foot of the altar prior to Mass, and at Compline.
My first point is that in its normative form, it’s a conversation between the principal (priest, abbot, or other) and the congregation that goes beyond the basic dialogue format found in most modern confessions. That is, it establishes communal patterns up front.
Even more than that, though, the text is redolent with community. It functions by naming elements of the community, bringing them to the attention of those gathered, reminding them of the constitution of the assembly that includes the invisible as strongly as the visible. Here’s the text:
First, the person of the greatest dignity (technically known as the Foremost or Prelate, ie. not a Bishop only, but in a Choir of layfolk any Priest who happens to be present, or in a Choir of Priests, the Superior, etc.) says the Confiteor, thus:
I confess to Almighty God, to Blessed Mary Ever-Virgin, to blessed Michael the Archangel, to blessed John the Baptist, * to the holy Apostles Peter and Paul, to all the Saints, and to you, brethren, * that I have sinned exceedingly in thought, word, and deed, (he strikes his breast thrice, saying:) through my fault, through my own fault, through my own most grievous fault. * Therefore I beseech Blessed Mary Ever-Virgin, blessed Michael the Archangel, blessed John the Baptist, * the holy Apostles Peter and Paul, all the Saints, and you brethren, * to pray for me to the Lord our God.
And the choir answers with the Absolution, thus:
Almighty God have mercy upon thee, forgive thee thy sins, and bring thee to everlasting life.
To which the Foremost responds:
After which the Choir says the Confiteor, thus:
I confess to Almighty God, to Blessed Mary Ever-Virgin, to blessed Michael the Archangel, to blessed John the Baptist, * to the holy Apostles Peter and Paul, to all the Saints, and to thee, Father * that I have sinned exceedingly in thought, word, and deed, (they strike their breasts thrice, saying:) through my fault, through my own fault, through my own most grievous fault. * Therefore I beseech Blessed Mary Ever-Virgin, blessed Michael the Archangel, blessed John the Baptist, * the holy Apostles Peter and Paul, all the Saints, and thee, Father, * to pray for me to the Lord our God.
And the Foremost then says the Absolution, thus:
Almighty God have mercy upon you, forgive you your sins, and bring you to everlasting life.
And then he signs himself with the holy Sign (as does the Choir) as he says:
The Almighty and merciful Lord grant us pardon, † absolution, and remission of our sins.
In the full form, then, the sequence of the communion of the saints all the way from the Trinity, the angels, down to the local community is not invoked once but four separate times. In doping so, the liturgy grounds our action—here our sinful action—in terms of the whole. In what we have done, we have reflected badly upon all, not just on ourselves. However, then we affirm the care, concern—mercy, really—and intercession of the whole on behalf of the individual.
Compare now the Anglican version, first in the classical form:
DEARLY beloved brethren, the Scripture moveth us in sundry
places to acknowledge and confess our manifold sins and wickedness; and that we
should not dissemble nor cloke them before the face of Almighty God our heavenly
Father; but confess them with an humble, lowly, penitent, and obedient heart; to
the end that we may obtain forgiveness of the same, by his infinite goodness and
mercy. And although we ought at all times humbly to acknowledge our sins before
God; yet ought we most chiefly so to do, when we assemble and meet together to
render thanks for the great benefits that we have received at his hands, to set
forth his most worthy praise, to hear his most holy Word, and to ask those
things which are requisite and necessary, as well for the body as the soul.
Wherefore I pray and beseech you, as many as are here present, to accompany me
with a pure heart and humble voice unto the throne of the heavenly grace, saying
A general Confession to be said of the whole Congregation
after the Minister, all kneeling.
ALMIGHTY and most merciful Father, We have erred and
strayed from thy ways like lost sheep, We have followed too much the devices and
desires of our own hearts, We have offended against thy holy laws, We have left
undone those things which we ought to have done, And we have done those things
which we ought not to have done, And there is no health in us: But thou, O Lord,
have mercy upon us miserable offenders; Spare thou them, O God, which confess
their faults, Restore thou them that are penitent, According to thy promises
declared unto mankind in Christ Jesu our Lord: And grant, O most merciful
Father, for his sake, That we may hereafter live a godly, righteous, and sober
life, To the glory of thy holy Name.
The Absolution or Remission of sins to be pronounced by the
Priest alone, standing: the people still kneeling.
ALMIGHTY God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who
desireth not the death of a sinner, but rather that he may turn from his
wickedness and live; and hath given power and commandment to his Ministers, to
declare and pronounce to his people, being penitent, the Absolution and
Remission of their sins: He pardoneth and absolveth all them that truly repent
and unfeignedly believe his holy Gospel. Wherefore let us beseech him to grant
us true repentance and his Holy Spirit, that those things may please him which
we do at this present, and that the rest of our life hereafter may be pure and
holy; so that at the last we may come to his eternal joy; through Jesus Christ
And now a current form:
The Deacon or Celebrant says: Let us confess our sins against God and our neighbor.
Silence may be kept.
Minister and People: Most merciful God,we confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed,by what we have done,and by what we have left undone.We have not loved you with our whole heart;we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.We are truly sorry and we humbly repent.For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ,have mercy on us and forgive us;that we may delight in your will,and walk in your ways,to the glory of your Name. Amen.
The Bishop, when present, or the Priest, stands and says
Almighty God have mercy on you, forgive you all your sins through our Lord Jesus Christ, strengthen you in all goodness, and by the power of the Holy Spirit keep you in eternal life. Amen.
While the texts are in the first person plural—“we”—it could just as easily be “I” with no change of meaning or theology… In contrast with the Confiteor, these come across as very, well, individualistic. It’s me and Jesus and while there might be a bunch of other people kneeling around, it’s still pretty much just me and Jesus…
I’ll have to chew on this a bit more to draw out the implications. My initial thought, however, is that the Confiteor seems to do a much better job of placing action, repentance, and forgiveness in view of the whole gathered covenant community, integrating it all much better in the context of the Body of Christ.
(Sources: Confiteor, 1662 MP Confession, and ’79 Eucharistic Confession.)