Confessions

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:
R. Amen.

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.
R. Amen

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.
R. Amen.

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
after me:

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.
Amen.

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
our Lord.

 

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.)

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11 Responses to Confessions

  1. JTFS says:

    Wow…”duh” for me as well. Cool.

    I have appreciated your CWOB work D…especially the way that you have used it to point to a covenant community. IMHO, we need to do a lot more work in our church to begin to live into that ideal.

    Grace and Peace,
    Joe

  2. Annie says:

    Interesting. There are some things you have written that I would print out if I could. If I understand you correctly then you are saying that it was once more the work of the people rather than less?

    and now that I have confessed my sins, my day begins . . .

  3. John-Julian, OJN says:

    In 13 days I’ll be celebrating my Golden Jubilee of ordination to the priesthood.

    When I was ordained in 1957, the most important thing for me was to differentiate between my gloriously ordained, anointed, sanctified,and utterly-wise self and the lowly, ignorant, mess of lay people cowering beneath my superior mystical hand.

    Fifty years later, I know that I am damned near nothing –

    I don’t baptize, all I do is pour the water and smear the oil and any other human could do as much.

    I don’t consecrate bread and wine to confect the Sacrament, the Assembly does; all I do is hold Host and Chalice, waiting for their “Amen” which works the miracle.

    I don’t absolve from sin, the Body of Christ does, welcoming back a reconciled sinner; all I do is assure a penitent(s) of that reality.

    The action of the Assembly is the crucial thing — and a clue to that is that a priest does none of these “priestly” things alone, but only as a functioning part of the Assembly — admittedly, called and chosen to serve that particular role (but even then, called and chosen by the Assembly).

    As I’ve written elsewhere, the Greek leitergos is generally fairly accurately translated as “the work of the people”, but it can also be accurately translated as “work FOR the people” or “ON BEHALF of the people”. I sort of prefer to plagiarize and suggest that it is “of the people, by the people, and for the people”. Communion and corporality is the fundamental principle.

    My own rector used to say,”There is only one thing a Christian can do alone — and that is, to be damned!”

  4. lutherpunk says:

    The service for Compline in the LBW contains a form of the Confiteor (with obvious Lutheran “corrections”/extractions) that establishes that dialogue. I have used this order during Lent with my current congregation, and it seems to function quite well in that context.

    That is not to suggest that the other forms of confession are defective. They have an inherent value, especially those that emphasize the Office of the Keys (though some find this too clerical in focus). I think the way to go for communal practice is to use all of these in different seasonal contexts as it fits the gathered assembly (so long as you aren’t doing something different every week).

  5. bls says:

    I do like the whole “company of saints” thing in this Confession, I must admit.

  6. lutherpunk says:

    The “Lutheran-ized” Version:

    I confess to God Almighty, before the whole company of saints, and to you, my brothers and sisters, that I have sinned in thought, word, and deed by my fault, by my own fault, by my own most grievous fault; wherefore I pray to God Almighty to have mercy on me, forgive me all my sins, and bring me to everlasting life. Amen.

  7. Brett says:

    I’ve been following with great interest several of the posts on your site (CWOB, Daily Office et al). I often use the Confiteor in my praying the Daily Office for many of the reasons you list above. It does appear in an altered form in the BCP, in Form One of The Reconciliation of the Penitent. While used in the context of Penitent and Priest, it does incorporate the entire community into that sacramental rite:

    “I confess to Almighty God, to his Church, and to you, that I have sinned by my own fault in thought, word, and deed, in things done and left undone; especially ________. For these and all other sins which I cannot now remember, I am truly sorry. I pray God to have mercy on me. I firmly intend amendment of life, and I humbly beg forgiveness of God and his Church, and ask you for counsel, direction, and absolution.”

    Thank you, Derek, for your faithful witness in this website.

  8. Derek the Ænglican says:

    Thank you for your kind words Brett. I looked over the forms for reconciliation the first time I can remember a few weeks ago. I noted the emphasis in form 2 on the church–but didn’t connect it with the Confiteor. That makes a lot of sense, now that you mention it.

    What I see in this form that I don’t in the Lutheran one that LutherPunk posts above as a communal turn at the end. The BCP form has begging forgiveness of the church; the Confiteor has intercession. And for me–that changes it in important ways. Knowing that the church militant *and* triumphant are interceding for my forgiveness and for my amendment of life is an awesome and humbling feeling.

    I imagine that they backed off for the same reasons as the Lutherans, though (Pesky Article 22…)–the specific invoking of saints. If I had my druthers, I’d recommend the pattern found in the Te Deum. After all, how can the Te Deum be non-Anglican/Lutheran? So: Angels, Prophets,Apostles, Martyrs to fill out the otherwise pretty darn spare “Church” which includes these but doesn’t, ummm, invoke them…

  9. trueanglican says:

    Derek, your reflections on forms of confession and your delight in the Confiteor’s focus on all the company of heaven, are wonderful. You lost me, though, when you contended that the Rite 2 confession is individualistic. Come on now, it says “we.” That’s the community speaking in one voice, which seems to me more communal that a dialogue between the congregation and the “Foremost.” (I confess I find it pretty hard to speak of the Foremost and maintain a straight face.)

  10. Thanks for this post on the Confiteor and the Prayer Book equivalent.

    Fr John-Julian, we Catholics are not the clericalist caricature you describe (though many people fit that); we are sacerdotalists.

    As you and Derek might know, Thomas Day the Great described how the problem of clericalism you describe is worsened in modernised RC services where the priest and his personality are centre stage. In orthodox, traditional rites, everybody yet nobody has power… as you might remember, Father (and congratulations: ad multos annos), the vestments and precise prayers and rubrics obscure your personality when celebrating.

    It’s true that the priest doesn’t absolve really. God absolves (perhaps clearer in the Greek Orthodox form of absolution than the Russian Orthodox and Western Catholic ones), God becomes presents on the altar through you.

    I know that ‘assembly’ business is partly true as well as fashionable…

    But it reminds me of the protestant Diocese of Sydney playing with lay presidency.

    P.S. A jubilee by definition is 50 years so it’s either ‘jubilee’ or ‘golden anniversary’. In either case, congratulations, Father.

  11. Mrs. M says:

    This is good stuff. What’s most striking to me is that in the Confiteor the “superior” is called upon to make the first confession, and to do so individually– and then is absolved by those gathered.

    The ’79 prayer book version, with the celebrant praying with the larger group, and then absolving them almost allows by omission the idea that the celebrant doesn’t need absolution, or at least not from those “beneath” him/her.

    Interesting.

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