“Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’” John 20:21-23
The Church shares in the life and ministry of Jesus; because of her very nature she has the power and responsibility to forgive the sins of those who repent and turn to the God.
The Church has understood this vocation in many different ways throughout the centuries. For example in the early Church grave sins such as adultery and murder were broadly considered outside the remits of Penance and were often the cause for excommunication ipso facto.
However, things started to change after Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire and churches had to deal with an increasing number of “sinful saints” [Dallen (1986), p.5]. Thus, we can recall the incident of Ambrose and the Emperor Theodosius. The bishop of Milan calls the sovereign to make Penance for the retaliations he ordered on the community of Thessalonica in 390 AD. So Ambrose writes
“I urge, I beg, I exhort, I warn, for it is a grief to me” and also that he has “no cause for a charge of contumacy against you, but have cause for fear; I dare not offer the sacrifice if you intend to be present” [Letter 51, 13].
The historical developments of the fourth century also meant that the Church allowed for some sins to be “down-graded” and for greater emphasis on the liturgical aspects of canonical Penance which envisaged the involvement of the community [cf. Dallen (1986), p.57]. From the information now available, it is clear that these services were conducted by the bishop in the presence and on behalf of the whole assembly. A “Penance” would be assigned to the penitent during the act of worship – in which people were encouraged to shed tears for the sinners! The liturgical developments matched those in canonical legislation on sin.
The Middle Ages saw the breaking down of the bishop and community’s involvement in the administration of Penance. Indeed, in some parts of the Western Church penance became confined to liturgical rites performed during Lent; one of this was the Paenitentia Solemnis. In Britain the arrival of Theodore of Canterbury, promoted a reawakening of the practice of Penance. However, Northern European monasticism was responsible for the transformation of Penance throughout the West. This medieval idea of confession is often described as a tariff system and it arguably remained alive in the RCC until Vatican II. A medieval example of canonical Penance, tied in with the tariff system is recorder in the scourging of the penitent Henry II at the hands of monks for the murder of Thomas Becket (1174). The later medieval tradition also called faithful to confession at least once a year, so we find in the Council of Florence (1439) an injunction, enshrined in the decrees, for Roman Catholics to do so.
The teachings of the Council of Trent enshrined private confession against the claims of the Lutheran churches which largely abolished it. Interestingly, the majority of the Council fathers denied that private confession was a development of the Middle Ages, instead affirmed that this praxis had been in use in the Church since the earliest times [cf. Dallen (1986) p.169].
In Reformation England the subjects of confession and Canonical Penance were debated many times but they only found a settlement with the 1549 edition of the Book of Common Prayers, deriving from the Sarum ritual and remaining almost totally unchanged in the 1662 edition.
It is often misunderstood that the BCP does not envisage private confession outside the rite of Visitation of the Sick. However, in the first exhortation to Holy Communion the 1662 edition hints at the reconciliatory – almost therapeutic – effects of penance for those who want assurance of forgiveness of sins.
If there be any of you, who [...] cannot quiet his own conscience herein, but requireth further comfort or counsel, let him come to me, or to some other discreet and learned Minister of God's Word, and open his grief; that by the ministry of God's holy Word he may receive the benefit of absolution, together with ghostly counsel and advice, to the quieting of his conscience, and avoiding of all scruple and doubtfulness.
This exhortation is crucial to understand the development on the confession in conjunction with spiritual direction within the Anglican tradition. Confession should not be understood as something completely separate from spiritual direction.Roman Catholic praxis shifted for the tariff system under the influence of Vatican II. The development of the Rite of Reconciliation has indeed been the pattern against which many of the Churches in the Anglican Communion have developed their understanding of Confession in the light of Anglican patrimony and the Oxford Movement.
The influence of the Catholic revival on matters of confession is readily seen in many service books of the Anglican Communion which adopted Roman-style liturgies for penitents outside the rites for the Visitation of the Sick. These developments in the rites and the understanding of Confession are still ongoing in the Anglican Communion. This is the case for the Churches of South Africa, Aotearoa, India, Myanmar, Sri Lanka and USA. Specifically, the ECUSA rubrics state that “the Reconciliation of a Penitent is available for all who desire it. Confession is not restricted to times of sickness. Confession may be heard anytime and anywhere” [Rowell (1990), p.188].
A good summary of the Church’s experience with Penance can be found in the preface to the rite of Reconciliation from the Book of Alternative Services (1985) for the Anglican Church of Canada.
Originally, Christians who sinned gravely were publicly excluded from full fellowship in the Church and publicly restored after suitable penitence. Private penitence and private reconciliation appeared only after centuries of pastoral experimentation. The Reconciliation of a Penitent, although private, is a corporate action of the Church because sin affects the unity of the Body. The absolution is restoration to full fellowship: the priest declares the forgiveness which Christ has invested in his Church. The formula, "I absolve you," which became common only in the thirteenth century, does not appear in these rites: it tends to individualize and further privatize what remains a corporate action of the Church.
James Dallen, The Reconciling Community, Pueblo (1986) New York
Martin Dudley and Geoffrey Rowell, Confession and Absolution, SPCK (1990) London