Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Some thoughtful words on confession and absolution

From the Archbishop of Sydney's recent presidential address to his synod:

"Last year we asked the Doctrine Commission for a report on the nature of congregational assemblies. I thank them for the report and look forward to discussing it. With its help we can certainly ask whether what we do in church sufficiently reflects the gospel. Take the confession of our sins and the declaration of forgiveness for example. In a church I was in recently, we had confession and forgiveness. The clergyman invented his own list of sins for us to confess; they sounded exactly what the uneasy conscience of a modern middle class person may dredge to the surface, if pressed hard to say where they had failed in the last little while. The declaration that we were all assuredly forgiven of these mainly imaginary sins was, if I remember correctly, perfunctory, but certain enough to make us all feel a lot better. Apparently God was pleased with us after all.

But this business of coming into the presence of the Lord is no light thing. And the business of assuring people that their sins are forgiven, is no light thing. These are the keys of heaven and hell, administered with great solemnity by the appointed preachers of God’s word. Woe to the one who casually assures us in the name of God that we are forgiven when we are not! By what right is this done? I have been invited to confess my sins in such a way that my sins are never identified and my repentance is never required. I was not aware that forgiveness was so cheaply offered; we would take more pains to mollify a fellow motorist than we give to thinking about our relationship with the living God.

In this Diocese, we claim to be Cranmerians - that is, the protestant Reformation has come down to us via Archbishop Cranmer, his thirty nine articles and the Book of Common Prayer.
Let us study and incorporate what he taught us about our approach to God. In his great confession of sin, he identifies our sins not according to the standards of the middle-class conscience, but by the Law of God: ‘We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts, We have offended against thy holy laws…there is no health in us…’ He does not pretend that a mere outward confession is what is required, but ‘He pardoneth and absolveth all them that truly repent and unfeignedly believe his holy Gospel.’ And he gets us to pray for the gift of ‘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 may be pure and holy…’

It is all very well for us to smugly criticise others, but if we fail to manifest the fruit of repentance and godly living we are hypocrites. How long is it since you have examined your own life, starting with the devices and desires of your heart? How many sins flourish there, secretly watered by you and never dealt with, never put to death, to use the violent and painful image of the New Testament? Greed, lust, covetousness, malice, jealousy, anger, hatred - these are some of the inward sins which need to be dealt with if we are to walk in the light. I think that they are present within us because I see them break out into ungodly displays often enough. But they start in the heart. Remember the great text that R.B.S.Hammond stood for: “Not everyone that saith unto Me, ‘Lord, Lord’, shall enter the Kingdom of Heaven; but he that doeth the will of My Father which is in heaven.”"

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