Friday, March 6, 2015

All should. Most don't. ~ SCP #TractSwarm One: The Sacrament of Confession

A group I've long been associated with, The Society of Catholic Priests in the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church of Canada, has called for it's first #TractSwarm — exploring the nature and role that the Sacrament of Reconciliation has in the church today.

Christ Church, Detroit, MI
Several years ago, at the SCP conference in Detroit, I had the honor of sitting in a pew in the Nave of Christ Church, Detroit. Someone had suggested that during the free-time those members with a charism for hearing confessions might be open to offering this to conference attendees. This is how I wound up sitting next to the former Presiding Bishop, the Most Rev. Frank T. Griswold, talking about my sins.

Now, I was raised talking about sin. As an evangelical, we heard sermons on sin, about the need to turn from it. Sin was a scary specter that lurked at the edges of our lives, it was the lion ready to pounce and devour our souls.

I was even raised with the idea that talking about sin with others was actually a pretty good idea. The words from James 5 were taken seriously, "Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective." When I was active in campus ministry, it was common to encourage people to have accountability partners, people with whom you would share your struggles. And if you sinned really bad, you were encouraged to go forward during the invitation and confess your sin to the community so people could pray for you.

But I was always deeply intrigued by what I perceived as the "Catholic" practice of Confession. I was fascinated by the idea that one could walk into a church and someone would be there to listen to you confess your struggles, to pray for you—that this quiet and secret place could be expected.

When I became an Episcopalian, I learned in my confirmation classes the aphorism, "All may, some should, none must." It made sense to me immediately. Of all things I learned about the Episcopal Church in those early days, the fact that in this church nobody had to do anything seemed to be top of the list of what Episcopalians believed in.

But as I grew and developed in the Episcopal Church, I grew slightly disillusioned with the actual practice of this sacrament. I discovered that many Episcopalians did not even know it existed in the prayer book. I found how difficult it is to find a confessor. I was taught early on that if you are going to hear confessions you should be making confessions regularly, this keeps your own spiritual life on a strong footing before you seek to offer spiritual counsel, advice, and suggestions for penance to others.

And yet, even if a priest will agree to hear confessions, there is a look all too often that comes in the eyes when you ask that priest when the last time was he made his confession.

That brings me to now, this current Lent 2015. For good or ill, the paucity of a robust practice of this sacrament has made it all too easy for me to put off making a regular confession. Indeed, not since that day in the pew with Bishop Griswold, when he quietly heard me talk about what burdened me and offered be gentle direction and a grace-filled act of penance, not since then have I sat down with God and one of God's ministers to talk about my sin.

Which is a shame.

It is a shame because it makes me less equipped for my priestly role, less able to hear confessions well. It is a shame because it has, ironically enough, slowly turned me into the sort of priest who has disappointed me—one who may be willing to hear confession but does not robustly practice this sacrament.

So, when someone in the Society suggested the topic of Confession for our first #TractSwarm, I knew that the time had come. I sent an e-mail to a colleague who I trust, one who I know practices a robust spiritual life and who, thus, can offer me wise counsel on my own. I suggested a particular time, asking if he might hear my confession then. And if he isn't able, I'll try again with someone else.

Because, though it embarrasses me a bit as a priest, I need to say...

I confess to you, my sisters and brothers, that I have not gone to God in the quiet of confession for far too long.

The aphorism, "All may, some should, none must," remains rather popular. But I think I'd like to retire it.

Because I believe that when we honestly examine our lives, as the Exhortation invites us, when we seek to make right that which we have done wrong... well, I don't think it is possible to do that on your own. I don't know who is holy enough that they would not benefit from talking through this a bit within earshot of a trusted priest.

I know I'm not holy enough that I can turn from sin on my own.

I'd wager that probably pretty much every Christian needs to avail herself of this sacrament at least once in life. I'd wager that most every Christian would be enriched if he practiced this sacrament regularly.

And I'll say something else even more strongly: I believe all priests—every single one—should be engaging regularly in the sacrament of reconciliation. If nothing else, that way when someone wanders into your office and asks, sheepishly, whether or not you might hear their confession, you will not have to say no. You will be prepared. Having been attentive to your own sin and salvation, you will be prepared to assist another Christian in that journey.

Because this space is important. Christians need to know that this safe space exists where they can talk to God about their sin, with someone trained is overhearing to offer guidance. People need to know that they are not left on their own, in the quiet of their reflections and prayers to God, that there is a place where they can get advice for how to turn from sin well. I really do think that when someone is at a point where the burden of guilt and shame has become too much,  someone can put hands on their head and remind them that their sin has been put away.

I need to know that my sin has been put away.

Because if I have not done the work of preparation that results in an actual change of life, if I, as a priest, have not been attentive to my sin, have not been receptive to spiritual counsel that I might turn from that sin... then I am at best a Christian dressing up and playing pretend with rather holy things.

All should. Most don't.

And this makes us weaker as a Church.