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In this reflection we finally get to one of the most significant changes made by Reformers to regular Christian life: Confession and Absolution.

One of the first challenges of the earliest Christian communities was sin.  Now, sin before baptism was easy enough to deal with.  Once one was baptized, one’s old life, including sins, was washed away.  But what about sins after a person was baptized?  There is evidence that some communities (including possibly John the Baptist’s own) practiced weekly or even daily baptism, but Jesus’ followers seemed to have focused on a single baptismal event for each individual.

So, what are you supposed to do with a baptized person who had sinned?  The original practice was based on a concept we teach children to this day.  If you do something wrong, take responsibility what you’ve done wrong (Confession), say you’re sorry to the person wronged (Penance), and they should forgive you (Absolution).  Seems simple enough.  But what if the person who have been wronged is dead, or the sin is against God?

In the first centuries of the church, Christians who had committed sins after their Baptism like idolatry, murder, or adultery had to confess their sins publicly and do lengthy public penance before they could receive public absolution.  Only after the community decided that the person had ‘suffered enough’ were they publicly forgiven.  Remember that exclusion from the worshipping community and the Holy Mass put one’s eternal soul in great danger.  If you died while ex-communicated, you were going to hell!

As you can well image, as the church grew in size, the public nature of this process became harder to govern, especially as people sought to confess even minor sins, just to be sure.  Practices changed and the process started to become a more private matter between those who had sinned and their local priests.  By the seventh century Irish missionaries spread a new practice across Europe.  This practice included a private absolution directly after private confession of sins with the promise to complete some penitential action in the days and weeks to come. This allowed people to remain part of the Church, even while making their penance.

These Irish missionaries compiled handbooks that listed sins and the appropriate penances for those sins. Penances would vary given both the severity of the offence and the status of the sinner; such that the penance imposed on a bishop would generally be more severe than that imposed on a deacon for the same offence.

With the alteration of penance to fit the person and situation.  Other options for what might be considered “penance,” including monetary penance, were developed.  As you can imagine, these practices led to abuses that even the Catholic Church itself denounced at a number of councils. But, as is often the case, organizations are always slowest to address errors in their own favour.  The practice of monetary penance, also called indulgences, led to the funding and construction of most of the great European Cathedrals.

One of the greatest abusers of this theological practice was a German Friar by the name of Johannes Tetzel.  He unashamedly overstated Catholic doctrine with regard to indulgences and claimed that you could even buy penance for the dead who dwelt in Purgatory. He became known for a phrase attributed to him:

“As soon as the gold in the casket rings
The rescued soul to heaven springs.”

When Martin Luther picked up his pen to set off the European Reformation, Johannes Tetzel was one of his many targets of criticism.  The argument was simple: indulgences had no scriptural basis, in fact, the whole practice of private confession was questionable.  Luther and other reformers, including our Thomas Cranmer, adopted the theology of General Confession, where confession and absolution were part of weekly worship and included the whole congregation at one time.

We find an example of this theology in our Prayer Book today.  General Confession is still the practice of most Protestant denominations today.  Two exceptions include Lutheranism and Anglicanism, where room continues to remain, if desired, for private confession and absolution.  You can find this in our BCP on pages 581-582.  Although this formula for confession is specifically placed in the context of Ministry to the Sick, it has been used outside this context for centuries.

What do we find in our Book of Common Prayer on pages 76-78?  We find a formula for general confession which was developed for the 1548 Holy Communion booklet and has remained relatively unchanged in 476 years of Prayer Book heritage.

After the Exhortations and departure of non-communicants we read an invitation to the confession.

“Ye that do truly and earnestly repent you of your sins…”

After quite some research, I am confident in saying that this bidding is actually a total creation of Thomas Cranmer, picking up some of the themes from the exhortations that would have just been read.

Next is the confession itself.

“ALMIGHTY God, Father of our Lord Jesus Christ…”

A longer version of this prayer was first published under the name “Hermann’s Consultation” in 1547 by Reformation leaders including Thomas Cranmer’s friend Martin Bucer and Philip Melanchthon, Martin Luther’s partner and chief theologian.  Cranmer shortened the prayer and also included a phrase from the Roman Catholic private confession prayer, referring to “thought, word, and deed.”

Next we find the absolution of sins, also edited by Cranmer from “Hermann’s Consultation.”

“ALMIGHTY God, our heavenly Father…”

Finally, we find the last part of the general confession, the Comfortable words.  These quotes from Scripture (remember sola scriptura?) were included to justify the truth of general confession over private confession and even indulgences.  These too came from “Hermann’s Consultation” with two significant changes.

First, in the original version of this confession and absolution, the comfortable words were read before the absolution, the forgiveness of sins.  Cranmer clearly did not want to overcomplicate the confession and absolution and so moved the comfortable words to afterwards, for those who still were not sure that their sins were actually forgiven!

Second, Cranmer used only a selection of the many comfortable words from the original, and added the first one, from the Gospel of Matthew.

One final point.  You will see in this reformed practice, one part of the process of Confession and Forgiveness seems to be missing – Penance!

The act of penance is summed up in the prayer of confession itself:

“To earnestly repent and heartily be sorry.”

And it is reiterated in the absolution:

“With hearty repentance and true faith.”

The price for sin was true repentance, a matter of faith and one’s relationship with God, unmitigated by the Church, clergy or otherwise.

Note: The image above is of the actual coffer where Johannes Tetzel kept the coins from his indulgence collections.  The main usage of the indulgences sold by Tetzel was to help fund and build St. Peter's Basilica in Rome.