On the Reconciliation of Penitents

The Prodigal Son by Rembrandt

Recently a group of us gathered in the Virginia Theological Seminary chapel to consider one of the occasional pastoral ministries exercised by the episcopate and presbyterate: the Reconciliation of a Penitent. The words of the current Prayer Book Exhortation (modified from previous forms of the Exhortation in the Prayer Book) make the purpose of this rite clear:

“And if, in your preparation, you need help and counsel, then go and open your grief to a discreet and understanding priest, and confess your sins, that you may receive the benefit of absolution, and spiritual counsel and advice: to the removal of scruple and doubt, and the strengthening of your faith.” (BCP 317)

Thus the practice of having a General Confession and Absolution, provided in the text of the Eucharist and the Offices, is affirmed, while making the practice of private reconciliation available to those who desire it. The use of private rites of reconciliation by individual Christians thus conforms to the oft quoted adage: “All may; none must; some should.”

Any priest or bishop can offer this rite. The Ordinal specifies the forgiveness of penitent sinners along with preaching, pronouncing God’s blessing, administering Baptism, and celebrating the mysteries of Christ’s Body and Blood as among the tasks of priestly ministry. We spoke of the importance for those who would exercise this ministry to have experienced Reconciliation of a Penitent themselves as part of their ongoing spiritual life.

In preparing for exercising this ministry, we spoke of the necessity of prayer and study. The English tradition of spiritual counseling has strongly emphasized the pastoral nature of guiding the spiritual life. The confessor needs to know what sin is and what sin is not. And the language of classical moral theology as well as that of ethics is crucial to the confessor’s exercise of this ministry as well as the patience to listen with discernment.

We spoke of the process of a confession from the penitent’s standpoint: self-examination; the honest and specific confession of all known sins since the last confession; sorrow for what has taken place; and commitment to amendment of life in the future.

We spoke of the process of a confession from the confessor’s standpoint, remembering that at the center of the rite are the words of absolution. A confession is not meant to be depth psychotherapy (something for which few of us are trained): it is meant to be an encounter with the forgiveness of sin for a sinner, ministered in God’s name by another who is a sinner. And the rite is self-contained, as the words of the Prayer Book make clear. The “seal of the confessional” is morally absolute for the confessor. Nothing said in the confessional is meant to be the subject of any further comment or conversation by the confessor once the penitent is dismissed.

Finally, we spoke of some of the practicalities of administering this rite in an open church building (preferable), at a hospital, or while making a call at a private home in ministering to the sick. In this we discussed the preference to have some sign of vesture (a purple stole at least) to mark off the act of confession while it is taking place from some other form of private conversation.

There is no greater joy expressed than that of the father in the Prodigal Son parable when he welcomes home his errant child: once lost, but now found. The Reconciliation of a Penitent remains one of the most precious gifts the church has to offer to its members.

The Rev. Dr. Lloyd Alexander Lewis, Jr., a priest in the Episcopal Church, is Professor of New Testament Emeritus at Virginia Theological Seminary. Dr. Lewis holds an A.B. in Classics from Trinity College, Hartford; an M.Div. from Virginia Theological Seminary; and an M.A., M.Phil., and Ph.D. in New Testament Studies from Yale University.