Confession and Penance

It is a rare denomination in Christianity that does not make confesssion of some sort. Confession is the acknowledging and possibly recounting our sins against God and our neighbour, our transgressions, things done and left undone. “Sin” as a word is derived from an old term for “missing the mark,” when the arrow does not hit the bullseye. That kind of “sin” is obvious to all, but we all have secret sins, the little and sometimes big things that damage relationships and even our sense of self-worth. Both kinds of sins are confessed, the obvious and the secret, because God knows our hearts.

“If we say we have no sin we deceive ourselves.” God isn’t deceived. And our neighbours aren’t deceived either. They saw you speed through the stop sign at the end of the street; they always know more than you think they do, just as you know their so-called guilty secrets. There’s no escaping sin; even if you could hide it at the bottom of the deepest well, your own heart will know, and even the best of us have had those three a.m. moments, when the past comes to haunt our sleepless thoughts.

No one escapes sin, for we all make mistakes. When Jesus told us to be perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect, He did not mean we have to live without sin. The word “perfect” used to mean “completed,” not “without flaw.” Yes, God is always without flaw, always complete, always whole, and that is what we are to strive for, to be at unending peace with God. It is not at all likely we will see it in this life!

So we have confession. Week after week, day after day for those who have daily worship, we say our confession. It is a corporate confession to prepare our hearts to receive the love of God, to cover all the possibilities of our crimes and misdemeanors. We do forget the details sometimes, or the full culpability of what we have done just doesn’t hit us for a while. The Church has confessional prayers to help us remember that we are still creatures that are short of the glory of God, even as we receive Christ as Saviour.

Some churches have private confession as well as public confession.The great Anglican theologian Richard Hooker said of personal confession, “None must, some should, all may.” The Roman Catholic Church has the most formal mode of personal confession, anonymous if preferred, and expected. These days, few take the opportunity. The Anglican and Lutheran Communions have forms in their prayer books and books of worship, to allow for the possibility. It is not anonymous. Among the Orthodox, full private confession is still allowed, and is normative in some of the branches of the Eastern church. It is not anonymous, and some priests are gifted at not only hearing the confession, but using it as a teaching opportunity and a time of pastoral counseling, which is a good model for other churches.

And that brings us to penance. Penance is not expected after corporate confession, the usual Sunday confessional prayer when the priest or pastor pronounces forgiveness on behalf of the Lord, who assured us of His merciful forgiveness. : “He who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins.” Penance is reserved for private confession, at the discretion of the priest. It is not a punishment. It is a gift made in return to God for His mercy, a time of learning and thanksgiving. It is not supposed to hurt.

Fasting is not considered penance, except in a general, corporate way. Abstinence from one thing or another might be assigned as a penance, but it should never be severe. It should be for the strengthening of the soul and for building self-discipline to resist sin. Repetitive prayers, acts of good works, and scripture reading are appropriate penances. A priest might assign abstinence from the sacrament for some; it used to be more common, but now is considered only for extreme offenses, until the sinner has fully realized their guilt, and desires to make recompense.

Penance is never self-imposed. A priest must not assign penance without pastoral supervision; the penitent should be able to talk to the priest about their spiritual struggles during penance, or it will not be effective. (The old lazy formula of ten hail-marys and twenty our-fathers falls here; it is mere rote for the priest and the penitent, and no one is much enlightened or reformed.)

Confession, if one’s conscience requires it, is often made at the beginning of the fasting seasons. It is a good time to do so, especially if one is burdened with a sense of failure and guilt. A priest should be able to sort out with the penitent what counts as sin and failure, and what is actually just circumstance. Not all failure is sin. Not all learning opportunities are because of personal fault. God does not want us to be self-flagellants, beating at our poor down-trodden spirits like mule-drivers.

Those called to make confession, do so with a heart willing to learn, to bend to God’s will. Do not look to be broken, nor look to be let off with excuses. Honesty is of the essence of confession. But God wants us to forget our sins after forgiveness, because He does.

Looking into Advent from Here

Despite a fine and expensive education, I am still a peasant at heart. I like and need the natural rhythm of the year, the swing and shift of seasons and times. When I was a Baptist child, it seemed that Christmas and Easter came on us suddenly, with just the usual run-up of holiday television specials (not many of them, those years ago), the town tinsel and plywood decorations, and the once-a-year toy department at J.C. Penney’s store. The church didn’t prepare us. Easter was even more of a surprise – sometimes it fell while we were stil covered with snow.

The ultra-Protestantism of the Baptist Church of forty and fifty years ago had long lost the seasons of preparation. There was no anticipation. I rather envied Roman Catholic friends who had periods of fasting (giving up candy, for the most part) and the seasonal lessons in church. They had something to look forward to. I once asked my mother about Lent. Not necessary, she said. And maybe for a struggling family in rural Maine, there wasn’t much to give up anyway.

As an adult in the Episcopal (Anglican) Church, I was introduced to the church calendar. I landed in a church with a priest who was quite Orthodox in outlook, and we kept the seasons and festivals, and were encouraged in the fasts. It was a theological epiphany for me, that self-discipline might have a purpose rather than just keeping the rules!

I need the structure of the calendar. I like it that the seasons of the church match the seasons of our natural year. (Although I wonder how the Southern hemisphere deals with that.) The fasts come at the times when our peasant ancestors didn’t have that much to eat, anyway, and the social structure of the church encouraged prudence and rationing. The long Lenten fast, without meat, eggs or dairy, and carefully guarding the stores of wine and vegetable oils, meant that there was enough for everyone until spring. (Assuming the crops came in and no natural or civic disasters!)

Keeping the feast days of the saints ties us in to their example of faith, a reminder of heaven and glory beyond the mundane world. They are little festivals reflecting the joy of Easter, a foretaste of the feast to come.They keep us living with a foot in each world, in today and what is to be.

Anglicans were once noted for their everyday piety. Anglicans went to daily morning and evening prayer, attended the festivals in their own parishes and neighboring towns, enjoyed the rhythm of the liturgical year along with the natural year. And that daily piety and practice means that we follow the readings of the Bible much more closely. We become immersed in the Word, hearing it daily. It starts to fit together then, and makes more sense. This is one of the problems of modern Biblical illiteracy, why the “God of the Old Testament” seems so different from the “Father in Heaven” of the New Testament, why the gospels seem divorced from the epistles. There’s no continuity because we approach them only once a week, chopped up, disconnected, fragments of what was once a complex picture. We see the interior of the scriptures through the tiny keyhole of Sunday.

Outside of teaching the daily discipline of the lectionary (and I am not always good at keeping it myself) I don`t know what to do about this. House churches, or at least synagogue like gatherings in neighborhoods, led by educated laypeople, might be an answer, if groups could meet at least once a week besides Sunday. Daily prayer in the churches might be another way, if people would make the time to attend. But that may be long lost, with parishes consolidating, sharing priests, tearing down rather than building more churches.

But it would be a good and great undertaking, to restore the calendar to the church that originated it.

Caught up in the Details

I am a dyed-in-the-wool traditionalist, as my steady readers know. If it’s traditional, I’m in favour. If it’s not, I’m doubtful. I was once an enthusiastic liturgical renewal person, but seminary beat that out of me with a surfeit of alternative rites.

Having made that yet again perfectly clear, I am going to say this:

Stop worrying about the details. If we get the basics covered in Sunday worship, there’s scripture, prayer, and a good commentary, and I hope communion, I’m not that concerned if we use the right form of the words. It doesn’t have to be the pseudo-Elizabethan English of the Book of Common Prayer. It just has to be right in intention and theology, and we Anglicans (and many others) know what that is. The BCP has its faults – the pseudo-archaic language is one of them, and let’s face it, it is not the true Cranmer rite – and its great strengths.

But the wording is not that important, especially when it separates Christians from other Christians who pretty much believe the same things. It’s a red herring, a distraction from our mission. I can spend the rest of my life speaking Plain speech, or even Elizabethan Engish, and it doesn’t make any difference at all in heaven. Our forebears in the church spoke Aramaic and Greek for service, then mostly the vernacular, until Latin became entrenched in the Roman church.

I’ve worshipped in French, Spanish and Danish, besides English, and because they are not my native languages, I have no idea if the form was controversial or theologically sound. It didn’t matter. It was all I could do to keep up.

I will continue to use the BCP and its equivalents in English (my heart is really in the 1604 liturgy, mea culpa) but I can understand that some people just get left behind, and the prayer book lacks some liturgies we now find essential. No one had thought to keep the Great Vigil, for instance, until Anglicans and Romans looked to the East and saw that the Paschal Light service had never been forgotten in Orthodoxy. And I can’t see doing without it.

Time to move on. The Lord is calling us out into the mission field from those comfortable pews, and we have to become weekday Christians, not just Sunday-morning Christians. All the liturgies ever written and all the arguments over them will not change that.

Peacekeepers for Christmas?

I think we all get those toy flyers from a department or discount store about this time of the year. I don’t usually look at them, but this year I thought about a gift for a special little girl, and wanted to see what is out there. I know something she isn’t getting.

“Power team world peacekeepers!” There’s the elite lookout, the fighting vehicle with 2 figures, the military vehicule (sic), the aerial rocket helicopter and the World battlefield with 6 figures. This all looks like attack gear to me. No white personnel carriers with “UN” on the side, lots of camo but no blue berets. Peacekeepers? I don’t think so.

It’s the same bloody lie that governments tell. An invasion is not keeping the peace. It is not preventative first strike. It’s war, declaration of war, and making war. It’s not keeping peace.

Who’s twisted idea was this? Teaching children to play war is a war crime. Oh, yes, I know, kids have always done it, but why should they? Why should children know what war is? For many children it is not play. It is their reality. They live in war zones; they live in death zones. Some will go to war before they have reached puberty. Others will die as victims of bombs and bullets.

For the sake of the future, do not give your children war toys. Give them peace toys. Give them a pretend farm or their own garden tools. Give them a Bible, a roll of kraft paper and a lot of crayons, and ask them to draw a world of peace. Put that up in your home as a poster, as a reminder, with Bible verses about peace. Pray for peace every day. Pray for a day when a child doesn’t have to be afraid of guns and tanks.

“They shall beat their swords into plowshares…and study war no more.”

Reminder on Plain Convocation

I am hoping to hear from more of you. Are you willing to travel to someplace like beautiful Ontario(on Lake Erie, for instance)  for a Plain Convocation? Prayer, worship, fellowship, talks,minisries, witnessing, and that horrid modern word – networking! I am in the very early stages of thinking about this. Wo would be willing to work on it? I am not tied down to place, time, or agenda. I think we would have to be near a major bus line, have local workers on hand, and be able to come up with some housing for a weekend.

Pray about this, and turn thy thoughts to the possibility of making a very public statement of inter-church Plainness!


I tentatively suggested that some of us traditonal/Plain Anglicans in Ontario try to mee. That doesn’t seem to be going anywhere… So there’s the answer from the Holy Spirit, maybe. And maybe I made it too tentative and too restrictive.

Conservative Quakers have their yearly meetings. The Brethren have their yearly meeting. Other traditional groups have yearly meeting. These differ from synod and convention in that they are more spiritually oriented, with some business, rather than the other way around.

So the rest of you out there: maybe headcovering, traditional, maybe not Anabaptist or Quaker or maybe yes: Do we need a conference/meeting/gathering? Over and above bishops, presbyteries, conventuals and other defined leadership terms? This is NOT to start a new church, maybe, unless the Spirit so leads. It is NOT to challenge authority but to gently bypass it.

I say this because I am under authority. It isn’t being particularly responsive to me right now,but it is still there in a bizarre and twisted headship kind of way. (And knowing church history, I ask, why is this still happening?)

Is there a need for us isolated Plain folks to meet and do things the old-fashioned way – face-to-face? It is so easy to hide behind the anonymity of the internet, to make statements that don’t have to be carried forward. Is it time to take the leap?

On Loving Our Neighbours

Our Lord Jesus Christ made it plain in the parable of the Good Samaritan: Your neighbour is not just the person next door. The complete Christian response to the needs of others is to go the long way, to give generously, to care with love – “Love thy neighbour as thyself.” You would certainly get yourself off the side of the road when injured if you could; you would dress your wounds yourself, if you could; you would get to a hospital or suitable shelter yourself, if you could. When you can’t, you will long and pray for someone to help you. You will shed tears of pain and anxiety if no one does. If you will love your neighbour as yourself, then you must do these things for someone else. You are to be the Good Samaritan even when the wounded neighbour is someone you distrust, or someone you don’t know.

Sometimes our neighbour is the person next door, down the street, in the next township. It is someone we know, someone we may like, someone with a familiar face and name. Even then we may not respond as we should. I’ve been that neighbour. I have needed a job and received a can of soup.

I bring this topic to your attention because I was watching television. (!!) There is a television here, and Nicholas is getting caught up on the science programmes, I watch the cooking channels, and we both kibbutz the home reno shows. One renovation show I don’t like is “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.” It’s extreme in a number of ways, mostly in the manic behaviour of its host and the frantic pace at which a house is constructed. I do not believe that a good house can be built of modern materials in a week, especially the monstrous constructions in which the show specializes. These houses are too big, too expensive to maintain, too up-to-minute-but-out-of-date-tomorrow. The deserving family receives a new house, but they receive a lot more than they needed. These are not Habitat for Humanity houses, small and practical and inexpensive. These are unsustainable Barbie Dream Houses.

What really bothers me is that this team of designers and builders is not part of the community. They enlist community help, and have a group of sponsors for materials, furniture, and appliances. So why didn’t the community do this work without the television people? Why didn’t the local contractor, the local department store, and a team of neighbours come in, tear down the fire-, storm-, or decay-damaged house and build something appropriate and useful? Why does it take getting your face on the airwaves to motivate people to care for their neighbours as they would care for themselves?

On this programme we see families living in motels, in converted sheds, or in basements because their houses are uninhabitable. Did anyone in their vicinity notice this before the Makeover team brought it to their attention? The team builds handicapped accessible houses for children in wheelchairs, structures that will accommodate a large family that has lost income or health, new mini-mansions with rec rooms and pet parlours for fire victims. I don’t think this is an effective use of resources. Several families could be housed in these nightmares! Why doesn’t the community respond in a timely, economical way long before some desperate family sends a video to a post office box?

I’ve worked on teams to help those families who lost homes to fire, collecting emergency supplies, gathering furniture for a new apartment or house, loading the truck on moving day. We could have done better. Churches and communities gave cast-offs, old stuff that might do for now, but would still have to be replaced. Not everyone is expecting a good insurance settlement. Sometimes that settlement is enough to pay the mortage, but not enough for a down payment on a new house. Renters lose the most, even if they have renters’ insurance. Try to get your damage deposit back from a landlord who just lost a whole building! For the poorest people, the loss of that $500-$1000 can mean homelessness. They can’t sue; small claims court may be backed up for weeks.

Christians are expected by Our Lord to lead the way in these desperate times. We are to make the sacrifices of time, goods and money. We are to rally the others to help.  Our traditional aloof stance keeps people out of our churches. We are seen as irrelevant because we are! No excuses anymore, brothers and sisters! No rationalising, no explanations, no politicizing. Open your eyes and look around. Your quiet street is a disaster zone, full of desperate and hopeless people. Time to seek them out, lend a hand, give of your substance, even if there isn’t much of it. Often, it is the poor people who respond the most to others’ needs; they know what it is like, and they’ll go without so others can have a share. They’ve got plenty of practice, and know they can survive a little deprivation.

We are feasting in the midst of a famine, friends. Pray for guidance in this, and start now.