Project Canterbury

by the Rev. J. G. H. Barry

undated pamphlet, 14 pp.



You ask me to tell you something about Confession. You say you have not known until recently that Confession is practised in the Episcopal Church, and that the whole trend of your education disinclines you to believe in it; and yet that you are not so prejudiced but that you are willing to consider any arguments in favor of it, if such there are. You have, you say, always thought it a "Romish" practise, but if the Church teaches it, that will alter the matter.

I am very glad that such is your attitude--otherwise I could not undertake to write to you. Sometimes people have called me a "Romanizer"; in which case I endeavor not to pursue the conversation. I know how to answer arguments:

I do not know how to answer abuse, except by silence. To call a priest a "Romanizer" is, of course, to call him a cad and a traitor. If anyone thinks me so, I can simply keep quiet under the imputation.

And I am very glad that you have come frankly to me with your question. A good many people I meet have, I find, derived all their impressions about the practise of Confession from people who know nothing about it; i. e., from people who never have been to Confession in their lives. Now the evidence of people who don't know is not, in other matters, considered of much importance. My opinion, I fancy, would not be regarded as worth very much on a question of railroad management, or of sugar planting. I should be considered absurd if I attempted to tell anyone how to cut a dress or to bake bread. But my opinion on any of these subjects would surely be worth as much as the opinion of a person who never has made a thorough study of theology upon the doctrine of Confession, or of a person who never has been to Confession upon its practical results. My opinion, I trust, is worth something, because I have both studied the doctrine and followed the practise.

To your question then; and first, Does our Church teach the practise of Confession? The question really should be this: Does our Church believe that the priesthood has power to forgive sins? To which I reply, it certainly does.

Now don't misunderstand the answer. This does not mean that I, as a man, have power to forgive sins; or that, as a priest, I have an independent power to forgive sins. It means that as God's authorized representative, and acting in God's name and by His power, the priest has the authority of God to forgive sins. God is the source of forgiveness: but He can authorize men to act for Him. He authorizes His ministers to act for Him in Baptism, and the result of Baptism is the forgiveness of sins and a new birth. He authorizes men to act for Him in Ordination: and the result is the making of a layman the minister of God. If you believe that men can administer Baptism and Ordination with such results, there can be no difficulty in believing that an authorized man can act for God in forgiving sins that have been confessed to God in his presence. And if you ask: How can the priest know that the person is really penitent? I answer that he can have only the same sort of certainty that he has when he baptises an adult, or gives the Holy Communion--the profession of the person. Impenitence in either case renders the sacrament of none effect; but the priest has to take the sincerity of the person for granted.

I say, then, this Church teaches that the priesthood has power to forgive sins. I believe it does so, because it assures me that it believes the Bible. And in the Bible our Lord says in commissioning His ministers: "As my Father hath sent Me, even so send I you. And when He had said this, He breathed on them, and said unto them, Receive the Holy Ghost; whose soever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them; and whose soever sins ye retain, they are retained." (S. John 20: 21-23.)

Now you will remark that it is not at all a question of what these words might possibly be made to mean--whether they can be made to mean anything but their plain English sense--but the question is: What does our Church understand by them? Now when I was ordained the Bishop laid his hands on me and said: "Receive the Holy Ghost for the Office and Work of a Priest in the Church of God, now committed unto thee by the imposition of our hands. Whose sins thou dost forgive, they are forgiven; and whose sins thou dost retain, they are retained." Are not these words sufficiently plain? I entered the priesthood on the supposition that they mean precisely what they say. If they mean any other than they say, the Church has grievously deceived me. Now these words are obviously the Church's interpretation of our Lord's words which I have just quoted. The Church understands our Lord to have been committing to those He sent forth as His ministers, the power to forgive sin: and it believes itself to be transmitting the same power to all priests it ordains.

And our Church makes a further explicit statement of this belief. In the ''Declaration of Absolution, or Remission of Sins," in the daily offices, it says: "Almighty God . . . hath given power, and commandment, to his Ministers, to declare and pronounce to his people, being penitent, the Absolution and Remission of their Sins." Nothing can be plainer than that. Possibly the Church may be mistaken, but there can be no doubt of its belief.

And it would be absurd to suppose that either our Lord or the Church gives a power which is not to be exercised. The gift of the power implies its exercise: and I do not know of any way in which this power is exercised in the Church but by the absolution of those who have confessed their sins.

You say: "Is it not enough to confess to God? Why confess to a man? I am willing, indeed, and find it most helpful, to go to my priest and talk to him frankly about my life. Is not that all one needs to do? And does not the habit of confession tend to weaken one morally? Does not one come to rely too much on another's opinion and not on one's own conscience?"

There are a good many questions here. Let us take them one at a time.

"Is it not enough to confess to God?" Certainly: that is just what you are doing when you go to Confession. You are confessing to God in the presence of the priest whom God has appointed to act for Him. God is the real actor in every sacrament. When you were baptised, the priest did not regenerate you, God regenerated you; but He did it through the instrumentality of the priest. When you receive the Holy Communion you thank God that He has fed you with the Body and Blood of His Son; nevertheless the priest was necessary to the sacramental act. You do not imagine it enough just to pray to be regenerated or fed without recourse to the sacraments. So in the forgiveness of sins, all the power is God's; the priest has no power as he is a man, but only as he is a priest, i. e., one authorized to act for God.

I am glad that you find it helpful to talk with your priest about your life; that is as it ought to be. If you talk to him frankly about your whole life, then you have gotten over the great difficulty most people find in Confession--the talking frankly about their whole lives. In doing so you have made your Confession. But because you have made it in an extra-sacramental way, you have not received the whole fruit of your action. You have received advice which a man can give, and not grace which God alone can give. If instead of talking frankly with your priest in his study, you had talked frankly to God kneeling in church in the presence of the priest, you would have received, not only advice, but forgiveness of all your sins and grace to help you in the future. Does it not seem to you a little inconsistent, after asking me, "why confess to a man?" to go on at once to say that that is just what you are willing to do? I say it is not enough to confess to a man, because God wants you to confess to Him, and has appointed the way; and that furthermore, you want not what man can give -advice--but what God can give--absolution and sanctifying grace.

Your next question is one that is often answered in the affirmative; but I have never seen any proof produced that Confession weakens one morally. The Saints recur to one's mind when one thinks of the matter, because they are they who commend and practise Confession. They do not occur to one as examples of moral weakness. You could hardly consider such men as Dr. Pusey and John Keble, as Liddon and Carter, weak! That there are weak people who go to Confession is no doubt true: you perhaps know of such. But have you any ground at all for assuming that their weakness is at all due to their practise of Confession? And furthermore, you will not be impatient with me if I point out, that whatever weakening of the moral self-reliance of the individual may be feared from Confession is to be feared from the part you approve, not from the part you object to. You are willing to talk frankly with your priest and take his advice. If there is any danger at all in your relations to your priest, it is just there. I do not think myself that there is much danger, but all the danger there is, you risk. This danger is reduced to a minimum in sacramental Confession. A priest speaks then under a very stern sense of responsibility to God, whose representative he is. He will say little, and that directly to the point. He will ask no questions that are not necessary. The whole atmosphere of the confessional is very different from that of the study. The confessional cannot become conversational and gossipy.

But after all, you say, it is admitted that God forgives sins outside of sacramental Confession: why then go?

You have asked me a good many questions; will you let me ask you a very plain one? Are you looking for the easiest religion you can find? Are you asking yourself, How can I be saved with the least trouble? If I believed that were true, I should ask you to stop here. There would be nothing else it were worth while to say to you. But I know that is not the way you feel: you simply have not realized what is implied in your words.

Our Lord won your salvation by no easy method. It cost much to redeem your soul. You are a Christian as the result of what our Lord did and suffered. And now it turns out that you are a bad Christian: i. e., you have been thankless and sinned. Are you now going to ask, what are the easiest terms upon which I can escape the result of my sin? or are you going to ask, what can I do which shall best show my sorrow for sin and test deepest the reality of my repentance? Are you very sure that you really repent while you leave anything undone to show your reality? While you shrink from any path of repentance because it is hard and humiliating? Just ask yourself one question: Is not what keeps me from Confession, not any doubt about the power of absolution, or my own need of forgiveness, but the hardness and humiliation of making the Confession itself? Would you not be very glad to receive absolution, if it could be given without Confession?

I think I have now pretty well covered the grounds of your question. I have only a few words to add. Almighty God hath left power to His Church to absolve all sinners who truly repent and believe in Him. This power He has given commandment to His ministers to exercise. We cannot suppose that this power is needlessly given, or that it makes no difference whether we submit ourselves to it or not. What God establishes, He establishes for our good; and to neglect it must mean our loss.

He establishes it for our good. That is, we may certainly expect that great blessings will flow to us from the use of it. And certainly great blessings flow from the use of Confession; how great only those can tell you who have used it faithfully. Through it we receive forgiveness of our sins. Sin is never a light thing. Even the smallest sin is displeasing to God and affects our relation to Him. If we have realized what sin is--the shame and disaster of it--no difficulty in the method will deter us from seeking relief from it in God's appointed way. But we receive more than their bare forgiveness, we receive grace to enable us to lead a better life. Do we, any of us, find the Christian life so easy that we can afford to dispense with any of the helps God offers? Surely not. I pray God that He will enable you to see the truth, and, laying aside all self-will and prejudice, seek peace with Him in the way He has appointed. If we confess our sins, God is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.

Project Canterbury