Often enough I have heard the response to offers of (Private) Confession that “It’s already in our service”. Is this strictly speaking the case? What is the effectiveness of General Confession versus Private?
Reading Fr. Baring-Gould’s The Golden Gate on the subject of General versus Private Confession opened up this subject in a new and enlightening way for me. (He is, on the whole, fairly open to the basic usefulness and effectiveness of the Absolution given in General Confession as many good and sound Anglican theologians are.)
To be fair, the Anglican Churchman can find plenty of refuge in a classical Anglican approach to this matter and avoid the confessional. He can find it, but is he the healthier for it? Is he the more biblical for it? More startling, is he actually forgiven? This is where Baring-Gould is helpful. He provides a “proof text” for Private Confession in Ezra 10, where the men of Israel are called upon to give up their strange wives. The confrontation begins,
And Ezra the priest stood up, and said unto them, Ye have transgressed, and have taken strange wives, to increase the trespass of Israel. Now therefore make confession unto the LORD God of your fathers, and do his pleasure: and separate yourselves from the people of the land, and from the strange [pagan/foreign] wives. Then all the congregation answered and said with a loud voice, As thou hast said, so must we do. (verses 10-12)
Now here we have an example of General Confession and, arguably, Covenant Renewal. Yet it does not stop there. The Israelites continue,
But the people are many, and it is a time of much rain, and we are not able to stand without, neither is this a work of one day or two: for we are many that have transgressed in this thing. Let now our rulers of all the congregation stand, and let all them which have taken strange wives in our cities come at appointed times, and with them the elders of every city, and the judges thereof, until the fierce wrath of our God for this matter be turned from us. Only Jonathan the son of Asahel and Jahaziah the son of Tikvah were employed about this matter: and Meshullam and Shabbethai the Levite helped them. (verses 13-15)
This is the really intriguing part; the elders and the judges were brought in to hear “confession”, whatever that means, and some Levites were also involved. What was it that they were engaged in on an individual basis?
As one might imagine, adjudicating hundreds of divorces, where children and property was involved could not have been easy. Each case would be a bit different. Was the “General Confession” itself effective? Yes, in a sense. However, there was a sense in which it was incomplete if not individually adjudicated, for obvious reasons. It wasn’t so much the individual person saying “I’m sorry” that made “Private Confession” in this instance more effective, but rather the nitty-gritty of separating the individual from “strange wives”.
So likewise we can say of General versus Private Confession today. Is General Confession “valid”? Maybe – that is a debate that can and does rage. Is it effective? That depends on what is going on. Does it actually separate you from your sin, from your “strange wives”? Do you need more, perhaps a “plan of action” for separating yourself from your sins on a permanent basis? That’s what Advice and Penance are for. A divorce (Absolution) and “plan of action” (Advice & Penance) doesn’t mean that you won’t go back to your “strange wife” – but nobody can take you seriously about leaving her if you don’t even have a plan.
There was nothing about the General Confession of Israel before Ezra that was invalid, per se, but there was something about it that was plainly and ridiculously useless if not followed up with a proper case-by-case assessment, adjudication and reconciliation before Almighty God. Sin is like a bad marriage. It takes root. It takes up residence in our hearts. It bears (bad) fruit/children. It takes over our lives. It destroys the Faith and the life of Grace in the Soul. (Since Jewishness descends through the wife, a strange wife literally kills off the inheritance and seed of God, just as sin strangles out the life of Grace.) Overcoming this is not the “work of one day or two” but takes a long time working with a counselor and spiritual surgeon to make permanent and effective that separation.
So when we ask if “General Confession” is enough, we aren’t really asking the right question or asking it in the right way. This is because, at the end of the day when we realistically assess the glue that binds us to sin like a bad marriage and bears fruit, that we have to ask ourselves again in a fresh and honest way, “Is General Confession really enough?” Well, is it?
Fr. Peter Geromel is Assisting Priest at Church of the Incarnation and an adjunct professor of Philosophy at Northampton Community College. Educated at Virginia Military Institute, Hillsdale College, Reformed Episcopal Seminary and the University of Dallas, Fr. Peter has authored Sublime Duty: Its Emphasis in The Anglican Way, Christ & College: A Guide from The Anglican Way, and Frankincense & Mirth on High. He manages Traditional Anglican Resources.