A Call to Repentance

21 September 2007

I have also observed, and have seen particularly in the West Coast, an uncomfortableness with repentance and confession of sin. The theory, as I understand it goes something like this: The archetypal Eucharistic rite is focussed around the gathering, the word, the intercessions, the table and the going out. Confession is an optional extra. This was almost encouraged by the International Anglican Liturgical Consultation document on the eucharist, and by the pattern where the confession in the middle section was displaced when there was, for example a baptism, marriage, or an ordination. There has been a reclaiming of penitence in some of these rites recently, especially in the Church of England, by placing the penitential section at the beginning of the service. It is one thing to omit penitence in a church which has the expectation of personal auricular confession, but quite another to omit it in a church of the Reformation which enjoins General Confession. There is, in my view, behind this, a serious underplaying of personal sin and personal salvation.

This quote comes from this post by Bishop Harold Miller, Bishop of Down and Dromore, Church of Ireland.  In my experiences of the Episcopal Church —all of them in the Midwest— nearly every service has a confession and absolution in it, sometimes near the beginning, but more often in the middle.  I am glad for this, since I agree with Bishop Miller that it’s an important point.

And while I disagree with him (I believe we are all called to the Table) on some points, I do believe we are called to repentance, confession, and ultimately conversion of life which is concomitant with absolution and forgiveness.  No absolution can be given without conversion, which cannot happen without some kind of confession, and no one need confess unless they have something to repent of.

I think confession, both the concept of it and the Rite of Reconciliation of a Penitent, are important treasures the church has, quite undervalued and underutilized.

One root of contemporary unease with confession/repentance is the equation of confession or repentance with self-hate.  Such an understanding of repentance is unusable and unhealthy.  Something struck me while at the monastery about repentance.

Each Lauds begins with Psalm 50/51, the most universally used psalm of contrition.  A few middle verses leapt out at me:

6 Indeed, I have been wicked from my birth, *
a sinner from my mother’s womb.
7 For behold, you look for truth deep within me, *
and will make me understand wisdom secretly
8 Purge me from my sin, and I shall be pure; *
wash me, and I shall be clean indeed.
9 Make me hear of joy and gladness, *
that the body you have broken may rejoice.

Verse six, taken out of context and read uncritically, seems to be a fairly self-hating verse; I am corrupt and always have been.  Considering the next line, however, it makes it seem as if the sinner has had truth deep within, perhaps even while a sinner and wicked.

I wonder if this psalm not only laments our sinful state but also our propensity to sin, our habit of falling short of all we are called to be.  As only God could create us, only God can make us whole when we fall short of our calling to be holy.

For me, this is a very hopeful psalm, while for many it may seem a gloomy one.  To deny that we are all flawed, that we all sin, is to deny the truth; at the same time, we can all be comfortable and even esteem ourselves with that reality.

The central kernel of this psalm is two-fold: we both tend to sin and also have the divine within us.  While we all know how hard it can be to do the right thing and be good, even when we want to do and be so, the truth is already within us; after all, why would God look for something that might not be there?

This psalm is a psalm of hope.  We are called to embrace God and the truth within our souls and turn away from the bad habits and propensities we might acquire.

Which returns us to the idea of repentance; repentance is not a bad thing, it need not be something that is done in self-hate.  It is done in great self-love, and if churches have forgotten this, they are poorer for it.

Perhaps part of my vocation shall be to help rehabilitate repentance and confession.  It is, after all, a beautiful thing.  As the neo-futurist Noelle Krimm once said, “you do not throw away your beautiful things.

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One Response to “A Call to Repentance”

  1. Tripp Says:

    Thanks, Jorge. You may find this quoted on my blog this morning. Be ye warned therefore!

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