The sacrament of Reconciliation, sometimes referred to as Penance and popularly referred to as Confession, consists of two parts: in the first, we says sorry to God and ask forgiveness; in the second God forgives us and we are reconciled to Him. This can be further broken down into the following steps:

  1. Examination of Conscience - In many ways self examination can be the most difficult step because it must be honest and clear as a precondition for the efficacy of the Sacrament
  2. Confession - Explaining to a priest simply and clearly how we have fallen short in being worthy children of God and witnesses of Jesus Christ is daunting but the priest is there to help. The traditional caricature is of a list of sins; but many of us find that we have chronic failings which we try to control rather than a list of serious sins; omission is as important as commission. This is also the opportunity frankly to discuss our spiritual life, its failings and its crises, the times when nothing seems to work.
  3. Guidance - The priest should then initiate a discussion; he is not there to tell us off but to guide us. We might want to ask for a particular kind of help if this has not been suggested by the priest. It is vital that we do not leave important things unsaid.
  4. Contrition - Of course this must be heartfelt; it is not the ritual of caricature but a solemn promise to God to do our best to be worthy of Him.
  5. Absolution - The priest says a prayer of absolution whereby God forgives our sins and allows us to make a fresh start.
  6. Penance - Normally we will we given prayers or readings which follow on from our Confession and the discussion.

Within the Church of England private Reconciliation is the lost Sacrament. Most of us have opted to make  autonomous confessions in our own homes or to join in the collective acts of penitence in our services (at the beginning of the Eucharist and Morning and Evening Prayer). In other words, such acts only omit steps 3. and 6. in the process above whereas the vital steps are the other four. Nonetheless, in these public and collective forms of Reconciliation it is much easier to be unfocused and to avoid stark truths than is the case in private Reconciliation; It is also much more difficult to sustain a holy life without the support of a priest acting as confessor and/or spiritual guide. In many ways autonomous and collective acts can deal with the negative side of our spiritual lives but they are less effective at helping us to live enriched spiritual lives.

The Mediæval Sacrament of Confession fell into disrepute with Protestants because it became entangled with the sale of indulgences but it is clearly under-written in the New Testament where Jesus both forgives sins and empowers his Apostles (and, by extension, their successors) to do likewise.

KC i/06

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