By Noah Van Niel
As the possibility of prayer book revision is bandied about, one aspect of our liturgy deserves significantly more attention: the General Confession. If it suffers pruning similar to that of the 1928 and 1979 editions of the prayer book, then it might disappear altogether.
The form of the General Confession that was used in the 1928 prayer book, and that is more or less preserved in the extended Rite I options of the 1979 book, remained remarkably similar to the earliest English prayer books. It moved out of the eucharistic prayer, but the words remained mostly unchanged. In the now-ubiquitous Rite II liturgy, however, the General Confession has been bowdlerized, and this has harmed our theology of sin and grace. The historic confession’s language (“We do earnestly repent and are heartily sorry for these our misdoings; the remembrance of them is grievous unto us, the burden of them is intolerable”) has become “We are truly sorry and we humbly repent.”
In what we have preserved in the extended version of Rite I, the General Confession feels like a substantial, poignant moment in the worship. But in the Rite II version (which is also offered as an option in Rite I, using the Tudor language) everything is shorter and less pointed. The bidding, the confession, and the absolution are all severely curtailed. And the words of comfort have been removed entirely. In the Rite II General Confession, sin has become something consisting almost entirely of deeds external to ourselves: it is something done (or left undone).
This is a huge theological shift from the deep, historical sense that sin is not just part of what we do, it is part of who we are. As Paul agonizes in his letter to the Romans, “For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Rom. 7:22-25). This inner turmoil, the battle to overcome the sin that dwells in us, is expressed much more clearly and powerfully in the extended Rite I version.
In truth, we are all imperfect, flawed, and liable to a self-centered and self-serving view of the world. It’s one thing to say, “I have done something selfish or mean, or prideful.” It is another to say, “I am selfish, I am proud, I am greedy, I am mean, I am jealous, I am prejudiced, I am power-hungry.” Statements like these take sin from an external and occasional reality and reveal it as an internal and ever-present reality. Assuredly, the many unkind and sinful things we do in our lives are worth confessing and curtailing. But to condemn the external actions only, without understanding that sin comes from within, is to attack only sin’s fruit, not its root.
One result of this massive change in the General Confession’s language is that in the Episcopal Church we can be highly reluctant to talk about personal sin. We are very good at talking about corporate or structural sin. We rightly call attention to our participation in the larger, sinful, social structures of our society (racism, inequality, sexism, homophobia). But “I participate in sinful structures” is not the same thing as “I am a sinner,” that sin is part and parcel with my being.
Talking about our sinfulness in this way can be difficult to hear, and runs the risk of alienating people by seeming too bleak. The recent history of the Episcopal Church has included a deep focus on each person being beloved. We are all creatures of a benevolent Creator who loves us, accepts us, supports us, and wants good things for us. This has been an especially powerful message as our church has sought to expand the boundaries of the gospel, opening our doors and altars to many marginalized people. This is good and holy work and should continue, now more fervently than ever.
But emphasizing dignity alone, without the counterbalance of sinfulness, is spiritually unwise. Our sinfulness — our inevitable misuse, abuse and disregard for our dignity and the dignity of others — is also a deeply important aspect of our human identity. That’s Genesis 1-3. No sooner is our life given to us and declared “good” than we break from that goodness in pursuit of our glorification. It’s been a long road back ever since. And we’re nowhere near home. That’s an important thing to remember each week.
There is a justifiable fear that focusing too heavily on our sinful nature makes us unwelcoming and judgmental. As often happens in life on the via media, it can be tricky to find the right balance. In trying to chart a middle way between dignity and sinfulness, it can be hard to articulate a clear understanding of personal sin that does not threaten our commitment to radical welcome.
We have instead found a safe scapegoat in the societal sins and wickedness in which we participate. The self-centeredness that is endemic in human beings since Adam and Eve bears out in all sorts of activities we would call sinful, and turn into structures of society that counteract God’s will being done on earth as it is in heaven. But sin is, first and foremost, a personal violation of one’s relationship with God. Individual sin leads to corporate sin. And if we do not better confront the sin at the center of our hearts, we will not make much progress on the sins at the center of our society.
Another part of the problem is that the word sin needs much rehabilitation. We are comfortable saying human beings are flawed or imperfect, but to say they are sinners just seems mean. Throughout Christian history, sin has been used as a way to scare people into the pews. It has been used as a tool of oppression, and the power it affords the Church as the one agent capable of relieving its burden has been abused repeatedly. In this exclusionary, arrogant approach, sin has lost its egalitarian, unifying potential.
But if we can say that as human beings we all are broken, we all are imperfect, we all are sinners, that levels the playing field and opens the door to compassion and understanding. We’ve been so focused on sin as an external action that we have lost the more ontological understanding and the potential that holds for reconciliation and renewal.
The possibilities for reconciliation and renewal offered by a reacquaintance with the more ontological understanding of sin are particularly important because of who we, as Episcopalians, generally are.
According to the landmark 2014 Pew Religious Landscape Study, the Episcopal Church is 89 percent white; 82 percent are not recent immigrants (third generation or earlier), and 68 percent make more than $50,000 a year (36% make more than $100,000 a year), which makes us the richest mainline Protestant denomination in America. Over half of our church members have a college education or higher, which again is the highest in the country. We are a church made up of the richest, most highly educated people in America, and we’re almost all-white. This means that for all our progressive social stances, we remain a very patrician church.
For such a demographic (and I speak from within it), the hardest fruit of the Spirit to find is humility. This is why, reinstituting a General Confession that awakens an awareness of how inseparable our sinful nature is from our human nature is so essential: it can lead us to humility. Humility is indispensable to any healing and reconciliation in our society on a personal or structural level. And as a church composed of predominately white, affluent individuals, we need to be particularly well-acquainted with the fact that we are sinful beings because the sins of our race and class tend to perpetuate sins at a structural level, since so many of the structures of our society are designed, implemented, and maintained by people of our demographic. “After all,” we like to boast, “almost a quarter of our Presidents were Episcopalian.”
I realize that an oppressively penitential approach can be hurtful and detrimental to those whom society already marginalizes. And I am sympathetic to the complaint that the exclusively masculine language many people find so difficult from Rite I can be a hindrance to full engagement with the Confession. That is why I am not advocating for a departure from preaching that each of one us is a beloved child of God, made in God’s image and worthy of a life of justice and peace. That is, and always should be, our primary identity. I hope, however, for a bit of a rebalancing. I believe a rediscovery of our brokenness, our imperfection, and our sinfulness is the key to our theological and social salvation. And one need not use exclusively masculine language to accomplish such a feat. A more inclusive Confession humbles us all, and makes us all dependent upon God’s grace, not our abilities or privilege, mighty though they may be.
If our liturgy can help bring us to that level of awareness, it can also offer us an incredible opportunity to receive the mercy and love of God. The more in need of God’s grace we understand ourselves to be, the more powerful and transformative that gift of grace becomes. The gospel is not ultimately about bringing down, but about lifting up, which in turn means we need to bow down. And while in the Rite I Confession we are reminded of the breadth and expanse of our sin, we are also reminded that the only thing broader and deeper is God’s love and forgiveness in the person of Jesus Christ. If we can honestly acknowledge our sinfulness, we can more powerfully preach the great news that God loves and saves us even given the sorry state of affairs in our hearts, in our homes, in our church, and in our world. And this is when a more robust confession can actually be beneficial to our church: an insufficient articulation of our sinfulness yields an insufficient experience of God’s grace. But a clear, forceful engagement with our personal sinfulness can lead to a clear, revitalizing experience of God’s grace, forgiveness, and redemption in our life.
There is an opportunity, in a new prayer book, to center ourselves as sinners in the hands of a loving God. What if, instead of continuing in the direction of shorter and more general, we came up with something approximating the original prayer book’s confessional interchange? Make it a moment of meaning in the liturgy through an extended bidding, a forceful confession, and not just a full absolution but those holy words of comfort from Scripture? Would that not be a much more personally satisfying and theologically rich interchange between priest and people, between God and God’s faithful? Would that not lead us all into a life forgiven, healed, restored and renewed? This is exactly what we talk about needing in our Church. Would that not pardon and deliver us from our sins while also confirming and strengthening us in all goodness and bringing us to everlasting life? Is that not the heart of the gospel we proclaim and adore?
The Rev. Noah Van Niel is assistant rector at the Episcopal Parish of St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts.