Monday, February 02, 2009


no, I don't have anything juicy to confess--I don't have enough free time to really get into too much trouble.

But last week, while I was at the Celtic Spirituality for Today conference, led by Philip Newell and John Bell, we had some interesting discussion on the topic of confession.

I have to tell you, I'm Reformed.  Very Reformed, particularly when it comes to liturgical issues and the theology behind our liturgies.  One of the things about Reformed liturgies is that they pretty much always have a prayer of confession somewhere near the beginning--we prepare to encounter the living Word by confessing that we don't get it right, that we don't live the way God calls us, etc.  This is one of the things that helps me when people say that Christians are hypocrites--"not really," I say, " because we admit out loud every week that we don't do it right."

But Philip Newell, who is from the Church of Scotland and is also Reformed, said one day that, "in no other relationship do we begin every encounter with the other by saying what s***bags we are.  If we do have a relationship where every encounter begins that way, it's probably not a healthy relationship, it's probably very sick and won't last."  He says this is the result of the way we have thought of Original Sin, which is a whole different blog post and is also a discussion that involves looking at our tradition from a different angle.

So, back to the confession thing:  If, in fact, we do begin our encounters with God by confessing (and it is up close, too, even in the acronym for prayer: ACTS--adoration, confession, thanksgiving, supplication...sometimes with ID added--intercession, dedication), and if in fact that could be construed as a mark of an UNhealthy relationship with another, then we have a problem.

Is it possible that the reason people *feel* so unworthy, the reason that people *feel* that they have nothing to offer, the reason people *feel* that God hates them...could be because we have a liturgical tradition that reinforces that feeling every week?  Yes, I know, we offer words of assurance, declarations of forgiveness, etc, it possible that the words of the confession are sticking more, and polluting our relationship with God, a relationship based on love, not shame?

I do think prayers of confession are important.  But I'm beginning to wonder if we need them every week after all?  (I know, I up my Reformed theology professor and out me as a heretic now!)  Or do we need something else...something that nurtures our loving relationship with God rather than (even subconsciously) plants more seeds of shame?  Hmmm....


  1. This is so interesting. We use a prayer of confession on Communion Sundays, but not on the others. Yesterday I didn't write/use anything corporate. Instead I asked the congregation to take some time in silence to think of whatever might be keeping them from feeling close to God. (Right along with the theme for the day of Jesus coming up close and personal to people.) It's not that we're without sin, it's just that for most of us, the things that divide us from God are hard to articulate and VERY hard to name in a corporate prayer, no matter how hard you and I and others may try to make our liturgies inclusive and thoroughgoing. It shouldn't be about confessing to sh**baggery but about acknowledging, frankly and sorrowfully if appropriate, what gets in the way of a full relationship with God. Which God of course already knows.

  2. This is a challenge for me. I'd guess we have a prayer of confession somewhere between 1/2 and 2/3 of the time. I (almost) never have one in the Easter season but always in Lent. Other seasons are less concrete.

    I do find that traditional Christian emphasis on Original sin and "worm theology" is in fact vry unhelful when we claim to really be about grace. But then again I once had a discussion with a gentleman who said that some weeks he could easily leave after the confession and assurance because that was just what he needed to hear that week.

  3. I was at the conference, too, and as a pre-natal Presbyterian and now seminarian found that Philip's points of conflict with confession and Original Sin are the very points that continue to swirl around (in a Celtic sort of way, don't you know) within me. Where I am today is remembering that confession for me is that moment where in an act of humility I come before God and admit that I have fallen short of God's will in my life because of things I have done wrong and things that I have simply left undone. Even though I know God forgives me, to not confess these shortcomings is an act or arrogance for me, and to confess them is a releasing of the burden of my sins. Then I can stand and feel God's forgiveness through the assurance of pardon and go forward to try, try again. Leanne Van Dyk said, "The assurance of pardon reminds us that this moment in the liturgy, humble though it may seem, actually points us to the center of our worship. It reorients us to our true identity; it reorders our relationships; it gives us a taste of the shalom that will someday be ours in abundance. The forgiveness we receive from God makes everything else possible, both in worship and in our life before God." Lisa Nichols Hickman says, "the assurance of pardon is the axis upon which all of worship revolves." For once we are assured of the forgiveness of our sins, we can then truly come before God in worship and can then truly go back into the world as transformed people of God. Mother Teresa said, "When there is a gap between me and Christ, when my love is divided, anything can come in to fill the gap. Confession is a place where I allow Jesus to take away from me anything that divides, that destroys." Anne Lamont said, "...every week in gathered worship, during the confession of sin and the assurance of pardon, we are by the gracious love of God, tricked into coming back to life." So, while I fully subscribe to Philip's belief of the two loves of Christ being love of humanity and love of creation and that they closer we are in relationship with others, the closer we become to being able to hear the heartbeat of Christ, and thus, the closer we become to be in unity with all of humanity, for me, I must with all humility, come before God (daily in my own life and weekly corporately) and confess my shortcomings in order to go back into the world and try, try again.

  4. Thanks for this. You've given me something to think about! I'm also Reformed, *very* Reformed, and when I've considered not having the prayer of confession, I always consider that it is balanced by the assurance of pardon (as you said in your post). Why do the negative words that we are willing to admit about ourselves stay with us more than the truth of God's love in spite of ourselves?

    In Sunday worship at my church, the lay leader usually leads the confession/assurance. I've often noticed that some lay leaders don't necessarily lead the assurance like they *believe* it, if that makes any sense. I'm just back from the Worship Symposium at Calvin College and attended a workshop led by Kim Long on "Leading Worship With Style & Grace" in which she spoke words of assurance in two ways - once very indifferently, and then once, as we might say, "with feeling." Wow, what a marked difference. I wonder if something as simple as how we interpret the words of assurance to the congregation could make a difference here?

  5. "in no other relationship do we begin every encounter with the other by saying what s***bags we are. If we do have a relationship where every encounter begins that way, it's probably not a healthy relationship, it's probably very sick and won't last."

    This was the line that got to me, because I got to thinking that, though that may be true, if we are in a relationship where we've hurt someone-broken the relationship-, and if we don't say 'sorry,' that too, is not a healthy relationship.
    At least in our worship (very traditional Presby) we don't actually *begin* our encounter with the confession, we have a call to worship, hymn of praise, and a prayer of adoration before we are called to confess. And yes, I do try to keep it general and corporate, because we do, as a community, fall short of God's will for our lives and we need to admit that and say sorry AND know that we are forgiven.
    GREAT discussion friends! Thanks so much.

  6. Thanks so much. Lots and lots and lots to think about here.

  7. Thank you for this. I have a lot of problems with the mandatory weekly prayer of confession in most Christian churches, including my own Episcopal parish.

    On the one hand I do think having it every week can be negative and lead to low self esteem and all the points you make, especially for those of us who are abuse survivors and who struggle with that sort of thing anyway. Sometimes yes, always no.

    On the other hand, the ritualized repetition of assurance of forgiveness just because of a verbal prayer of repentance, with no call to make amends or ask forgiveness of the person hurt (when have you ever heard that in a sermon? I haven't, and I've heard thousands), can also lull the conscience--of major perpetrators as well as minor ones. The college theology professor/married pastor who spent my junior year sexually abusing me spent that year going to church, mouthing the words, and hearing the purported the declaration of forgiveness that sure as hell wasn't from God in his case since he may have felt momentary remorse but he kept right on doing his behavior, telling me not to tell, and when I did lied and evaded the consequences (while continuing to verbally profess repentance when strategic). He was quite a Calvinist and I remember him waxing eloquent about what an important part of the service that was. Gag. One of the best things about private confession in the Catholic/Episcopal/Lutheran context is that the priest/pastor can evaluate real repentance by the willingness to stop and make amends to the victim and *refuse absolution*--retaining sins, as Jesus commissioned on Easter night--if this doesn't happen. This is good for both the victim and the perpetrator as it calls to real change of life and doesn't endorse and support evil, even unintentionally.

    I have posted on this before but may again--I'll let you know if I do. Thanks again for raising a very important issue and for letting me sound off here on something I have a lot of passion about.

  8. PS: Our local Dominick's has Good Earth teas.....

  9. I'm glad I found your post and this discussion. I'm thinking along the same paths.

    Wasn't John Bell great? I heard him last year at the College of Preachers. Great teaching, singing and music.