Low Sunday 2016 (3 April)
On St. Matthew’s day in 1958 I knelt in front of the Bishop of Lichfield who, with hands pressed very firmly upon my head, proclaimed “Receive the Holy Ghost for the office and work of a Priest in the Church of God, now committed unto thee by the imposition of our hands. Whose sins thou dost forgive, they are forgiven and whose sins thou dost retain they are retained. Be though a faithful dispenser of the Word of God and of his Holy Sacraments; In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.”
These words are those of the Book of Common Prayer of 1549 and remained unchanged until the Alternative Service Book of 1980! They were taken by Cranmer from the ordinal of the Western Church and, both heeded and practised, the real opposition was to come from Calvin, who raised his head mightily in the time of Cromwell. With the restoration the sacramental life of the church was resumed, sermons and poems proclaimed the need of sinners for forgiveness and there is good evidence of Dr.Johnson’s agitation when the time for his annual confession was upon him and Queen Anne is on record as a penitent. After 1833 the voice of traditional practice of confession and absolution were both proclaimed and practised much to the chagrin of Queen Victoria who abominated the practice. Whether or not Mr Gladstone was a penitent we shall never know but he might well have been and by the end of the century some churches even possessed confessionals!!!!
In the life of Edward Talbot, first Warden of Keble College and then Bishop of Rochester, then Southwark and finally Winchester and father of our brother Keble, there is a portrait of him in his episcopal gaiters, kneeling alongside the postmen in St. Alban’s Holborn awaiting his turn at Father Stanton’s confessional.
In the revisions of the Ordinal in 1980 and then in 2005, the responsibility for forgiving the penitent are made clear in the prayer - perhaps not with the great authority of 1662 but clearly stated. So what has gone wrong?
There has been abuse of the sacrament, especially in the introduction of confirmation candidates into a rather mechanical procedure of dishing out sin lists and then lining up the children. This leads to a much reduced understanding of what is going on and it is said that one small girl admitted to the list having been compiled by a Priest and published by Mowbray’s! I dread to think what the safeguarding authorities might make of that! If that is a child’s introduction to the sacrament it is unlikely that he or she will avail themselves of the sacrament ever again.
The twin themes of the Gospel are of forgiveness and peace and there is an inseparability here that is often, if not usually, ignored. It is forgiveness which brings genuine peace, not success in battle, or possessing more nuclear warheads. So Pope Francis proclaims that God is a God of forgiveness and the church a vehicle for revealing this but, among all the other things sadly imagined to be of greater pith and moment, this task is sometimes neglected. I wonder if it ever comes up in the review that all clergy are expected to receive from time to time? Just asking what do you, as a Priest commissioned to act in the name of the Lord, to exercise this responsibility? It demands time and availability but where can it come from in our responsibilities what with the parish share, the leaking roof etc. etc.…? Availability, even here when the doorbell rings and all put on their invisibility rings!
As Religious we come to this from a different angle. It is demanded of us that we take sin seriously, that we have somebody to talk with about this and so seek forgiveness. Much of our time is spent listening to people and rejoicing with them in their new found freedom and so we need to pray, first for thanks for our own self-knowledge, then for the forgiveness we have enjoyed and then that by our example others might be drawn onwards into doing something about it. Not, I am sure, by giving people a bad conscience. Few, I guess, are unaware of their sins. All, without exception, are in need of forgiveness.
In the sixteenth century people who did wrong, or were considered to hold wrong beliefs according to whoever had the power, were cruelly killed as if that would remove the sin or the wrong belief. The old adage that we must “hate the sin and love the sinner” still holds good. Dropping bombs on Aleppo won’t convert Isis to Christianity and I find it hard to commend a brand of Christianity that owes more to the crusades and to the English civil war. Was it the rifle rather than the Book of Common Prayer that caused most of Africa to be pink on the map?
The risen Lord proclaims forgiveness and then peace. May we, called to a special witness to his Resurrection, be messengers of this particular Gospel of forgiveness and peace brought about by the rising from suffering and death of Our Lord Jesus Christ to whom be all glory now and for ever. Amen.