Remarks on general confession
March 29, 2010
Is “general confession” a sacrament? If so, when did it become one?
For those who may have no notion of what I am talking about, I refer to the practice wherein a congregation approaches a priest for absolution after the priest has read aloud a general statement of sins and the parishioners have replied with a general acknowledgment of their repentance, couched in the first-person singular. I have never encountered this practice in the Greek Church proper, but it is fairly common in parishes of the OCA, that is, the Orthodox Church in America, the former Russian Metropolia, including the parish which I attend in New Jersey.
This past Sunday, knowing that there would be a large crowd of people, I arrived at church about a half hour before liturgy. At a quarter to the hour, the priest came out from behind the altar and began to read the “Examination of Conscience”: Have I stolen anything, have I lied, have I cheated anyone, have I been negligent in my work, etc. Somewhat half-heartedly, I went downstairs from the choir loft and stood amongst the congregation, hearing the litany of sins and thinking to myself which of them did or did not apply in my own case. I read the prayer of repentance along with everyone else, and got into the line for absolution, although feeling a little uneasy about the whole process, partly because the question with which I began this essay was present in the back of my mind. As usually occurs when there is a general confession, many people simply get into the line when they stroll into the church; on this occasion, a woman I know, a Russian woman who I guess is in her late 50’s, came into the church and, seeing the line, asked if it was a line for communion or for confession; she clearly found the whole thing a bit odd, although, like me, she also got onto the line. The feeling persisted that perhaps I should not be standing in this line, since “whatsoever is not of faith is sin”; but I also felt that to step out of the line would be interpreted as insulting to the priest, and perhaps as meaning that I felt I needed no repentance; so I went through the procedure. I later received communion, did not feel particularly joyous, and, by the end of the liturgy, had fallen into a minor altercation with another member of the choir over some completely trivial matter, which left me feeling depressed and which I shall probably bring up at an actual, auricular confession sometime later this week.
I have to say that I have never felt entirely happy about this practice of general confession. I have never found it to deliver much in the way of a healing of the conscience, if there is something particular weighing upon it; and if there is no particular sin that weighs upon the conscience, what is the point of going through this receiving line? If the point of it is a general acknowledgment of our sinfulness, there is certainly enough of that in the liturgy itself. Although all of us in general are sinners, sin is always a particular phenomenon, and its healing depends upon an acknowledgment of what we have done in our particularity. We sin as persons, not as an anonymous crowd; the practice of general confession, as I have mostly experienced it, far from encouraging genuine repentance, seems rather to encourage a kind of herd mentality: we’ll get into this line because a line is forming, and because not to get onto this line would be to go against what everyone else is doing.
Apparently, the practice of general confession originated in the late nineteenth century, in the ministry of St. John of Kronstadt. The introduction to The Spiritual Counsels of Father John of Kronstadt, edited by W. Jardine Grisbrooke (Cambridge, England and Crestwood, NY, 1967), pp. xxiii f., relates the following:
“This insistence on giving the sacraments their proper place was Father John’s greatest legacy to the Orthodox Church, and to the Russian Church in particular, and it was manifest not only in his teaching, but also in his pastoral practice. I have already remarked upon his daily celebration of the liturgy; he himself said that not to celebrate the liturgy was to him as death. Moreover, in sharp contrast with the prevailing custom of very infrequent communion, he insisted that all who worshipped with him should communicate with him also, and since he could not possibly hear the confessions of the thousands who flocked to his church, he substituted for auricular confession a form of public confession, his congregation confessing their sins one to another—a daring innovation which, however, received divine sanction in a vision granted to a layman present one day in the church, of our Lord stretching his hands out over all the people as Father John gave the general absolution.”
Now, I would point out that, however legitimate the practice of a public confession of sins may have been in the pastoral work of St. John of Kronstadt, “general confession,” as commonly practiced in the OCA, bears little resemblance with this picture: the members of the congregation, present at most general confessions, do not confess their sins to one another; they confess their sins silently to God, and go to receive absolution from the priest individually. Moreover, in most cases the practice is not necessitated by “thousands” flocking to the church (although it may indeed be that considerations of practical expediency have weighed heavily in favor of the adoption of the practice). What the above-cited passage does make clear is that, if a mass form of absolution was deemed necessary in the Russian Church and has not been deemed necessary elsewhere, it is because, in the Russian Church, the common assumption was that a Christian layman was required to go to confession before every reception of holy communion. Such an assumption made frequent reception of holy communion by the whole congregation a practical impossibility, unless some such a mode of “mass confession” were adopted. It seems to me self-evident that that is the original premise for this peculiar custom.
I looked on the Orthodox Wiki this morning to see if I could find an article devoted to the subject of general confession. There isn’t one, but there are links to two very interesting papers by the late Archpriest Alexander Schmemann. One of them is a paper titled “Some reflections on Confession” that was published in the St. Vladimir’s Seminary Quarterly in 1961 (vol. 5, no. 3, pp. 38-44); the other is a report by Fr. Schmemann to the Holy Synod of the Orthodox Church in America, titled “Confession and Communion,” which was accepted and approved by the Holy Synod of the Orthodox Church in America on February 17, 1972. The Holy Synod’s formal statement of approval of Fr. Schmemann’s recommendations is worth citing here:
The Dean of St. Vladimir’s Theological Seminary and professor of liturgical theology, Protopresbyter Alexander Schmemann presented a report on Confession and Communion. The report is attached.
Resolved: 1) That the report of Protopresbyter Alexander Schmemann is received with gratitude and approbation. 2) That the idea of a renewal in the Eucharistic life in the Church is not only desirable but indispensable. Therefore, practice of more frequent Communion is encouraged in all parishes of our Church. In this connection, and for the purpose of deepening the spirit of repentance among the laity, in addition to individual Confession, practice of General Confessions is also blessed based on the following principles:
- As a rule, General Confession takes place in the evening following the evening service. The person wishing to receive Holy Communion must be in Church at least on the eve of Communion. The common practice of Confession just prior to Liturgy is harmful and should be permitted only in very special cases.
- General Confession begins with the reading of the “Prayers Before Confession” which in current practice are generally omitted but which, nevertheless, form an organic part of the Sacrament of Confession.
- Following the prayers, the priest invites the penitents to pray for a spirit of repentance in order that they might see their own sins without which the formal Confession cannot produce spiritual benefit.
- Then follows Confession proper in which the priest enumerates those sins by which in thought and desire we offend God, our neighbor, and ourselves. Since the priest, as all men standing before God, knows sin, and sees his own sinfulness, his enumeration of sins, therefore, is not formal but sincere coming from a humble and contrite spirit. Rather than being a confession of “you” his enumeration of sins comes from “us,” everyone realizing the sin as his own and all are able to repent. The more the priest is able to examine his own conscience the more full will be the confession and the spirit of repentance for all participants.
- The priest invites the penitents to direct their spiritual gaze toward the Lord’s banquet which awaits us and which is given to us in spite of our unworthiness.
- The priest then invites those who find need for further expression of their sins to stand aside while the remainder approach for the Prayer of Absolution and adoration of the Crucifix.
- Finally, after the Prayer of Absolution has been read over each penitent, the prayers in preparation for Holy Communion are read while those wishing to add to their confession approach the Confessional.
Practice reveals that those who participate in this type of General Confession learn to make better private confession. The General Confession is not a replacement of private confession, but is rather for those who commune frequently and who regularly make their private confessions, who realize the need in our times for a regular examination and cleansing of conscience and repentance. This decision of the Holy Synod is intended as a norm and regulation for the performance of General Confession and not simply as a suggestion, recommendation, or advice. Those clergy who ignore this norm and regulation are subject to Canonical Sanctions.
Resolved: To remind the clergy of the instructions previously prepared by the Liturgical Commission and confirmed by the Holy Synod that serving the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom during Great Lent with the exception of Saturdays and Palm Sunday and the serving of Requiem Liturgies on Holy Thursday and Saturday are forbidden.
Resolved: That the report prepared by Fr. Schmemann be reproduced in both Russian and English and be distributed.
Without wanting to be contentious, I would note that what the Synod describes here as “harmful” and as permissible “only in very special cases” is the standard, routine practice at my own parish, that is to say, the practice of holding a general confession just prior to Sunday liturgy. I would also note that the bishops’ injunction, that, if you want to receive communion in the morning, you must attend the service of preparation on the evening before, is not generally observed or even mentioned, either at my own parish or most other places.
I would also note that Fr. Schmemann rejects the premise on which general confession was based in the first place, the premise, namely, that says that confession and absolution is obligatory before every reception of holy communion. In his 1972 essay “Confession and Communion,” approved by the Holy Synod of the Orthodox Church in America, he wrote the following:
“This practice, and I repeat once more, a natural and self-evident one in the case of infrequent, once-a-year, communion, led to the appearance in the Church of a theory according to which the communion of laity, different in this from the communion of clergy, is impossible without the sacrament of penance, so that confession is an obligatory condition — always and in all cases — for communion. I dare to affirm that this theory (which spread mainly in the Russian Church) not only has no foundation in Tradition, but openly contradicts the Orthodox doctrine of the Church, of the Sacrament of Communion and of that of Penance.”
So, although the view of confession as an obligatory condition for communion is rejected, the practice of general confession, which originally arose in order to allow that obligation to be fulfilled by vast crowds of people, is retained, but with a new justification: the point of general confession is now seen to consist in its serving as a kind of school for the examination of conscience for secularized American Christians who are unaccustomed to thinking of themselves as sinners. Its aim is to improve examination of conscience in the private confession itself. As the memo of the Synod of Bishops of the Orthodox Church in America states:
“Practice reveals that those who participate in this type of General Confession learn to make better private confession. The General Confession is not a replacement of private confession, but is rather for those who commune frequently and who regularly make their private confessions, who realize the need in our times for a regular examination and cleansing of conscience and repentance.”
But this leaves me still with my original question. If general confession is conceived of as a kind of teaching tool, aimed at educating Christian consciences concerning the reality of sin, and if there is a kind of tacit acknowledgment that, if there are any serious moral and spiritual issues burdening a Christian’s conscience, such issues need to be brought up in a private, auricular confession and not be covered over with this general, all-purpose blanket, can the general, all-purpose blanket really be said to be the same sacrament as the sacrament of confession? Is it, indeed, a sacrament at all? I am not questioning the usefulness and value of getting people to examine their consciences—although I am convinced that, in most cases, the ritual of general confession fails miserably at doing that. I am questioning whether such self-examination, lacking an explicit acknowledgment of particular sins, is a sacrament. If it is, what makes it to be such?