Recently I had a conversation with a psychiatrist - it was a purely social occasion - and we fell to talking about the human phenomenon of confession and the powerful forces at play in what my psychiatrist friend characterizes as a 'psychodrama'. As we heard last week, the urge to hide our shame is very strong in us. We have psychological mechanisms of defence which make it very difficult to overcome the repression of thoughts and feelings which, if expressed, make us appear weak and small and unlikeable.
The Prayer of Confession, therefore, plays a very important role in the Eucharist. It represents the lowest and darkest point in the landscape through which we are travelling.
For some people perhaps, the prayer is simply a ritual recital of a generalized sense of 'sinfulness' which afflicts us all. I remember conversations with several Christians in which they said, in lowered voices, that they did not really feel themselves to be sinners and that they never had much they needed to confess. Lucky them. "For if we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us," as John's first letter reminds us. And yet I have some sympathy with such people for there is a theological paradox, noted first by the apostle Paul, and especially by Martin Luther who expressed it with the formula "Simul justus et peccator" - we are at the same time both justified and a sinner. For we are indeed justified or 'made right' with God through the death of Christ on the cross. Jesus died "once for all" as the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews puts it. And yet we continue to sin, whether in large ways or small. Romans 7.19: "For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do."
Part of the job of the prayer of Confession is to hold this paradox on our behalf. In preparing our hearts for worship we are standing in the ancient biblical tradition that asserts that in order to approach God in worship we need to be 'purified' or else the fierceness of God's holiness will overwhelm us. Yet as we heard last week, we cannot produce our own purity. Only God can make us pure.
The word 'confession' comes from the Latin confiteor meaning 'to acknowledge publicly'. In saying the Prayer of Confession we are acknowledging publicly that we lack purity and that we have no right to stand before God except through His grace. We are therefore making a decision, in public, to try not to keep the secrets of our hearts hidden, to hide our shame, and this public decision is what makes it dramatic - makes it powerful and difficult - because it involves giving up something. It involves giving up the power to manipulate a situation to our own apparent advantage.
Confession then is not a formulaic recitation: it is the opportunity to bring into the light and make known, or acknowledge, specific things which, once named, have no further power to manipulate others. If I lie to you, I am in effect trying to control you, to have power over you. We are not thereby able to relate equally, although, since I am a very convincing liar, you may not know that you are being manipulated, and this makes me doubly powerful, and dangerous!
If on the other hand I am prepared to name my fault, then I am showing a commitment to humility - I am prepared to accept that my reality may be less than the 'greatness' I would like to have for myself. Yet in this very humiliation lies the path to real growth. The Christian practice of confession is not a show trial, like the public 'confessions' in Stalin's Russia. It is not necessary to rehearse all our sins in public but I do recommend that you adopt the practice of naming, to yourself and before God, the things you know that you have done wrong. Sometimes it is helpful to do this with another person, someone with wisdom, experience and humility of their own. This is part of making ourselves deliberately accountable to God and to our fellow humans for our actions.
Accountability is not confined to ourselves as individuals. Just as we have considered collective purity, so we must consider collective accountability. What might our collective sins be? Perhaps it is a little easier to name sins when we all share responsibility for them equally. I must acknowledge however that it is still fraught with difficulty, for one person's sin is another person's theology.
The environment is an issue over which we might agree that there has been a collective failure to fulfil God's call to the stewardship of His creation. Carbon emissions and their effect on global warming; the colossal swirl of plastic that circulates the Pacific Ocean; just two examples of the damage humans have caused and for which we as the people of God are as responsible as the rest of the world.
What about colonialism and its legacy? The plundering of other countries' resources to feed the economies of the so-called 'great powers' - the original sin may have taken place in the distant past, but for many in third world countries the legacy remains. There was a debate recently at the Oxford Union in which it was successfully argued that Britain should pay reparations to India for the plunder of its natural resources to sustain the British textile industry. Should we as a church be supporting this call?
Our list of collective sins might include the suppression of minority rights; the oppression of women, an issue with which the church continues to wrestle; and, controversially, the oppression of gay and transgendered people. Of course I do not have the right to name these as 'sins' on my own authority. Nevertheless I do believe that as the Church we need to examine our collective behaviour and be prepared to acknowledge that our actions have sometimes brought harm to others.
You can see that these collective sins (if that is what they are) also relate to issues of power - making ourselves 'greater' at the expense of another - just as we found was the case at the individual level. The Christian way, the way of the cross, invites us precisely to give up our claim to greatness, to identify with 'the least'. The practice of confession, then, is part of the way in which we discipline ourselves to follow Jesus on his road to the cross.
Of course, acknowledgement, naming, confessing our sins is one thing - being prepared to change our behaviour, the true sign of contrition, is quite another. The word 'contrition' comes from a latin word meaning 'ground to pieces'. That is quite a good description of what it is like to feel guilty. It is a crushing feeling, and to feel it is also to long for release from it.
That is precisely what is promised by God - mercy, forgiveness, the taking away of guilt, individual and collective, in response to our true contrition, evidence for which comes in the form of a commitment to amending our lives with the help of God.
With confession, as I have said, we have touched on the low point of the heart's journey - its necessary humiliation. Yet with the certainty of forgiveness, from now on the journey is upwards all the way!