"The reality of the gift": renewing the gift of absolution in the Old High Church tradition

In 1874, the Bishop of Lincoln - Christopher Wordsworth - issued a pastoral letter 'On Confession and Absolution'.  He did so amidst the storm of ecclesiastical and secular debate on the Puseyite attempt to introduce "the regular and systematic use of auricular confession".  As Nockles notes:

Forgiveness was effectively made conditional upon the sacramental absolution administered by a priest in private confession in a way which the old High Churchmen deplored.

Wordsworth's pastoral was a superb restatement of the High Church teaching on absolution and - crucially - provides a spiritually satisfying account of this teaching and practice. 

In classic High Church fashion, Wordsworth insists that absolution can be "done either publicly or privately":

It is done publicly by them in our daily office of Morning and Evening Prayer, and in the celebration of the Holy Communion.

It is clear that the Church regards the words then uttered as having power to convey an assurance of remission of sins to every one there present who is qualified by faith and repentance to receive it ...

[I]it is evident that the Church of England intends that the words publicly pronounced by the Priest in Absolution should be regarded as having power to convey a comfortable assurance to those who are conscious to themselves of sin and also of sincere faith and repentance. She expressly calls each of these forms an Absolutlon ; and her intention is to certify every penitent and faithful person there present, and confessing his sins to God, Who searcheth the heart, that God, Who alone can forgive sins, uses and blesses the ministry of His chosen and appointed servant the Priest, and gives remission of sins by means of the ministry which Christ has instituted.

Significantly, he accuses those urging a Roman discipline and understanding of private confession and absolution of undermining the gift of absolution ordinarily bestowed in the Offices and Holy Communion:

It is much to be deplored that these two forms of Absolution viz., in the daily office of our Church, and in the Holy Communion, are now disparaged and despised by some among us, as if these forms were almost powerless and valueless, and had little relevance to the question of Confession and Absolution.

As to such form of absolution, he emphasises that is was normative in the first millennium of the Church's life:

No one, who is acquainted with the practice of the Catholic Church of God for a thousand years, would venture to censure or disparage the forms of Absolution contained in our daily office, and at the Holy Communion, because they are declaratory and precatory. In doing so he would be setting himself against the Church universal, which used no other forms before the eleventh century. 

Regarding private confession and absolution, Wordsworth notes of the Prayer Book provision for those "troubled in mind" and those seriously ill: 

But surely, to infer from these two exceptional cases, that the Church of England authorises her Ministers to recommend private Confession as a regular practice is strangely to pervert her words, and to affirm that she intends her Clergy to feed her children with medicines which she has provided for the sick ...

But some among us would invert this order; they would constrain the people of a parish to come habitually and confess to their minister, who may be some youthful priest, perhaps neither learned nor discreet, and who may be more able to create scruples and doubtfulness in the minds of others, than to quiet them by the ministry of God's Holy Word.

Such an understanding of absolution Wordsworth rightly describes as the view of "our wise and pious forefathers" (he quotes Hooker and Cosin, amongst others).  This rich heritage, the classical Anglican doctrine which the High Church tradition received and passed on, was being undermined through "the controversies on this subject, which now agitate the minds of many among us", as Tractarians and Ritualists sought to imitate Roman Catholic teaching and practice on the Sacrament of Penance. A result of this "dangerous delusion" was a reaction which led "scorning those spiritual comforts which [Christ] offers by the ministry of the Christian Priesthood".

Against this, Wordsworth urges gratitude for "the wisdom [God] has given to the Church of England to pursue a middle course between two opposite extremes", and concludes with a moving description of the efficacy of the Absolution at Mattins and Evensong:

The gift of pardon for sin is from God alone. But the assurance of the bestowal of the gift is conveyed to us by the ministry of the Priesthood; the act of which, in pronouncing Absolution, is a proof to us of the reality of the gift, because the ministry of the Priesthood was instituted and appointed by Christ, and is commissioned by him to certify us of the fact of the gift. The act of the Priest or Bishop, standing up in the congregation, while we are kneeling on our knees, and in that attitude of authority pronouncing Absolution and invoking God's pardon upon us, in the name of God "Who hath given power and commandment to his Ministers to declare and pronounce to his people being penitent, the Absolution and remission of their sins," is like a royal seal and authentic sign-manual attached to a reprieve, brought by a royal officer and delegate to a penitent criminal, and assuring him of pardon from his Sovereign.

The Pastoral Letter remains a wonderful expression of the classic High Church teaching.  At a time when, as Nockles notes, the "older teaching was no longer deemed spiritually satisfying" in the face of both evangelical enthusiasm and Puseyite asceticism, Wordsworth provided a warm, vibrant account of Prayer Book practice, refreshing the "spiritual roots of the older High Churchmanship" (more of which tomorrow). 

(My thanks to @ericmparker for drawing my attention to Wordsworth's Pastoral Letter.)


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