The Special Absolution in the Visitation of the Sick: Thoughts on the 1689 Proposed BCP

They know of no Power in a Priest to pardon Sin, other than the Declaring the Gospel Pardon, upon the Conditions on which it is offered.

Burnet, in the famous 1712 Preface to the Third Edition of his Pastoral Care, declared this to be one of the principles of "the Low Church-men" (noting 'I myself am ranked among them').  This conviction was reflected in the Proposed 1689 BCP's revision of the Special Absolution in the Office for the Visitation of the Sick:

Our Lord Jesus Christ, who hath left power to his Church to absolve all sinners who truly repent, and believe in him, of his great mercy forgive thee thine offences; and upon thy true faith and repentance, by his authority committed to me, I pronounce thee absolved from all thy sins, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

Should this proposed revision be dismissed as a 'Low Church' rejection of priestly absolution, retained at the Reformation in order that - in Laud's words - penitents so desiring may in 'Christian Care ... ease their own Conscience'?

We might first note that this proposed revision retained a Special Absolution in the Visitation of the Sick.  This can be contrasted with, for example, the Church of Ireland revision of 1878 replacing the Special Absolution with the absolution from the Communion Office.  While, as Hooker had said, the difference between the general and special forms of absolution 'is not so material, that any man's safety or ghostly good should depend upon it' (LEP VI.4.15), there was, perhaps, some pastoral wisdom in providing a special form to address those 'ready to depart this world'.

Aside from this, however, the nature of the proposed revision reflected High Church teaching on the nature of the Special Absolution.  Burnet's description of what he regarded as a Low Church principle was, actually, fully shared by High Churchmen during the 'long 18th century'.  When Richard Mant collected the views of High Church writers for his Notes on the Book of Common Prayer (1822), what is striking in the various commentators quoted on the Special Absolution is their deep caution regarding this form and how it is to be understood as entirely different to Roman teaching and practice.  Thomas Comber (d.1699) is quoted as carefully emphasising that 'The absolution is only ministerially conveyed by the priest': that is, it is declarative of what God does, not a 'power' the priest possesses.  William Nicholls (d.1712) declared:

Our Church ... by addressing Almighty God for pardon, declares that the priest does not act judicially and authoritatively ... the constitution of the Church of England, in ordering the priest to pronounce the absolution ministerially.

Secker (Archbishop of Canterbury 1758-68) is noted expressing concern at the possibility of misinterpretation of the Special Absolution:

Possibly this part of the office may seem to have ascribed so high a power to the minister, of absolving the sick from their sins, as may lead them into great mistakes. And it is indeed more liable to be so misunderstood, than the earlier forms, which were expressed in the manner of a prayer.

Mant goes on to quote Secker's explanation that this absolution, no less than that in the daily office, applies only to those 'being penitent':

if it means also to declare them restored to the favour of God, means it only on supposition of a sincere and thorough repentance ... and without which all persons are entreated to observe, no absolution here, granted by whomsoever or in what words soever, will do them the least good hereafter.

It is also worth recalling Secker's observation that regarding the special form in the Visitation of the Sick, "but seldom requested, and consequently the absolution seldom pronounced over any one".

Charles Wheatly's commentary on the BCP (first published in 1710), while defending the 1662 Special Absolution, nevertheless accepted that it was a very late development in the Church's ministry and, furthermore, repeated the insistence that the priest's ministry in absolving sins 'is only ministerial':

In some time after the optative form was gradually introduced, and mixed with the precatory, much as it is in the form of Absolution used by our own church in the office of Communions. But as to the indicative form , it does not appear to have been generally introduced till about the middle of the twelfth century; and then it was made use of only to reconcile the penitent to the church, whilst the deprecatory was what was supposed to procure his pardon from God ... But I have already observed, that as to the pardon of God, and applying it directly to the sinner's conscience, the power of the Priest is only ministerial.

Jeremy Taylor had earlier pointed to this same historical fact, that the formula 'I absolve you' did not conform to the practice of the Primitive Church:

we find in the old penitentials and usages of the church, that the priest did not absolve the penitent in the indicative or judicial form ... the solemn form of reconciling, Absolvo te a peccais uis, is not perhaps above the age of four hundred years; and that the old form of absolution in the Latin church was composed in words of deprecation, so far forth as we may conjecture out of the ecclesiastical history, ancient rituals, tradition, and other testimonies without exception. And in the Opuscula of Thomas Aquinas, he tells that a doctor said to him that the Optative form, or deprecatory, was the usual; and that then it was not thirty years since the indicative form of Ego te absolvo was used.

There were, then, very good High Church grounds indeed for accepting the proposed 1689 revision of the Special Absolution.  Burnet's description of this principle of 'the Low Church-men' was actually commonly received and upheld without controversy across the theological spectrum in Anglicanism during the 'long 18th century'. 

What is more, if the 1689 revision had been accepted, it would, perhaps, have been possible to avoid some of the confusion and controversies which afflicted Anglicanism during the mid-19th century, when Tractarianism (mis)used the Special Absolution to defend the practice of routine auricular confession.  The 1689 revision of this absolution would have been more likely to ensure an understanding of the Hookerian principle that there was no difference in the efficacy or grounds of the general and special forms, and thus could have secured the Old High Church understanding of the normative and effective nature of the absolution given in the daily office and at the Holy Communion.  This would have had enduring significance for Anglicanism, as it remains the case that for the overwhelming majority of Anglicans auricular confession remains a foreign practice and that it is through general absolution that we receive the assurance of pardon for our sins.


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