Go in Peace: The Art of Hearing Confessions


Although the sacramental Rite of Reconciliation is included in many Anglican prayer books, nothing has been written expressly Anglicans since the 1980s that focuses on the pastoral skills required for this ministry. This book combines and passes on the teaching, coaching, skill development, and accumulated pastoral wisdom that has not been widely accessible or well integrated into clergy training.

Realistic transcripts and "verbatims" of sample confessions and counseling ...

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Go in Peace: The Art of Hearing Confessions

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Although the sacramental Rite of Reconciliation is included in many Anglican prayer books, nothing has been written expressly Anglicans since the 1980s that focuses on the pastoral skills required for this ministry. This book combines and passes on the teaching, coaching, skill development, and accumulated pastoral wisdom that has not been widely accessible or well integrated into clergy training.

Realistic transcripts and "verbatims" of sample confessions and counseling sessions involving a wide range of people makes this a unique ministry resource for most seminaries and theological colleges, plus clergy in general-including Lutheran pastors who use the rite of "Individual Confession and Absolution" in the Lutheran Book of Worship.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780819220882
  • Publisher: Church Publishing, Incorporated
  • Publication date: 10/1/2012
  • Pages: 144
  • Sales rank: 1,465,656
  • Product dimensions: 5.40 (w) x 8.40 (h) x 1.40 (d)

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go in PEACE

The Art Of Hearing Confessions

By Julia Gatta, MARTIN L. SMITH

Church Publishing

Copyright © 2012 Julia Gatta and Martin L. Smith
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8192-2088-2


Why Confession?

It is strange that sacramental confession to a priest is considered, even by clergy, to be something of a specialized or marginal ministry. The opening message of the gospels, announced by John the Baptist, reiterated by Jesus, and finally proclaimed by the apostles, is "Repent, and believe in the good news" (Mark 1:15). The grace to change one's mind and heart and then accept God's forgiveness lies at the very core of salvation. It represents the renewal of creation that is inaugurated by the resurrection of Jesus. Thus for those who have been baptized and who sin, as all adult Christians do, the practice of confession and absolution can be a significant sacramental encounter with the Christ who pardons, heals, and embraces us in love. It can signal a dramatic turning point or serve as one of many small conversions along the Christian journey.

Curiously, those outside the church or who work alongside it sometimes appreciate the role of confession more than those within it. So, for example, participants in Twelve Step programs know how crucial steps four through ten are to recovery: making a "searching and fearless moral inventory," confessing one's wrongs to God and another person, and seeking restitution and forgiveness whenever possible. Similarly, therapists know that a breakthrough to healing will only take place once sufficient trust has been established for clients to face the painful facts of the past, often hidden for years even from themselves, and finally disclose them.

Literature abounds with examples of confession. Consider Arthur Dimmesdale, perhaps the most self-tortured pastor in fiction. When Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter begins, his adultery with Hester Prynne has already been committed, but Dimmesdale's anguish steadily grows with the silence of his unconfessed sin. Only at the very end, on the scaffold, does he make a clean breast of it and is set free. Even the children in C. S. Lewis' Narnia books have confidential interviews with Aslan after they have gone astray. At Peter's very first meeting with Aslan in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, when Mr. Beaver has revealed Edmond's betrayal to the great lion, something prompts Peter to confess:

"That was partly my fault, Aslan. I was angry with him and I think that helped him to go wrong."

And Aslan said nothing either to excuse Peter or to blame him but merely stood looking at him with his great unchanging eyes.

Later, when Edmond comes to his senses, he does not simply slip back into the fellowship he had broken, no questions asked. First there must be a crucial meeting with Aslan, but not even the reader is privy to that confession: "There is no need to tell you (and no one ever heard) what Aslan was saying, but it was a conversation that Edmond never forgot."

Similarly, a recently composed play entitled Mercy Me dramatizes in its surprise ending how the exercise of confession engenders spiritual and psychic recovery. Here playwright David Roby portrays a rural North Carolina family riddled with illness and dark secrets. They live on the edge of what was once the ancestral tobacco plantation, in a renovated distillery where the filth and squalor of their living quarters is more than matched by the bleakness of each inhabitant's life. Towards the end of the play, a self-styled "death coach," using the techniques of a personal trainer, shows up to lead the family in a ritualized communal confession. Very slowly, each character addresses God or the others present. Around they go, round robin, each reluctantly giving voice to some deep sorrow or longing. A communal mantra takes shape as they drone out their confessions and prayers. The tempo quickens as they repeat the exercise, eventually reaching a feverish pitch, and then slows as the characters befriend their painful disclosures, listen to each other, and silently release one another. At last, a quiet peace settles on this volatile family group.

Recognizing Sin

"The pious fellowship permits no one to be a sinner," observes Dietrich Bonhoeffer with stinging sarcasm in Life Together. In his powerful chapter on confession, this theologian strips away the façade, cultivated in some congregations, of being somehow above sin. Denial of sin, however, is not unique to the church. Mercy Me portrays a household, not unlike the human family itself, that has strong taboos in place to keep up the appearance of blamelessness. The deceptions of pride can be entrenched even when every other prop of social standing has collapsed. Only when pressed to an arduous exercise in truth-telling—one that needed to be doggedly repeated—could members of this family begin to find their true selves, and then let themselves be changed. Reconciliation is both sheer gift and personally costly. Yet finally it is the only way out.

In Life Together Bonhoeffer charged that too many churches had become enclaves of respectability, a situation that has not improved and may have possibly worsened since he first wrote about the need to recover the practice of personal confession in the church. Life Together was itself the fruit of Bonhoeffer's reflections on the disciplines and graces of Christian life in community, forged during the two years he served as director of a small, clandestine Lutheran seminary at Finkenwalde in northern Germany. He had been called to that ministry in 1935 by the Confessing Church—so named because it "confessed the faith" in the face of the German Reich church controlled by Nazi ideology. While Bonhoeffer never alludes in this book to the threatening conditions under which the seminary struggled, which was eventually closed by the Nazis, this political backdrop lends power and poignancy to his plea to "confess your sins to one another" as the Apostle James directs (James 5:16). Even when surrounded by the horrifying crimes of the Nazi regime, Bonheoffer did not lose sight of the reality of personal sinfulness either in himself or in the most devout, courageous, and committed members of the church. To see sin in others, while glossing over sin in oneself, is to forfeit the grace of the gospel. All stand in need of a savior.

A culture of stalwart respectability builds an impenetrable wall against truth- telling. In most mainline churches people drop out, at least for a while, when life gets messy. An impending divorce, an adulterous affair, chronic depression, a job layoff, a child in trouble with the law: all these commonplace occurrences drive people from the church just when they most need the grace of the sacraments and the support of the community. Pastors find themselves tracking down the lost sheep. And why do they disappear? Because the missing members are ashamed or confused, fearful that their neighbors might " judge" them or think ill of their failures as spouses, parents, and solid citizens. Someone might even think them guilty of sin. When Bonhoeffer asserts, "The pious fellowship permits no one to be a sinner," he goes on to observe that as a consequence of this suffocating pretension "everybody must conceal his sin from himself and from the fellowship. We dare not be sinners. Many Christians are unthinkably horrified when a real sinner is suddenly discovered among the righteous. So we remain alone with our sin, living in lies and hypocrisy."

Today "the pious fellowship" is most plainly evident in those places where sin itself is never mentioned. There exist numerous communities, some of them nominally Christian, that are committed to being relentlessly upbeat and cheerful no matter what. Sin is never mentioned, unpleasant topics like death are avoided, and preaching on the cross is proscribed. Yet even in mainstream liberal and conservative congregations, more subtle forms of "the pious fellowship" are also at work.

At first this can seem surprising; we might expect evangelical Christians to be at home with the language of sin and grace. After all, evangelicals are predisposed to grant that since "grace saved a wretch like me," it might also save a wretch like you. Sin, then, does not shock such people, but their readiness to acknowledge sinfulness pertains, for the most part, to our condition before conversion to Christ. An unanticipated dilemma can arise as the continued strength of sin after conversion is, perhaps reluctantly, detected. In some quarters, true conversion is presumed to be completed in one stroke. Consequently, there is little, if any, guidance on hand for the daily struggle with ingrained patterns of sin because real Christians have been "saved" from it. When the prevailing religious culture does not recognize that conversion is actually a lifelong process with many failures and falls, then one might indeed resort to "living in lies and hypocrisy" when the facts tell another tale entirely. With no inherited wisdom for coming to grips with our deeply rooted habits of sin, therefore, either despair or self-righteousness is apt to set in—despair for the more self-aware and self-righteousness for those who cannot, or will not, face themselves. The undertow of "the pious fellowship" sets everyone up for a conspiracy of silence about the ongoing presence of sin in our personal and communal life.

Self-righteous smugness infects liberal churches by another route. Here the focus shifts to social sin as the real arena of wrongdoing. These progressive congregations rightly emphasize the ways in which injustice permeates the social fabric through such evils as economic inequities, racial prejudice, gender bias, excessive national pride, and the waste and misuse of the earth. Biblically grounded preachers in these churches are able, sometimes eloquently, to interpret these ills in the light of the Old Testament, especially the prophets, as well as the teachings of Jesus. But other liberal preachers rehearse a wholly predictable diatribe, week after week, which can fool the congregation into thinking too highly of its righteous politics. Conservative churches are also concerned about the sins that afflict and weaken society as a whole, but more frequently the offenses they address are personal sins writ large, such as the sexual scandals or financial dishonesty of public figures, infidelity, divorce, abortion, drug addiction, and teenage pregnancies. In fact so much attention is directed towards sexual lapses that one wonders whether anything else really counts as sin. This problem is compounded when such churches claim to occupy the higher moral ground on issues under serious and thoughtful debate elsewhere in the church.

In both liberal and conservative churches, therefore, the prevailing culture "permits no one to be a sinner" because the sin under discussion always seems to be the sort of infuriating fault of which other people are guilty. Sin is what those other people commit—the kind of people who probably vote differently from the way I do. Because the culture wars have polarized Christians along with everyone else, the valuable social critique offered by some more conservative churches often gets discounted by those outside their circle, while the social sins brought to light by liberal churches are dismissed by conservatives as evidence of their captivity to secular humanism. When churches are talking only to themselves, busily shoring up their own passionately held convictions, no fresh word of truth can penetrate the wall of self-righteous indignation. The truly prophetic utterance which, as in ancient Israel, addresses both personal and social sin cannot be heard. So the sins that are never named in one's particular religious enclave grow in power. Having been banned from discussion, they remain hidden, exercising covert force.

A serious naiveté about sin permeates all sectors of the church for many reasons, including the loss of a vocabulary to identify specific sins. The church used to be fluent in this language, but fluency has been replaced by the deadening moralism of both right and left or by pop psychology masquerading as spirituality. Yet an awareness of the ascetical tradition of the church is an essential foundation for "the defense against the dark arts," to borrow an apt phrase from J. K. Rowling. It gives us basic tools to discern what is going on within and around us. Learning this tradition begins with the regular, probing, and meditative study of Scripture. It also includes selective reading of the spiritual classics and some of their contemporary interpreters. For instance, in Acedia & Me, Kathleen Norris dramatizes for a general audience the value of comprehending the scope of this often misunderstood and overlooked deadly sin. By exploring the desert tradition and then combining it with personal narrative, Norris helps the reader move beyond the caricature of acedia (or sloth) as mere laziness to perceive its wide variations, including apathy, melancholy, and restlessness. And we, like Norris, can also learn something about the subtleties of temptation and the paradoxes of grace by reflecting on our own experience of them against the backdrop of ascetical theology. When we engage in this work with the help of a seasoned spiritual director, we usually glean the greatest wisdom from both our encounters with grace and our inevitable lapses.

The clergy play a key role in the appropriation and articulation of this tradition. After decades of vocational drift in which clergy saw themselves as amateur psychological counselors, small- or large-scale managers, community organizers, or charismatic leaders, the demanding yet grace-filled work of simply being a pastor—that is, a shepherd of souls—is again coming to the fore. It is not that parish priests can or should escape their involvement with a large number of institutional responsibilities, including some fairly humdrum chores. It is rather a question of what they consider the center of this ministry to be, and what the ministry is for. In this more authentically pastoral perspective, institutional oversight and administration serve the cure of souls by helping to shape an environment in which growth in Christ can take place. As Eugene Peterson observes,

Until about a century ago, what pastors did between Sundays was of a piece with what they did on Sundays. The context changed: instead of an assembled congregation, the pastor was with one other person or small gatherings of persons, or alone in study and prayer. The manner changed: instead of proclamation, there was conversation. But the work was the same: discovering the meaning of Scripture, developing a life of prayer, guiding growth into maturity. This is the pastoral work that is historically termed the cure of souls. The primary sense of cura in Latin is "care," with undertones of "cure." The soul is the essence of the human personality. The cure of souls, then, is the Scripture- directed, prayer-shaped care that is devoted to persons singly or in groups, in settings sacred or profane. It is the determination to work at the center, to concentrate on the essential ... I am not contemptuous of running a church, nor do I dismiss its importance.... It is reducing pastoral work to institutional duties that I object to, not the duties themselves.

As clergy recover their vocation as pastors charged with the cure of souls, they can begin to dispel the vacuous atmosphere of "the pious fellowship" as both sin and grace again become normal topics for pastoral conversation and preaching. Thundering against sin from the pulpit is not the point. On the contrary, Christian preaching entails proclamation of the good news of Christ as it is embedded in the scriptural text and in life. But bland generalized assurances of divine love are not good news, and the effect of this sort of preaching is numbing over time. The deliverance proclaimed in the gospel is deliverance from something—and that something is summarized, in Scripture and in our liturgical texts, as the twin evils of sin and death. The lectionary provides vibrant examples of how grace overturns these evils as they appear, in a wide variety of forms and disguises, in particular situations and narratives. And we, like the cast of characters we encounter in the Bible, typically experience both sin and grace in richly textured, highly specific circumstances.

Excerpted from go in PEACE by Julia Gatta, MARTIN L. SMITH. Copyright © 2012 Julia Gatta and Martin L. Smith. Excerpted by permission of Church Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Foreword Frank T. Griswold vii

Part One

Chapter 1 Why Confession? 3

Chapter 2 "A Wise and Discerning Priest" 35

Chapter 3 Preparing for Confession and Celebrating the Rite 65

Chapter 4 Giving Counsel, Comfort, and Direction 85

Part Two

A first confession by a middle-aged professional woman 105

A teenage girl on a youth retreat 108

A businessman in his forties who has made a lunchtime appointment to make his confession to a priest he does not know 110

A woman retreat leader and spiritual director 113

A gay man in his mid-thirties preparing for a commitment ceremony 114

A rector in his late thirties who comes regularly to his spiritual director for confession 116

A single woman in her fifties making her confession to her parish priest during Lent 119

A man in his early forties, the owner of a small local business, married with three young children 120

A mother in her late forties requesting a discussion with her parish priest before they begin the rite of reconciliation 123

A soldier who has recently left the army after three tours of active duty in Iraq and Afghanistan 125

A member of a young mother's group in a suburban parish, brought up a Roman Catholic, whose only previous experience of confession was in her teens 127

A confession made in his hospital room by a truck driver who is about to undergo open heart surgery 129

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