If I’m perfectly honest, the General Confession is possibly the single greatest reason that I prefer the 1928 Book to the 1979 Book. And I will get into why that is a little further on.
In his Rule, St. Benedict lists twelve steps on the topsy-turvy ladder of humility (chapter seven). The first of these is keeping the fear of God before our eyes (Psalm 36:1).((St. Benedict of Nursia, The Rule of Saint Benedict: A contemporary paraphrase—The Paraclete Essentials Deluxe Edition. Trnsl. Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove. (Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2015). 25.)) St. Benedict goes on to describe this as, essentially, remembering the goodness of God and the sinfulness of ourselves at all times, as well as denying our own wrong desires and confessing them to God (who already knew them, anyway).((Ibid, 25-6.)) One of the central points which follows from this beginning is to stop hiding our sinful thoughts and actions (rung 5), instead confessing them, both to God and to the community.((Ibid, 28.))
It is important to point out that, according to St. Benedict, confession proceeds from humility. Similarly in the Bible, both in Proverbs 28:13 and in I John 1:8-9, confession of sin is directly contrasted with concealment or denial of sin. We may reasonably understand these as a contrast between pride, which seeks to hide our flaws and pretend that we do not have them, and humility, which openly admits and mourns them. Humility and confession are essential, in fact inherent, to each other.
Psalm 51 has long been taken as the prototype of Christian confession, and here again the Psalmist emphasizes the humiliation of the act of confession. Sin is a stain which he must admit contaminates him (v. 2), a fault he must acknowledge (v. 3), a condition which he has lived in his entire life (v. 5), which requires divine intervention to be fixed (vv. 7, 10-11, 15). But in conclusion, perhaps most important of all, the only sacrifice which God accepts on account of this pervasive sin is a fundamental sadness and humiliation (vv. 16-17).
This is not an optional aspect of confession, and despite the fact that we might reasonably argue that it is implicit in all confession, the Psalmist is not satisfied to leave it implied. Neither does the publican in Christ’s parable about humility and confession (Luke 18:9-14). In fact, this explicit self-humiliation is at the heart of Christian spirituality, summed up in the words of John the Baptist, “He must increase, but I must decrease.”
All of this is just a prelude to why I prefer the General Confession in the 1928 Book of Common Prayer.
In a conversation a year or so ago, a friend of mine wondered aloud why some people object to the confessions in the 1979 Book. “It says ‘We have not loved you with our whole heart, we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.’ That’s at least as thorough as the older one.”
It wasn’t a good time to explain then, but the reason I dislike the newer confession is because it removes all reference to this essential attitude of humiliation. Where the ’28 says “Let us humbly confess our sins unto Almighty God,” the ’79 has merely, “Let us confess our sins against God and our neighbor.”
The new confession is not inaccurate, but it misses the essential attitude and aim of confession, and it misses the necessary sacrifice described by the Psalmist. St. Paul talks about an essential crucifixion of ourselves with Christ (Gal. 5:24, Rom. 6:6), the making of ourselves a living sacrifice (Rom. 12:1), which it is almost impossible to read without looking back to the Psalmist’s insistence that the sacrifice acceptable before God is our own heart, broken, and our own spirit, mortified. This is what the Confession has to capture, and what the Confession does capture:
“There is no health in us. But thou, O Lord, have mercy upon us, miserable offenders. Spare those, O God, who confess their faults. Restore those who are penitent; According to your promises declared unto mankind in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
This is clearly not the only element of confession. Or even the only essential one. But it is the one that I think we are most at risk of neglecting. And everyone has their favorite punching bag in this regard, but when it comes to the neglect of self-mortification in our culture, it has become so pervasive that we are helping no one by pointing fingers only at social or political rivals: the problem is ubiquitous, the problem is growing, and the problem is non-partisan.
I think there is an important corollary which we probably neglected first, which may have made room for the neglect of humility.
Any tradition which is going to emphasize sin has to have a rite or a process of relief. Without it, we are only going to spiral into despair. This is why the second half of St. John’s comment in I John 1 is that, though we cannot ignore the fact that we have all sinned, by confessing our sins, God is faithful to forgive them. The Psalmist asks God to “Purge me with hyssop,” so that he can be purified of his sin.
This is why the Book of Common Prayer offers the Declaration of Absolution following the General Confession, including these words, “He pardoneth and absolveth all those who truly repent, and unfeignedly believe his holy Gospel.” Relief is guaranteed, following humiliation and confession.
The Confession as a whole follows the pattern established by Psalm 51–mortification, admission of wrongdoing, request for forgiveness and absolution, request for aid in restoration to Godly life, and statement of intent to turn away from prior sin.
Something that it took me a long time to realize is that the Confession is then followed by a call-and-response which begins “O Lord, open thou our lips; And our mouth shall show forth thy praise,” which is from Psalm 51:15, near the conclusion of the psalm, as a part of the Psalmist’s request for divine intervention to restore his life to righteousness. The Psalmist’s mouth is spiritually shut, unable to proclaim the Praise of God, because of his sin. This motif carries over into Isaiah 6:1-8, wherein Isaiah can’t speak until an angel puts a coal from the altar to his lips, purifying him of his contamination.
In fact, this is an oft-repeated motif. Job refers to it in Job 27:8-9, and Elihu relates it specifically to pride in Job 35:12. The inverse is mentioned in Psalm 34:15 and Proverbs 15:29, whereas the same expression as in Job appears is also found in Psalm 66:18, and Proverbs 1:28-29.
Now, I want to carefully avoid a couple of problems: obviously God listens to sinners. What I think we are being told here is something along the lines of what Brennan Manning is saying when he writes in The Ragamuffin Gospel, “The ragamuffin gospel reveals that Jesus forgives sins, including the sins of the flesh; that He is comfortable with sinners who remember how to show compassion; but that He cannot and will not have a relationship with pretenders in the Spirit.”((Brennan Manning, The Ragamuffin Gospel: Good News for the Bedraggled, Beat-Up, and Burnt Out. (Colorado Springs, CO: Multnomah Books, 1990).))
These are the “pretenders,” The liars or deceitful, to whom St. John is referring, “if we say we have no sin, we are lying to ourselves, and there is no truth in us.” Christ hears the prayer of the tax man who abases himself, but not the prayer of the cleric who lies about himself.
This is why, in the West, it has long been the custom to begin prayer with confession, and the reason the General Confession is placed here, immediately after the Introductory Sentences. Because sin has shut our mouths and has kept us from being able to honestly praise God, our first order of business has to be humbling ourselves in repentance so that our mouths can be opened and sing God’s praise.