The Sacraments: Reconciliation

Praying Hands

People sometimes know the sacrament of reconciliation by another name – sometimes people call it Penance and sometimes people call it Confession which, strictly speaking is only a part of what is going on. In the sacrament of reconciliation, the idea is that people are brought back into a right relationship with God and get the chance to sort out whatever it is that they have done which seems to be separating them from God and to hear afresh the news that their sins are forgiven.

There are two formal ways in which people within an Anglican/Episcopal tradition get the chance to confess sins and hear of God’s forgiveness.

During many of the liturgies of the church the people confess their sins by reciting a simple prayer. This is followed by the assurance of God’s forgiveness which is pronounced by a priest, something which is called absolution. The idea is that this gives everyone present the opportunity to call to mind those times and places where they feel they have fallen short of being the person that God might want them to be and indeed fallen short of their own best expectations too. Simply reciting the prayer without taking the chance to think of the things in life that one regrets and desires forgiveness for does not constitute the sacrament of reconciliation. The sacrament depends completely on what is happening inside a person and is not simply about the form of words that they use. In this, reconciliation is like the other sacraments – outward symbols conveying deep spiritual realities.

The other way that someone might experience the sacrament of reconciliation is by meeting with a priest on a one-to-one basis to make a confession. A common way for this to happen is for the person to make an appointment with the priest. The priest and the penitent may meet for a discussion about what is on the person’s mind before completing the sacrament with a simple liturgical invitation to name before God those sins which the person wishes to confess. Once these have been outlined by the person, the priest may give some advice and then pronounce in God’s name that those sins have been forgiven. In participating in the sacrament in this way, the priest and the penitent enter into an agreement that what is discussed there is not discussed elsewhere. This “seal of the confessional” is binding on the person seeking forgiveness as well as upon the person pronouncing God’s forgiveness.

In our tradition we have a rule about confessing sins to a priest – “All may, none must, some should”. The sacrament is available to all members of the church and indeed is sometimes sought by those who don’t belong to the church in any other way. However, there is never any compulsion that anyone must go to confession. You don’t have to make a confession at any time for any reason other than that you feel the need to do so. It is our experience as a community though that some people do need to make this a part of their spiritual practise and for them, they should seek it regularly.

All priests in the Scottish Episcopal Church are required by Canon Law to hear a confession if someone asks them to hear one or to point them towards another priest who is able to hear it if they themselves are not able to do so for some reason.

The seal of the confession is regarded as absolute. What is discussed in the course of this ministry is never discussed elsewhere.

Some people have the tradition of asking for a penance when the priest has pronounced forgiveness. A penance is not a punishment for sin – sin has already been forgiven. A penance is the chance to take on a small spiritual discipline or an activity that will remind the person that they have been forgiven and help them to reorientate their life towards God. A penance is not supposed to be arduous but to be a joyful and life-affirming reminder of why forgiveness was sought and that forgiveness was given.

Confession is about turning our lives around. One of the technical words for this is metanoia a Greek word which refers to changing one’s mind in a way that analogous to turning and facing in a new direction. Repentance is at the heart of confession and is the consequence of wanting to put things right with the world and with God. God’s forgiving love is the inevitable consequence of someone’s sincere repentance.

Frequently Asked Questions

What if a priest heard someone confess to a murder or from someone who said they were going to harm someone – shouldn’t they report it to the police
People often ask this question about confession but it is a bit of a distraction from the simple and beautiful task of restoring someone’s relationship with God which is usually a good deal less dramatic than this. The sacrament of reconciliation for almost everyone, almost all the time, isn’t about the consequences of murders.

Yes but what if…?
A priest is free to respond to this situation in the way that they feel best. One thing that they might insist on would be to make an pronouncement of absolution conditional on an act such as reporting oneself to the authorities.

Won’t I feel funny seeing the priest and knowing that they know things about me that I would rather someone else didn’t know?
Most priests who hear confessions regularly will remark that God gives them the gift of forgetting what people say in confession. The priest isn’t a scapegoat and doesn’t absorb the sins that she or he hears someone confess. Most people engaged in this kind of ministry learn how to put things out of their minds very quickly for their own good and the good of those coming for confession.

Can any priest hear confessions?
Yes, but it is wise for someone to have had a few years of priestly ministry and be instructed by a more experienced priest in hearing confessions before they do so regularly.Does

a confession have to be heard in church?
No – a confession can be heard anywhere and sometimes take place in very public places such as train stations, airports or even on the battlefield before conflict. Sometimes they take place in places like hospitals or hospices where sometimes the sacrament may become important to someone if they know that they are likely to die soon. However in our tradition, it is most common for a confession to be heard in church by prior arrangement with a priest.

Is there a confessional box at St Mary’s?
No – confessions are usually heard in a quiet side chapel

The Sacraments: Baptism

I’m currently writing a series of articles on the sacraments for the cathedral website. They are being posted here in case anyone wants to comment or ask any further questions.

Around the font for a baptism

Several times a year there is the opportunity to receive baptism at St Mary’s. The primary time for baptisms to take place is at the Easter Vigil early on Easter Day. Other opportunities are available throughout the year though there is always a connection with the events of Easter. It is at the Easter Vigil that the font is filled with water and the Bishop breathes over the water praying that all who are baptised in the water will receive the holy spirit. It is also at the Easter Vigil that the great Paschal Candle is lit from the Easter Fire and brought into the church. Every baptism takes place in the light of Easter and the Paschal candle is lit near to the font to indicate this.

As with all the sacraments, the symbols surrounding baptism are rich. A number of different physical things happen in the course of a baptism which help to form our beliefs about what is happening when someone is baptised.

Baptism is intrinsically tied up with the events of Holy Week as the original symbolism of baptism – plunging someone into water and them rising out of it again is symbolic of Jesus dying and being buried and rising again. The bible speaks of us being baptised “into Christ’s death” in order that we might rise with Christ. For this reason, baptism cannot really be understood as anything other than one of the symbols of the new life and resurrection that we believe Jesus brought us.

Very many religious traditions use water symbolically and baptism is one of the ways that Christians use water to express theological truths. (Washing feet on Maundy Thursday is another vivid way in which water is used in the liturgy). In common with the way other religious people use water, there is an element of symbolic washing that is involved in the ceremony of baptism. Every week in church we say when we say the Creed together that we acknowledge “one baptism for the remission of sins”.

At the heart of the baptism ceremony is a beautiful prayer over the water which recalls some of the ways in which God’s people have seen the love of God in the world through watery symbols.

Holy God, well-spring of life,
in your love and justice,
you use the gift of water to declare your saving power.
In the beginning your Spirit moved over the face of the waters.
By the gentle dew, the steady rain,
you nourish and give increase to all that grows;
you make the desert a watered garden.
You command the wildness of the waves;
when the storm rages you calm our fear;
in the stillness you lead us to a deeper faith.
In the life-giving rivers and the rainbow
Israel discerned your mercy.
You divided the Red Sea to let them pass from slavery in Egypt
to freedom in the Promised Land.
In the waters of Jordan
penitents found forgiveness in the baptism of John.
There, Jesus your beloved child was anointed with the Holy Spirit,
that he might bring us
to the glorious liberty of the children of God.

As well as water, we use oil and light to symbolise what is happening at baptism. After being baptised in water, a sign of the cross is made on the person’s head using oil which the bishop blesses each year on Maundy Thursday – again connecting baptism with the events of Holy Week. At some point in the service, a candle will be kindled from the Pascal Candle and presented to the candidate. In the case of children who are baptised, parents or godparents can light the candle every year on the person’s birthday or the anniversary of the baptism until such a time as they ask why the candle is being lit and can hear the story of their own baptism.

At St Mary’s we gather everyone who is present around the font. Everyone who is baptised is surrounded by the love of the whole community. Together we have a responsibility to help all who are baptised to live out their Christian faith.

It is the ancient tradition of the church that you are only baptised once and so we don’t re-baptise anyone who has been baptised already. In common with many of the churches in Scotland we recognise that if someone has been baptised in water in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit within the context of a different denomination to our own then they have been properly baptised. You can’t be baptised into being an Episcopalian. You are baptised into the Christian faith.

Many people are brought for baptism when they are babies or very young children by those bringing them up. When we baptise infants who cannot comprehend what is happening to them or indeed make their own assent to what is being done, we are rejoicing that God’s love is there for everyone whether or not they know it. In baptism we celebrate our belief that everyone is utterly loved by God whether they know they are or even whether they want to be or not.

For those coming into the life of the church who are adults, baptism is a powerful statement that they themselves confess that they know that they are known and loved by God. people who are adults who wish to make a similar statement who were baptised as children sometimes find that the sacrament of Confirmation offers them an opportunity to do something similar in which some of the symbols of baptism are recalled.

Baptism is a sacrament – an outward sign of an inward spiritual grace, because we use physical things (water, oil, candles) to speak of deep spiritual truths – the passion of God in saving the the world through the actions of Christ that we remember in Holy Week, the fact that Christians have an expectation of rising to new life with Christ who rose from the grave and the joy of celebrating the uniqueness of each individual within the context of God’s overwhelming love.

Frequently Asked Questions
Do you baptise adults or children at St Mary’s?
Both adults and children are baptised in St Mary’s.

Can you be baptised by full immersion in St Mary’s?
Our font is not designed for full immersion baptisms but if you would like to explore the possibility of being baptised by full immersion, please speak to a member of the clergy.

I was baptised as a baby in St Mary’s does that mean I am a member and can vote at church meetings?
You are a member of the Christian faith by virtue of your baptism (and consequently welcome to receive communion in any Scottish Episcopal Church) but legal membership of a congregation is something different and you need to speak to a member of the clergy to ensure you are included on the membership roll.

Any further questions or comments?