All may, none must, some should.

The title of this post indicates the teaching that many Anglicans/Episcopalians would give to people when asked what Anglican teaching about the sacrament of confession is. It isn’t defined anywhere I don’t think though the practise of the church and canon law back it up.

Ash Wednesday seems to me to be an appropriate day to say something about it.

At most of our services in St Mary’s we make a general confession, usually for us near the start of the service. In its modern form, it goes like this:

God our Father, we confess to you
and to our fellow members in the Body of Christ
that we have sinned in thought, word and deed,
and in what we have failed to do.
We are truly sorry.
Forgive us our sins,
and deliver us from the power of evil,
for the sake of your Son who died for us,
Jesus Christ, our Lord.

Then, whoever conducts the service says:

God, who is both power and love,
forgive us and free us from our sins,
heal and strengthen us by his Spirit,
and raise us to new life in Christ our Lord. Amen.

This exchange is a form of corporate confession. Together we get the chance to think about all that is going on in our lives that we would like to change for the better. We get to voice the idea that sometimes we do things that are wrong. We are then reassured of God’s forgiveness. Crucially, we have to assent to that with an Amen. (Forgiveness doesn’t just have to be given, it has to be received). And then we get on with the business of being joyful, hopeful and blessed in serving the world.

I think that a corporate confession is important as it can also be useful to bring to mind those times when we are not simply involved in doing personal wrongs but are also implicated in systems and powers beyond our own immediate control. The idea that we are aware of those and want to change them is central, I think, to what it means to bring an offering of worship to a God who is holy and true and who desires the best for us.

I wouldn’t say that the “All may, none must, some should” admonition applies to the corporate confession of the church. No indeedy. I think that is for everyone who is part of the church and everyone who wants to find a way, through the life of the church to live in friendship with God.

The “All may, none must, some should” thing applies to people chosing to seek out a priest to hear their confession individualy. Sometimes people are surprised that this is on offer in the Scottish Episcopal Church, thinking that it is “just something for the catholics”. It isn’t, of course. We offer all the sacraments in this church – the whole shebang, and the sacrament of reconcilliation is one of them.

I don’t find that it is something that very many people take up. I do find that those who do sometimes find it life changing.

This is how it works.

Firstly, it is canon law that if someone wants to make their confession and approaches a priest, the priest needs to offer to hear that confession or point the person to another priest who can hear it. (Yes, that’s the law!)

If someone approaches me, I usually arrange to see them in my office first. I offer the person the chance to talk about what it is that they want to bring in confession and what it is about their life tha they want to turn around. They may ask for advice. I may have something to say. Sometimes something from the Bible will pop into my mind and I’ll share that. Essentially though this is about listening.

Then we’ll go into church and I’ll hear a formal confession in a quiet corner of a chapel. I’ll wear a purple stole and we will follow a simple liturgy together. (Something like this one: The person brings to God the things that they want to confess. God will hear them. And then the absolution assures them that they have been heard and forgiven. Then we part, usually with me asking them to pray for me, a sinner.

Now, the deal is that you don’t talk about what is said in confession. One of the gifts that God gives me is that I tend to forget what people say anyway. (I’ve heard other priests say the same). However it is important to know that the seal of the confessional is supposed to apply to the penitant not just to the priest.

Of course, it doesn’t always work like this. I vaguely remember someone once stopping me in a railway station and asking to make a confession there and then. I heard it and he knelt to hear forgiveness and the world was still for the two of us whilst the bustle of daily life carried on all around. You see that kind of thing in other countries more than here but it happens.

People often have questions about confession. “What if you hear a confession of someone who is about murder someone?”, “What if they’ve done X?”, “What if …?”, “Would you ever go to the police?”, “Would you ever withold absolution?”

Almost always these are the questions that movies are made out of, not penitence.

So there we are. It exists. And it changes life. And all may, none must and some should, as I said at the top of this piece and as the church goes on saying as it offers the sacraments to all the world.


  1. frdougal says

    “All may, none must,some should” comes, I think, from”Hearing Confessions” by Kenneth Ross, sometime Vicar of All Saints Margaret Street (SPCK 1974).

    • I wouldn’t be surprised if it predated that by some way. A bit of googling finds the phrase attributed to everyone from Elizabeth I to Martin Luther! Does anyone have a definitive answer?

  2. Any particular reason why you usually/often first meet in your office to talk? I’m just curious 🙂

  3. Rosemary Hannah says

    Do you think it is a personality type who from the ‘some’ some of ‘some should’ (perhaps those anxious aobut forgiveness) or does it relate to life situation – having the kind of spiritually-minded friends with whom one feels comfortable discussing the sometimes really horrible things one has done?

  4. I think it can be either, Rosemary. A lot also depends on life experience. Some learned ghastly things about confession as a result of their confirmation experience. We must presume that some people learned good things about it at the same kind of time though I have to say that reports of such good experience seem to me to be rare.

  5. Rosemary Hannah says

    Urgh confirmation. I had two sets of confirmation experience, though (as must be common for many starting off in the low church) neither included a single word about confession. The first was ‘reception into membership’ in the Methodist church which included not being allowed to do the classes with the others from the youth club, my friends, on the grounds that I already knew too much, and also the minister storming out when I asked one penetrating question too many. The second was as an adult, where everybody involved (except me) seemed to find the experience a mixture of hilarious and embarrassing (and nobody could pretend I was exactly coming to commit myself to God for the first time as an adult) and this is a ghastly set of reactions to any kind of renewal of vows or taking of vows. Anything one does in this line must be done meaning it. Urggh confirmation then. So what ARE people in other parts of the church taught? (And why do so many do so much so badly???????)

  6. Tim Moore says

    Really good to read such a concise and understandable outline to the sacrament of reconciliation and what it involves. Thank you.

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