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Sunday, August 20, 2017
Date Posted:

Ask For The Old Paths! Protestantism And The Confessional

An Address By Canon W. Hay Aitken M.A. To the United Protestant Congress London 1922
Canon W. Hay Aitken M.A.

The reintroduction of Auricular Confession into the system and practice of the English Church must, in my judgment, be regarded as one of the most undesirable, and not the least perilous of the many revivals of Mediaeval teaching and action that we owe to the development of the Tractarian Movement.

It cannot be questioned as an historical fact that the Reformation swept the confessionals out of our churches, and the habit of Auricular Confession out of the lives of those that frequented them. Nor can it be doubted that the distinct design and intention of a certain party in the Church to‑day is to bring them back again, and to impose once more upon our worshippers in the English Church a yoke that neither our fathers nor we were able to bear.


We, as Evangelicals, see in this practice the introduction of another gospel that is neither identical with, nor wholly consistent with, the Gospel that St. Paul has delivered to us in his writings. As illustrating this point, let me refer to an incident of the Fulham Conference on the Confessional in which I was privileged to take part. On the last day of that memorable gathering, Father Benson, whose name I mention with the utmost respect, had occupied about three‑quarters of an hour of our time with remarks on the treatment of penitents in the confessional. I was impelled to rise as soon as he had sat down; and I felt it my duty to point out that amongst all the beautiful and helpful things to which the last speaker had given utterance, I could not recall one solitary allusion to the necessity of faith in the atoning work of Christ on the part of the penitent, nor of personal trust in Christ as the condition of pardon. “Father Benson,” I went on to say, “is not singular in this omission.” Working some years ago in a Mission in a church in which the confessional was habitually practised, I ventured to ask the Vicar the direct question, “Do you, in dealing with penitents in the confessional, make it your distinct aim to lead them there and then to an act of definite faith in Christ, bringing them to trust Him as their personal Saviour, and to claim, through His atoning work, the pardon of their sins, before you pronounce absolution?” And the answer was, “If a man has sufficient faith to believe that God has given power to His priest to absolve him, he has sufficient faith to be absolved.”  Surely I am right in saying that this is another gospel, and not the Gospel that St. Paul preached, that Jesus Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that through Him is proclaimed to us the remission of sins; and by Him all that believe are justified from all things. It is the substitution of the mental acceptance of a questionable dogma for the moral repose of the soul in a personal Saviour.

                      AN ENCOURAGEMENT TO SIN

But St. Paul preached not only pardon through faith in Christ, but also the glorious Gospel of deliverance from sin. He teaches us that we have been redeemed from all iniquity; and therefore we have a right to expect to be kept from conscious sin. But the habit of regular “sacramental con­fession” suggests an experience just the opposite of this.  As I pointed out in a recent article in the “Record” newspaper, every confessional that is erected in one of our churches is a witness that we expect people to go on consciously sinning, and small wonder if, with such an expectation, prac­tically encouraged by the system, they do go on sinning.  In the last interview that I ever had with the late Archbishop Temple, he spoke very strongly on this point. He told me of a lady who was expatiating in his presence on the help and comfort that she received from the regular practice of confession. “I asked her,” said the Archbishop, “whether she found that she overcame the sins that she habitually confessed”  Her reply was, ‘Oh! no, I could not say that, but it is such a comfort that one can go back again to one's priest and obtain absolution.’” “You feel that a comfort,” said the Arch­bishop, in his abrupt way, “I call it demoralising!”  It is true that there are sins of ignorance, from which we cannot expect to be wholly free until our spiritual education is completed; so that we are none of us in a position to affirm that we have no sin. Here there may be, and often is, a place for the spiritual director, but direction and advice are not the same thing as confession and absolution, and we cannot make a practice of this last without admitting an expectation of moral failure that faith ought to repudiate.


Probably it will be replied that all Christian people do not live on this high level, and that the confessional is necessary for those who are moving on a lower plane. But is there no danger that such a provision will tend to make people contented with life on such a low plane? If a man is living in conscious and more or less wilful sin, surely what he needs is a definite conversion that shall raise him up to the true plane of Gospel experience, and not a religious practice which makes him content to go on from day to day without any such spiritual change. One of the strongest arguments against the confessional that I ever heard came from the lips of one in whose parish auricular confession had been the rule for years, and who had himself given it a fair trial.  He told me that his own experience with so‑called penitents had led him utterly to distrust the whole system.  He found that men who showed no sign of any real spirituality, would come on the appointed day and confess their sins, such as so many lies, so many swears, and such like, without any sign of real distress or contrition; and then, when the ceremony was over, and they had received absolution, would be quite ready to chatter about the last thing in politics, commerce or sport. The whole thing more and more impressed him as being to the last degree perfunctory and mechanical, in a large number of cases, savouring much more of the nature of a moral narcotic than a spiritual force, working for righteousness. I am very far from affirming that this is always so with those who go to confession; I do not doubt that in certain cases it may be accompanied with solemn and heart‑searching experiences; and I hope that there are priests who use the confessional as a means of leading the souls to whom they minister to Christ.  But I maintain that a system that lends itself so readily to unspirituality and self‑deception is not of God; and its reintroduction into our land will not mean the raising, but the lowering, of the religious tone of the community.


It is not as if this were a new and untried experiment carrying with it by its very novelty the promise of great spiritual results. The confessional has had its fair trial through long ages, and is still in full working order in Roman Catholic countries to‑day. Can any spiritually‑minded man affirm that its operation has been a moral and spiritual success? If he is inclined to do so, let him visit the Irish quarter of any of our great cities at Eastertide, and watch the drunken orgies that follow in the wake of the greatest festival of the year. These debauched rioters have all of them been absolved only a few hours before, but how much good has their absolution done them?  Has it changed their hearts or transformed their lives, or has it only induced self‑deception and thus led up to further sin?


Do our so‑called Anglo‑Catholic brethren really believe that the general introduction of the confessional would raise the moral and spiritual tone of the population of this country?  If they do, will they tell me why it has not had that effect in the countries in which it prevails? How do they think and feel when they contemplate the hideous crimes that have been perpetrated in Ireland, and are being perpetrated to‑day, for the most part by men who go regularly to confession?  If these men had been soundly converted to God by the preaching of the simple Gospel, could they ever have perpetrated or taken part in perpetrating these appalling atrocities?  And is it not a matter of common knowledge that it is the confessional more than anything else that has alienated from the Christian faith the manhood of France and Italy, and even of Spain and Portugal?  At the same time it has steeped the States of South America in shameless impurity, in which the priesthood itself is commonly involved.


But it is time that we approached the supreme issue, and enquired what it is in the ordinance itself, apart from the consideration of possible abuses, that leads us to regard it as in itself distinctly dangerous. We object to the doctrine and practice of the confessional because it invests an official who does not necessarily possess the gift of the discernment of spirits, with a prerogative that could only be safely exercised by one that possessed that gift in all its supernatural fulness.  In its ultimate analysis the Divine forgiveness may be said to depend first upon the attitude of grace on the part of God to man, and next upon the moral attitude of man towards God.  Now the forgiving attitude of God towards man is a matter of revelation, and may, therefore, be counted upon with absolute certainty; but the inward attitude of man towards God must remain unknown to everyone except the person immediately concerned, unless a supernatural gift of discernment enables a third party to read the inmost secrets of the heart. When our Blessed Lord said to the paralytic man, “Son, thy sins are forgiven thee,”  He spoke as one who could read the heart, and discern the presence of those conditions on man's side which God, in the action of His grace, must ever demand. But what guarantee have we that, just because a man has been ordained a Presbyter of the Church of Christ, he necessarily possesses this supernatural capacity of discernment?  This faculty, under the 0ld Dispensation, seems to have belonged not to the priest in virtue of his office, but to the prophet in virtue of his spiritual inspiration and clearness of vision. Samuel could discern the insincerity of a Saul's repentance, and therefore spoke to him no word of absolution; Nathan could discern the depth and reality of David's repentance, and, accordingly, could pronounce him absolved. Now whatever interpretation we may give to the famous passage in the twentieth chapter of St. John, of one thing we may be perfectly sure, that our Lord did not on that occasion revoke all existing conditions of forgiveness and impart to those to whom He spoke an unconditional right arbitrarily to forgive or retain according to their own capricious will, the sins of their fellow man. Our knowledge of the character of God, revealed in Christ, forbids the entertainment of any such view. Divine forgiveness must still remain dependent upon divinely-ordained conditions, and only in harmony with these could our Lord have intended to impart the prerogative, whatever it may have been, that He then bestowed.


Now it is because we have no guarantee that those who claim to absolve their fellow‑sinners possess any such divinely‑bestowed capacity of discernment that we regard their action as fraught with the most serious danger to the souls of men. I suppose I have had a much larger experience of dealing with human souls than falls to the lot of most men, yet I should never dare to assure a man, otherwise than conditionally, that he was forgiven and accepted. I would exhort him not to have a doubt about his pardon, if he knew in his heart that he was resting upon Christ, and claiming it from Him.  I would even apply to him the words of the absolution contained in our Prayer‑book,  “He pardoneth and absolveth all them that truly repent and unfeignedly believe His Holy Gospel”; but beyond that I dare not go, lest I should be substituting my opinion for God's assurance, and thus lead to self‑deception

But suppose that I had adopted a different course all through my ministry, and had taken those who seemed impressed by the Mission sermon into the vestry and then and there pronounced upon them the sentence of absolution, should I have had any guarantee that the man thus absolved had been really converted?  What if I had misjudged the sincerity of his repentance, or the reality of his faith? Should I not have been definitely ministering to self-deception and leading the man that I sought to help to regard himself as right with God while he might still be in the “gall of bitterness and the bond of iniquity”?  And if a veteran evangelist who has spent a great part of his life in dealing with souls might thus go seriously wrong, and do harm where he sought to do good, what is to be expected in the case of men whose own spirituality is doubtful, and whose knowledge of the Gospel does not seem to be at all too clear?   That there are such clergy in our Church it would be folly to deny.


May I give an example of this danger which I quoted at the Fulham Conference?  A certain clergyman was applied to by a young man, who desired to receive from him “sacramental absolution.”  In the interview which followed, this clergyman became more and more convinced that the young man's repentance was exceedingly shallow and unreal.  With a view to probing his conscience, he asked him about the Commandments.  Was he living in any conscious breach of the laws of God.  He confessed that he owed money, and mentioned to whom.  On further enquiry it turned out that it would be quite possible for him to pay his debt.  The clergyman asked him if he would do so, and on receiving no satisfactory answer, told him that it was impossible for him to receive absolution, unless he was prepared to renounce his sin, and the young man had to go his way without absolution.  A few weeks after the clergyman received a flippant and somewhat insolent letter from this young man, in which he stated that he was glad to say that he had found a priest who was prepared to do his duty and absolve him.  The late Dr. Walsham How was at that time Bishop of Bedford, and, meeting this clergyman some little time afterwards. he remarked, “I am sorry you did not give that man sacramental absolution when he asked for it.”  “Did he tell you,” replied the clergyman, “why I refused? Did he mention that he owed a large sum of money to you, Bishop, and that, though he was in a position to repay you, he declined to do so?”  The good Bishop's feelings at the explanation may be better imagined than described.  That man was absolved, but does anyone believe that his sin was by God remitted?  If not, that sentence of absolution was only the devil's snare, and the priest who gave it was the unconscious minister, not of reconciliation, but of self‑deception.

We may sum up the case in some such terms as these. If the penitent is really repentant, with the repentance whereby we forsake sin, and sincerely trusts his soul to Christ and His atoning work, he is forgiven there and then, and any sentence of absolution, so far as his relations with God are concerned, is superfluous, though so long as its conditional character is kept in view such an absolution may be confirmatory, and may indicate in certain cases the pardon of the Church.  But if, on the other hand, the supposed penitent has no real repentance, and no true and definite trust in Christ as his Saviour, he is not, and cannot be, actually pardoned, whatever absolution the priest may pronounce upon him, and he who builds upon such an absolution is the victim of self‑deception.


Let me quote from Bishop Drury's valuable book on the subject of Confession what he rightly calls a quaint and touching absolution written by John Bradford to his friend Careless. “Concerning your request of absolution . . . the Lord of all mercy . . . through the merits and mediation of His dear Son, . . . hath clearly remitted and pardoned all thy offences, whatsoever they be . . . and therefore He hath given to thee, dear brother John Careless, in token that thy sins are pardoned . . . a penitent and believing heart. Wherefore, my good brother, be merry, glad, and of good cheer; for the Lord hath taken away thy sins . . . . Go thy way!  The East is not so far from the West as the Lord hath now put thy sins from thee  . . . . Hereof I desire to be a witness.”  And he concludes his letter by saying, “God make me worthy to receive the like true message from thyself.” To which John Careless replied, “John Bradford, thou man so specially beloved of God, I pronounce and testify to thee in the name of the Lord Jehovah that all thy sins be freely and fully pardoned . . . by the mercy of God in Jesus Christ, whom thou dost most undoubtedly believe.”

Thus, says Bishop Drury, did these saintly men and martyrs minister to each other the healing salve of God's Word, and so comfort one another with the assurance of Divine pardon.


In conclusion, let me say the difficult and dangerous times through which we are passing call upon us all to be true to our Protestant heritage. Whatever else the Reformation did, it restored to us the right of direct access to God, without the intervention of any human intermediary ‑ a right that Mediaevalism had to a great extent obscured.  Let us stand fast in the liberty with which Christ hath made us free, and not allow ourselves to be entangled again in any yoke of bondage.  We have access into the holiest place of all through Him who is the way, the truth and the life. Let us draw near in fulness of faith, remembering that He, who knows the weakness of our human nature is ever‑ready to listen to our confessions with a sympathetic ear, and to pronounce with a Divine authority to the humblest penitent that falls at His feet His own “Absolvo te.”

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