When I first became a Christian, one thing used to puzzle me greatly. It was the reason for having regular public confessions.
I discovered that in the early centuries of the faith, most acts of confession were done in public. When people gathered for worship, sinners had to stand in church and announce their sins in front of the whole congregation.
The origin of public confession, it seems, was the verse in James 5:16 which urged Christians: “confess your sins to one another.”
Sadly, one could imagine the problems to which that sort of thing led. In those days people were just as inclined to be shocked and to gossip as they are today, and it would rarely be long before details of people’s weaknesses and their disclosures of misbehaviour were being repeated and spread throughout the whole countryside.
So I could understand why open confessions made in public gradually became rare, and private confessions to priests took their place.
I was a member of the New Zealand General Synods at which our present Prayer Book was written and authorised, and although I could understand the wisdom of having a general confession said in public, I still failed to understand why it had to be said at every service.
To me the practice seemed rather negative.
I wondered why, instead of always announcing our unworthiness, we Christians could occasionally begin our services by announcing some positive things about our behaviour as redeemed people.
I was relieved when I discovered that famous theologians Harvey Cox and Marcus Borg felt similarly. Marcus Borg once attended a church conference that opened with worship, including a confession of sin.
Borg reports that he turned to the person sitting next to him and said: “Here it is, not even nine o’clock in the morning, and we are already apologising for being bad….”
There we have the problem in a nutshell. Classic Christian theology insists that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.
It isn’t a flattering picture. It is one we moderns don’t fully understand. The reason we confess is not to degrade ourselves but to free ourselves, to open ourselves to the reality of the super-abundant grace that surrounds and sustains us. Jews confess on Yom Kippur for the same reason.
Until we face the fact that we are damned, we are hard put to appreciate how profoundly we have been saved. Admitting that we have been bad is not a curse. It is a blessing.