Penance and Absolution in a Reformed Church

‘Railway in Woods’, by Andrea Boldizsar.

‘Railway in Woods’, by Andrea Boldizsar.

Sometimes I find the devotions of Nonjuror bishop Thomas Deacon to be useful for orthodox Anglican churches, and indeed for all churches in which the spirituality of the ancient fathers is alive. In particular, Deacon’s orders for admitting and then absolving a penitent in the church are helpful for structuring the discipline that God has entrusted to the clergy as ministers of his word; used before the Holy Communion office, they can be powerful reminders of the opening and closing of God’s kingdom, of binding and loosing, according to the disposition of the sinner.

Some Protestants may object to the use of penance and public absolution of penitents who have individually been censured, perhaps even excommunicated, but these practices are both ancient and consonant with the Scriptures. Certainly ecclesiastical censures themselves are entirely biblical. St Paul says to the Corinthians, about a man fornicating with his father’s wife,

For I verily, as absent in body, but present in spirit, have judged already, as though I were present, concerning him that hath so done this deed, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, when ye are gathered together, and my spirit, with the power of our Lord Jesus Christ, to deliver such an one unto Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that the spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus.

So the Apostle delivers an authoritative judgement, which the Corinthians hearing him are to obey in the Name of Jesus Christ; such is the authority of the appointed rulers of the holy Church. High church, perhaps, but biblical: the impenitent sinner is to be expelled from the company of the Church. For what have I to do, says the Apostle, to judge them also that are without? do not ye judge them that are within? But them that are without God judgeth. Therefore put away from among yourselves that wicked person. If anyone desires to take issue with excommunication, as a temporal measure serving æternal ends and administered by men, he must take it up with God.

The continuation of this discipline after the Apostles is affirmed by the Church of England as godly and right:

Brethren, in the Primitive Church there was a godly discipline, that, at the beginning of Lent, such persons as stood convicted of notorious sin were put to open penance, and punished in this world, that their souls might be saved in the day of the Lord; and that others, admonished by their example, might be the more afraid to offend. Instead whereof, until the said discipline may be restored again, (which is much to be wished,) it is thought good, that at this time (in the presence of you all) should be read the general sentences of God’s cursing against impenitent sinners.

The authors of this passage in the Book of Common Prayer, which clearly draws from St Paul’s words to the Corinthian church, declare it ‘much to be wished’ that the apostolic censures may be restored in the Church of England. Indeed, this church’s 1604 Canons make it clear that excommunication is by no means abolished in modern times. The point is that God has given the Church authority to testify to God’s curses against sinners who have not shown penitence.

And, if the Church is given the power to exclude an impenitent sinner from its midst, then it also has the power to readmit those who are penitent and, having been satisfied of the sinner’s humble penitence, to declare God’s forgiveness for that sinner. Though this practice is not, as the Romanists think, a sacrament, it is edifying and within the rights of the visible church. We are not calling for Hail Marys and Our Fathers. We are calling for sackcloth and ashes, and restitution for those who have been wronged, and evangelical repentance in response to God’s offer of forgiveness in Christ. For Zacchæus, it was a fourfold return on what he had stolen; for the Roman emperor Theodosius, who massacred 7000 in Thessalonica, the historian Theodoret tells us what happened after his rebuke by Ambrose, the bishop:

The Emperor, who had been brought up in the knowledge of Holy Writ, and who knew well the distinction between the ecclesiastical and the temporal power, submitted to the rebuke, and with many tears and groans returned to his palace. The Emperor shut himself up in his palace and shed floods of tears. After vain attempts to appease Ambrose, Theodosius himself at last went to Ambrose privately and besought mercy, saying ‘I beseech you, in consideration of the mercy of our common Lord, to unloose me from these bonds, and not to shut the door which is opened by the Lord to all that truly repent.’ Ambrose stipulated that the Emperor should prove his repentance by recalling his unjust decrees, and especially by ordering ‘that when sentence of death or of proscription has been signed against anyone, thirty days are to elapse before execution, and on the expiration of that time the case is to be brought again before you, for your resentment will then be calmed and you can justly decide the issue.’ The Emperor listened to this advice, and deeming it excellent, he at once ordered the law to be drawn up, and himself signed the document. St Ambrose then unloosed his bonds.

Is this penance not sensible? Is it not just? The bishop did not attempt to depose the emperor upon the pretenses claimed by the popes of Rome. He gave godly counsel, and the emperor accepted it gladly and was received again into the doors of the great church in Milan. For a scandalous sin, this was a penance the Lord himself had given the bishop power to demand, not beyond reason but in keeping with due repentance. For it is the Lord’s power to humble emperors who have sinned greatly, that repenting they may obtain remission of their sins by his promise in Christ. Thus let even kings and potentates be called to account and to submission before the throne of Jesus Christ, by the word of God spoken into their lives; and through the gospel let them be healed.

Saint Ambrose barring Theodosius I from Milan Cathedral. By Anthony van Dyck.

‘O Lord God, whose long-suffering is not wearied by our sins, but who allowest us to appease thy wrath by our repentance; Mercifully look upon this thy servant, who confesseth his sin unto thee: Give him a broken and a contrite heart, that he may recover from the snare of the devil, wherein he is now entangled; and graciously accept his Penance, that by his continuance in a state of mournful confession and prayer to thee, he may the sooner obtain thy merciful pardon, and, being restored to the privilege of communion with thy Church upon earth, may be again entitled to thy kingdom in heaven, through Jesus Christ our blessed Lord and Saviour. Amen.’

Edit: When a penitent has first been readmitted to the communion of the Church, his offering of gifts may be accepted where earlier it was turned away, and (according to a custom observed by St Cyprian) his name may be offered particularly in the Prayer for the Church: ‘And to all thy People give thy heavenly grace; and especially to this Congregation here present, [including N.]; that, with meek heart and due reverence, they may hear and receive thy holy Word; truly serving thee in holiness and righteousness all the days of their life.’

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2 responses to “Penance and Absolution in a Reformed Church

  1. Pingback: Hipster Church and Diaconal Service | Cogito, Credo, Petam

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