This homily was given by The Right Reverend Geoffrey Rowell, the Bishop in Europe on the Feast of Edward King on 8th March 2011.
Tomorrow morning, as is the way of the Bishop in Europe, I leave for Ljbljana in Slovenia to celebrate Ash Wednesday with our congregation there. I shall then be visiting the Roman Catholic Archbishop and the Lutheran Bishop and will be taking as gifts Professor Grace Davie’s book on religion in Europe amazingly translated into Slovenian! Then it is on to Trieste for another Lenten service and Venice and a meeting with Cardinal Scola, and the First Sunday in Lent with the congregation of St George’s in the morning, and with the Nigerian Congregation of St Anthony Abbott in Padua in the afternoon, before Milan overnight, and then another Lenten service and parish visit in Corfu before getting back here a week later. Knowing that Venice celebrates Cardinal with masks and processions and a whole retinue of pre-Lent customs I had hoped I could have been there today rather than on the first weekend in Lent – but then I should not have been here to celebrate this annual commemoration of Edward King.
It is rare indeed that Edward King’s day coincides, as it does this year, with Shrove Tuesday. Only when Easter is as late as it is – the very latest it can be – is there a chance of these two days coming together; but this year they do.
In the says and places when Lent was more fully observed than it is today, Shrove Tuesday was the time for feasting, for using up the foods which not be permitted during Lenten abstinence. Eggs and fat and dairy produce were made up into rich dishes such as pancakes. The French call today Mardi Gras – ‘fat Tuesday’ – for this very reason. One should note that in the Orthodox world it is possible to have a very good banquet of fasting food, as I once did in the Monastery of Miloseva in Serbia where the table groaned under no less than 22 different dishes of fasting food! But our name for today is Shrove Tuesday, which comes from an old English word schriven or shrive, which in turn may come from the Latin scribere ‘to write’, but which means to make confession. As an old Anglo-Saxon church order puts it: ‘in the week immediately before Lent, everyone should go to his confession and confess his deeds, and his confessor shall so shrive him.’
One of the treasures of Catholic spiritual life and discipline recovered by the Oxford Movement was personal confession of one’s sins to a priest and personal absolution. It was there in the Book of Common Prayer in the order for the Visitation of the Sick, and is mentioned in one of the exhortations before Communion. It never entirely died out in the Church of England, but its use was rare and in extremis, and practice could certainly vary, as an account of a deathbed confession in a celebrated series of Death-bad Scenes from the early nineteenth century, portrays the dying man noiselessly confessing his sins to God, and the absolution being given when it seemed he had ceased.
The revival of auricular confession was a neuralgic point for Protestant controversialists, for whom it smacked of the worst features of priestcraft and Popery, and in particular there was objection to the violation of family life by the priest hearing the confessions of wives. Protestant polemicists caricatured those who resorted to the confessional, as in the verses published in a Paper-lantern for Puseyites in the 1840s:
For a first endeavour
By a pre-concerted plan,
Some half-a-dozen ladies,
And an invalid young man,
And that fussy, vulgar ‘server’,
In his hideous monkish dress,
Assembled in the vestry,
‘Tis stated, to “confess!”
Salacious anti-catholic tales portrayed the horrors of the confessional, often given an extra twist by being linked with capers in the convent. Dr Pusey translated and published the Mannual for Confessors by the Abbe Gaume, and there were even parliamentary denunciations by Lord Shaftesbury after Convocation had been petitioned in 1873 to provide training for confessors – ‘this pollution of the red one of Babylon’, of by Lord Redesdale following that early SSC publication, The Priest in Absolution. Part of the cultural backdrop to contemporary reactions to the scandals of sexual abuse in the church – absolutely and rightly condemned – is nonetheless this long anti-Catholic history, with the sense that confession is somehow un-English and un-Manly – something that that very English parish priest, John Keble, sought after as a confessor by Dr Pusey, and no less by his Hursley villagers, was always concerned to rebut. I was interested to find recently in an anonymous book of 1847 – From Oxford to Rome and how it fared with some who lately made the journey – that one of the points that is made is that ‘Confession as now made in the English Church is the more perfect, the more aiding to the penitent.’ The author’s experience was that in the Roman Church confession was ‘as like a matter of worldly barter as can well be conceived: a certain amount of affliction for a certain amount of sin, arranged as immuntably as the value of the exchange in currencies’. What was needed was more of St John and less of the obtrusive questions and legalism the author had found.
Part of Edward King’s ministry – and close to the heart of it – was his pastoral gift as a confessor. It has not originally been part of his own spiritual life, but when as Vice-Principal and then Principal of Cuddesdon he found himself increasingly used as a spiritual counsellor and director, he came to the point where he knew that he had to make his own confession, which he did in April 1862 to Dr Pusey. He later told a friend how after he had made his confession and been given Psalm 103 as his penance, Pusey had knelt beside him, pouring out his heart in prayer for him. Thereafter he made his confession three or four times a year.
King was always alert to the misuse of the confessional – the dangers of formalism, and rote. I suspect he would have been a little cautious about the lists of sins published in such books as Fr Stanton’s Catholic Prayers for Church of England People – a book given to me when I was confirmed at 13. (I can remember puzzling over what were ‘dangerous dances’ and what was the sin of ‘making innuendoes’ – were they some kind of idol?) King brought to the confessional a unique sensitivity and sympathy, aware of the uniqueness of each one to whom he ministered, but it was an intelligent sympathy which in Charles Wesley’s words ‘breaks the power of cancelled sin’ and ‘sets the prisoner free’. It was close to the Orthodox understanding of confession which links it with healing, the medicine of the soul, rather than with rules broken and regulations transgressed. He believed it to be important, telling his clergy in the Diocese of Lincoln in 1898 that they had a duty to explain to their people ‘what the teaching of the Church of England with regard to Private Confession really is, making clear to them both the reality of the blessing and what she is commissioned to give, and the perfect liberty of her children.’
During the time I was working here in Oxford I can remember a Catholic psychiatrist at the Warneford Hospital saying to me that if only the Church would do what only the Church can do, absolve the sinful in the name of God my consulting room would be far less crowded, and my diary less pressured. Jesus gave to his Church the power, grace and life of the Holy Spirit, to set men and women free from the destructive and damaging captivity to what Paul call ‘the law of sin and death.’ In the Ordinal of the Book of Common Prayer the form of Ordination of a priest is a prayer for the gift of the Holy Spirit by the laying hands with the authority of the Lord himself who breathed that same Spirit on his disciples on the evening of the first Easter Day giving them authority to bind and loose, to forgive sins in his name. The ministry of priesthood is therefore an Easter ministry, a continual setting free from destructive captivities and addictions, a realising into the glorious liberty of the children of God. Every Lent is a springtime, a recalling of us to that discipleship of love which is the way of the Cross and no less the living out of Easter life. In confessing our sins we come before God as we are – not for the ‘set mask of rectitude’ or the facebook we present to the world – yet we come before God always for what by his grace we may become, and God looking upon us loves us, and draws us into the feast of his love. Edward King knew that deeply, and taught it by his life and ministry, and I can do no better than to leave you with his own words.
“But there is yet a third gift which I would desire that you should seek to perfect and make great, and that is the kindness of heart, the gift of love. This is the mark which the Saviour Himself chose by which His disciples should be known. ‘By this shall all men know that you are my disciples, if ye have love one to another.; Friendliness, sincerity in friendship, true-heartedness, a tenderness of felling for one another in your joys and sorrows; to weep with those that weep and rejoice with those that rejoice. Let this be your aim. Be ready to forgive if anyone should do you wrong, even as God for Christ’s sake hath forgiven you. Put away all unkind words and uncharitable judgement one of another….try to ‘bear one another’s burdens.’” (The Love and Wisdom of God, pp.282-3)
“By God’s great goodness we Christians can look up higher than our own nature, for we have seen His nature descend, not to destroy, but to take up humanity into the Godhead….To our love now new spheres are open, and all men are found to be not too much for our capacity when incorporated in the Body of Christ. Φιλια will have κοινωνια, and we find the true end of love in communion with the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and with mankind in Him in whom God and man are one.” (The Love and Wisdom of God, p.138)