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Church. But in all things to follow and keep the law of charity; and every man to be satisfied with his own conscience, not judging other men's minds or consciences; whereof he hath no warrant of God's words to the same" [whole passage omitted (7)].
The mere inspection of this passage will show not only what was omitted and removed from the First Prayer-book, but, as in the work of an ancient Palimpsest, what was substituted for, and written over, the original. The Exhortation, in fact, may be read thus:-Let not a penitent regard it as his first duty to confess to a priest, but to “ quiet his own conscience" (1). Let him not think that there is any official power in the Christian Priesthood, but let him rest his expectation upon a minister's insight, whether Priest or Deacon, into God's word (2). Let him not regard secrecy as essential ; let the husband accompany the wife, the mother the daughter, the experienced Christian friend the trembling novice, when the minister of God's word is visited in search of divine comfort and counsel (3). Let him not expect to receive from the lips of men, though they may be set apart as the ministers of God and of the Church, authoritative comfort and absolution : but let him rest his expectation on God's word being administered to him, and its promises applied to his case, as men go to able physicians to have the right medicine administered to them. So shall the penitent receive the benefit of absolution—not a verbal absolution, but the substantial benefit of pardon, peace of conscience (5). The question of secret confession and absolution is no longer to be regarded as an open question in the Church, on which the law of charity enjoins us not to judge our brethren; the point at issue is too momentous to impose silence any longer on those who rightly regard it as a question between the prerogative of God and the unwarrantable assumption of man to pronounce to a fellow sinner, Thy sins are forgiven thee (7).
That this is the fair and natural paraphrase of the alterations in the Exhortation before the Communion, may be proved by the fact, that in contemporary writings and controversies the distinction is frequently drawn and fully recognized, between absolution administered to the conscience through the application of God's word, and absolution pronounced by the lips of a priest.
We may refer, for example, to a sermon of Bishop Latimer, preached in 1552, within a few days after the Second Book of Edward VI. had come into general use :-"As touching confession, I will tell you that they that can be content with the general absolution which every minister of God's word giveth in his sermons,—when he pronounceth that all that be sorry for their sins, and believe in Christ, seek help and remedy by him, and afterward intend to amend their lives, and avoid
sin and wickedness, all these that be so minded shall have remission of their sins. Now, I say, they that be content with this general absolution, it is well: but they that are not satisfied with it, they may go to some godly and learned minister, which is able to instruct and comfort them with the word of God, to minister that same unto them to their contentation and quieting of their consciences. .... And herein standeth our absolution or remission of our sins, namely, when we believe in him, and look to be saved through his death."*
The Second Book of Homilies was published at the commencement of Queen Elizabeth's reign. In the Second Part of the Sermon on Repentance, the subject of auricular confession is treated at some length, and several Fathers are cited against the practice. The conclusion is thus stated :-" It is most evident and plain that this auricular confession hath not his warrant of God's word.” But a proviso is added in the spirit of the Exhortation to the Communion :-“I do not say but that if any do find themselves troubled in conscience, they may repair to their learned curate or pastor, or to some other godly learned man, and show the trouble and doubt of their conscience to them, that they may receive at their hand the comfortable salve of God's word. But it is against the true Christian liberty, that any man should be bound to the numbering of his sins, as it hath been used heretofore in the time of blindness and ignorance.” “To receive the comfortable salve of God's word,” corresponds with “the benefit of absolution" in the Exhortation in the Prayer-book. We will not multiply such quotations: the whole subject is very fully and ably discussed, and fortified by quotations from writers of authority, in a pamphlet of the Rev. Charles John Elliott, to which we refer our readers.t
We adduce, however, one more fact in confirmation of the true interpretation of the Exhortation to Communion from the very camp of the enemy. While our Reformers were settling the liturgy and law of the Church of England, the Council of Trent was engaged in defining and perpetuating the doctrines of the Church of Rome; and the very distinction between the pronouncing of a form of absolution by the Priest's lips, and absolution" by the ministry of God's word,” was discussed, in a sitting of the Council, Nov. 1551, when it was declared that “Christ, when breathing upon His disciples, gave them the Holy Ghost, to remit and retain sins; that is, to reconcile the faithful fallen into sin after baptism. For so the Church
* Remains of Bishop Latimer, Parker Society, p. 12.
+ An Enquiry into the Doctrine of the Church of England on Private Con. fession and Absolution, by Charles John Elliott, Vicar of Winkfield, Berks. 1859. p. 138.
hath always understood it; and the holy Synod doth approve this sense of the words of our Lord : condemning those who understood them of the power to preach the Gospel. .... But the form thereof consisteth in those words of the minister, 'I do absolve thee,' unto which other prayers may be laudably added, though they be not necessary.” After the Decrees of the Council of Trent, anathemas were pronounced against all impugners of those Decrees. On this occasion, an anathema was pronounced against those who maintained, “ That the sacramental absolution is not a judicial act, but a ministry to declare remission of sins to the believer.” (Father Paul's Council of Trent, p. 327.) Whatever passed at Lambeth in those days, was well known in Rome, and vice versâ : so that the identity of expression is significant.
We proceed to the consideration of the alterations introduced into the Order of the Visitation of the Sick. The Rubric before the Absolution in this service of 1549 ran thus:“Here shall the sick person make a special confession, if he feel his conscience troubled with any weighty matter. After which confession the Priest shall absolve him after this form, and the same form of Absolution shall be used in all private Confessions.” In the Prayer-book of 1552, the term “after this form ” was altered to “after this sort.” This alteration leaves it to the discretion of the minister to modify the objectionable “form” of Absolution. It is observable, that the prayer which is called “a Collect," following the Absolution, is itself an old form of Absolution in the Christian Church in the case of the visitation of the sick. So that the licence “after this sort” might even justify the omission of the first form. The last clause of the Rubric, "and the same form, &c.," was wholly omitted in 1552. This omission withdrew all sanction from the practice of private confession except in the visitation of the sick. Of course the Church cannot take cognizance of private acts of confession as between friend and friend; but confession to a Priest, as a religious ordinance, and as practised in the Church of Rome, is virtually prohibited except in the case of the sick. The late decision of the Privy Council (Martin v. Mackonochie) has emphatically affirmed this principle of interpretation, “That a ceremony not among those retained in the Prayer-book,” “must therefore be included among those that are abolished; for the Prayer-book in the preface divides all ceremonies into two classes ; those that are retained are specified; whereas none are abolished specifically or by name, but it is assumed that all are abolished which are not expressly retained.”
That auricular confession and absolution were designedly abolished by omission from the Second Prayer-book, seems further
indicated by the insertion at the same time of the Confession and Absolution in the Morning and Evening Prayer. This was the opportunity for those in health to receive “the benefit of absolution.” The declaration in the congregation of God's pardoning and absolving all who truly repent and unfeignedly believe His holy Gospel, was thus regarded as sufficient for satisfying the consciences of penitents, without auricular confession and private absolution; provision having been made also for those who needed it to resort to a minister of God's word “for the comfortable salve of God's word.”
If a reason be sought for the retention, in the Order for the Visitation of the Sick, of the term “special confession,” when the term “confess” was struck out of the Exhortation to the Communion, and why the indicative form of absolution of modern Rome was inserted; such reason may probably be found in the well-known fact, that in the early years of the Reformation many attempts were made to work upon the ancient prejudices of the sick in favour of extreme unction ; and that Romish priests were ready to gain access by the back staircase to the beds of the dying. When the mind is weakened by the approach of death, early associations are apt to return with force ; and our Reformers may have thought it wise to give to the sick an order which resembled, in some respects, the ceremonies of the Romish services. This solution may receive some countenance from the fact, that as the first generation of the reformed Church passed away, towards the close of the reign of Elizabeth, the use of this Order for the Visitation of the Sick was no longer universally enjoined.
In the 67th Canon, 1603, the curate, if no preacher, was to use this Order," or if he be a preacher, then as he shall tbink most needful and convenient."
At the last revision, 1662, slight alterations were introduced into the Exhortation before the Communion, making it more distinct that the benefit of absolution was to be sought in the ministry of God's holy Word. In the Visitation of the Sick, a more important alteration was made. The priest was to absolve the sick person after this sort, “ if he humbly and heartily desire it." Here it is evidently presumed that the salve of God's Word would suffice, in many cases, to bring peace to the wounded conscience, and that, in such cases, neither the priest nor the penitent would have any desire to use a form of absolution savouring so much of the idea of a sacerdotal priesthood, and human authority to declare pardon. The form was therefore only to be used if the sick person “humbly and heartily desired it." The priest might exercise his discretion of withholding it, if the sick person was actuated only by a superstitious feeling, or by weakness of mind.
If we cast a rapid glance over the history of our Church since the Reformation, we shall find that but few and abortive attempts have been made to revive auricular confession and absolution. The Laudian party attempted it. After the Re. storation, the non-jurors advocated it. A curious instance is on record, of an execution for high treason of certain nonjurors in 1696, at which three non-juring clergymen had attended and pronounced absolution over the culprits. The lawfulness of this act was referred to the Archbishops and Bishops“ in and about London, on occasion of their attendance in Parliament.” The decision of the Bishops was, that "the thing itself was altogether irregular. The Rubric in our Office of the Visitation of the Sick, from whence they took the words they used, and upon which, if upon anything in our Liturgy, they must ground their proceeding, gave them no authority, nor no pretence for the absolving those persous."
The state of feeling throughout the whole Church of England, in respect of Auricular Confession and Absolution, after the extinction of the non-jurors, until the rise of Tractarianism, may be exactly expressed in the following words of Bishop Herbert Marsh, a fair representative of the High Church party of the eighteenth and early part of the nineteenth centuries :-" If a minister of the Established Church were desired to pray with a sick person, and that sick person gave no intimation of a troubled conscience, or a want of spiritual relief, the minister would not be authorized by the Rubric even to recommend a special confession.” And again :-“Even the absolution is not given unless he 'humbly and heartily desire it.' Of this absolution, though it is often quoted for the purpose of showing the similarity of our Church to the Church of Rome, it cannot be necessary to make many observations. The case in which alone it is to be used, is a case which hardly ever occurs. It is to be used only according to the Rubric, when the sick person has thought proper to make a special confession of his sins,' and then heartily desires the absolution. The consequence is, that very few clergymen have ever had occasion to use it.” (Comparative view of the Churches of England and Rome.)
Upon the revival of Evangelical religion within the Church, a revival took place of the practice enjoined by the Rubric before the Communion. The slightest acquaintance with the biographies of the early Evangelical ministers will prove, that meetings of communicants, cottage lectures, private conferences with persons under religious convictions, occupied a large portion of their time and attention : this was “the ministry of God's holy Word,” supplementary to the public preaching of the Gospel in the genuine spirit of the Church's Formularies. But private absolution was never administered.