March 29, 2006

Confessions, part I

Those churches that have formal confession understand its value, but confession does not have to be formal to bring benefits. Speaking the unspeakable, admitting the shameful, to someone who can be trusted and who will accept you in love as you are, is enormously helpful.

- 12.01, Britain Yearly Meeting Faith & Practice
The other night during a workshop discussion at the monthly meeting, the conversation turned to confession among Quakers. The question was raised, "Do Friends have confession?"

Internally, intuitively, the answer that arose within me was "Yes," though I had never come across a Friend who spoke or wrote directly about confession in the way I have come across Friends' views on baptism or communion.

As I sat with the inward possibility that the practice of confession exists among Friends, my mind was turned to consider what is meant by "covenant community," a concept I had come across in the writings of Lloyd Lee Wilson:
The covenant relationship says that we are given in relationship to each other precisely in order to help one another through these painful times, into a fuller relationship with God and one another... Our individual sins and failures become opportunities for the community to practice true loving forgiveness, to offer spiritual counsel and guidance, and to offer spiritual and emotional healing.

- p. 69, Essays on the Quaker Vision of Gospel Order
Unlike "baptism" and "communion," the word "confession" is not explicit in these and other writings; why is that?

Yet I have experienced a sort of inward confession, when the Light has broken through my defenses and has shown me how I have wronged others or have spoken out of turn. And so I have opened myself to be made known by the Spirit even in my weakness... and mustn't I do something similiar, make known my private failings, to those in the covenant community in which I worship?


UPDATE, 10 Fourth Month 2006: I have lifted up Ken's comment that he makes below and posted it separately, since I feel he advances the conversation around the topic of Quakers and confession.


Robin M. said...

This brings to mind a time when I had spoken in meeting for worship and was convicted afterwards that I should not have. I don't remember now what I said but I remember the intense feeling that I had spoken out of my own mind and not out of the leading of the Spirit. I also felt like I should tell someone that I knew it had been wrong, but I didn't really know how to do that. I did not think that I should wait until the following week and stand up and apologize, although I suppose that might be right in some very limited circumstances. But what I did was to call a Friend, a trusted elder and friend in our Meeting, and tell her. I think I specifically used the words "making a confession." And she just listened to me and then asked what I thought I should do about that. And I mumbled something about trying to do better. And I have. Tried, that is. I may also be getting better at discerning a true leading to speak, but I'm not always sure.

But it is the sense that I did know who to turn to to make my confession that helps me to believe that the role of elder has not died out. Others in my Meeting instinctively turn to this same Friend to share their experiences and troubles, and she has come to accept that this is an important part of her role in our Meeting. She very seldom gives vocal ministry in our Meeting, but is active in religious education, for adults and children, and a enthusiastic learner of Quaker and other religious stuff.

Paul L said...

All confession of sins is to God against whom all sin offends. (Sometimes you have to confess to the victim of your sin, too.)

In the traditions where there's a designated rite or ritual of confession -- e.g., Roman Catholics -- the priest serves as a visible representative of God, receives the confession with assurance of confidentiality (from other humans, that is), assigns the penance, and pronounces the absolution (forgiveness). Traditionally, the priest confessor is anonymous and sits behind a screen in the private confessional booth thus emphasizing that the confession is to God and not to an individual man. Once the sins are forgiven, the person may participate in the Eucharist.

The role of a priest as confessor and absolver has biblical warrant in that Jesus gave his disciples the authority to forgive sins in his name. But it is not the priest to absolves; it is God, acting through the priest.

Confession was (is?) one of the seven sacraments of the Cathoic church, and one that was downgraded to a mere rite by the Reformation, largely because it had become overly ritualized, rote, and had lost its inward cleansing power.

Unfortunately (to my mind), the Protestants' substitution of a public, group confession and absolution incorporated it into their liturgy gave up the psychological power of a private confession (which is consistent with the Protestants' emphasis on the Word and the intellectual, logical, cognitive kind of belief as contrasted with the mystical, sacramental, experiential notions of Catholocism). It is certainly efficient to take group confession, and it may be effective in God's eyes, but psychologically it is simply not the same on the individual believer.

Like other Protestants, Friends dispensed of the sacrament of confession (and the other ones, too) and paid attention to the inward act of confession.

But just like preaching, hymn singing, group prayer, etc., we are entitled to question whether the ritual necessarily leads to corruption, emptyness, and apostsy, and whether some functional equivalent might be helpful.

I'm fascinated by the idea of assigning each Friend to another to serve as listener & confessor; this kind of relationship would take a lot of working out as to boundaries and so forth, but I could imagine it being very valuable. I have experienced it myself from time to time, but never made the effort to formalize it.

Liz Opp said...

Robin and Paul - It seems to me that part of (inward) confession is the "exercise" of Spirit that we go through--the inner turmoil and unease we experience because we know we have outrun our Guide or have lagged behind.

When I think of times when I have been so exercised, if I were to confess those times and I were already so vulnerable, it would be so very important that the Friend I was approaching could hear me in my distress and love me through it.

I'm not sure that all of us have those gifts!

Such as it is, then, I am not so confident that "assigned Friends" would be rightly ordered. When a spiritual companion is to accompany a traveling minister, care is taken to consider the "fit" between minister and elder, the gifts of each, the Friends being visited, etc.

Why not a similar care for "fitting" Friend to Friend for the purpose of confession? Or maybe that is more of what you are suggesting, Paul...?

So maybe it is for the best that there are no formally assigned (recorded?) pairs, but by knowing one another in that which is eternal, aren't we likely to find each other when we seek to confess to a moment of weakness or unfaithfulness that we have been carrying?


GMC said...

I think you are starting to scare me, assigned confessors? Confession is good for the soul, but?? I have made
public confessions at meeting and sought out people that I FELT GUIDED TO(the caps were an acident, but I think
maybe they are important). Hopefully a person who feels a need for confession will be lead to seek out the right
person, or the right person will seek out the confesse(word?) I guess that we need to be mindful of the small voice
and trust that things will work out as they should.

Thanks for the discussion.

Liz Opp said...

GMC - Yes, yes! This is what I was wanting to get at. You say it so much more plainly than I did... Thanks!


Paul L said...

Yeah, I wasn't thinking of random pairings; I'll confess that that would scare me. I'm thinking more along the lines of spiritual friendships.

Anonymous said...

Your comment about inward confession made me remember the very first time I attended a MFW. A Friend commented that we too often look at the Light in a warm fuzzy sense, but that there more to light than that. Light could also be a bright, hard, point of light, a spotlight to show into the dark corners of ourselves and would help us to see the right way to go.

Maybe our spiritual friends pull the shades up for us so we can see the hard, white light.

Lynn Gazis-Sax said...

I do feel a need sometimes to confess to other people, not just inwardly. I don't see a need to formalize the process, really. I think we can usually find people to talk to without that.

On the other hand, I could imagine some sort of "assigned confessors" working if it went the way clearness committees work - you only get one if you ask for one, and people consult you and work out a good fit. Maybe spiritual friendship is a better way of thinking of it, though; I can't imagine wanting some special person only to confess to (without getting into other aspects of our spiritual journeys).

Anonymous said...


I was intrigued by the topic and the question, "Do Friends Have Confession?" I appreciate the thoughts people have shared about what Friends might want to do today. But for now, I would simply like to share some reflections on Friends' history with confession in the first couple of centuries.

Friends definitely *used* to have confession, though they may never have called it that. It was part of Gospel Order, and Lloyd Lee Wilson's essays provide some insight into it, as does a Pendle Hill pamphlet #297 by Sandra Cronk, "Gospel Order: A Quaker Understanding of Faithful Church Community." And according to Rex Ambler's _Light to Live By_, early Friends did not have totally warm and fuzzy feelings about the Light. The Light searched them out and exposed their flaws and weaknesses (and sin, gasp!) so that they could be drawn more perfectly to God.

I first became aware of how confession worked for early Quakers when I was doing some research and reading minutes from the late 1600s and the 1700s. I stumbled across these odd things called "Letters of Condemnation" (early on) and then "Letters of Acknowledgment" (by the mid-1700s or so). (I really knew so little about Quakers then and only a little more now.) What I discovered, contrary to my intuition, was that these letters were not written by the meeting to member who had faltered in observing Friends' principles. They were written by the Friends who had faltered and been called to account to the meeting, and the letters condemned or acknowledged their own behavior. And I realized this was really a practice of confession, which when followed restored the faltering Friend to the loving embrace of their meeting. Friends were disowned only after failing to provide a satisfactory letter.

For example, I stumbled across one such letter of acknowledgment, and it went something like this... (I wish I had transcribed it.)

"To Chesterfield Meeting, NJ. On my recent visit among you, I now realize, I was not sufficiently low in the truth when I spoke. I thank Friends for making me mindful of this, and I ask that you pass by my offense."

This letter (as roughly recalled) was signed by John Woolman in the mid 1700s.

That kind of blew me away. "Low in the truth" was an expression Friends of that day used to refer to being humble; it acknowledged that the closer we are to knowing truth, the more humbled we will be by knowing it. I wish I knew the rest of the story, but that's all I know.

Now, I do not for a minute suggest that we return to the Quaker practices of that day, which resulted in so many being read out of meeting for various offenses, many of which seem laughable or quaint or even cruel to us today. But I have been intrigued by those practices, and the more I have learned, the more I think there are insights we can glean from them for today.

While it may be true that over time in some places, those practices degenerated into petty meddling and judgmentalism, I have a sense that the ideal, which may never have been fully realized, was quite loving and perhaps even a wonderful thing. I cannot say for sure how those Friends actually felt and thought about those practices, but I can imagine how the discipline might have made sense in its ideal form. What may be misunderstood today is that when meetings brought people before the meeting for discipline (by sending a committee to visit with them), the presumption was not how to punish them and make a case for kicking them out. The presumption was that through loving labor, the people would come to understand why their behavior was wrong and be brought back into right order among Friends. Moreover, even after a Friend was disowned, they were still welcome to worship with Friends and the meeting would still return a person to membership, once a satisfactory acknowledgment had been received. [Johns Hopkins was disowned in the 1820s for selling liquor. He continued to worship with Friends. Though I would like to confirm this, I understand that late in life he felt that selling liquor was one of the greatest regrets of his life (though it was essential to the fortune he made), and that he did seek to be rejoined to his meeting. I'm not sure if he was or not.]

In this ideal that I can imagine, the practice was more about healing than it was about judgment. In support of this possibility, I could point you to many examples where a meeting labored with an individual month after month after month, only giving up when they concluded that further labor "would not be availing." And I could point you to many examples when Friends were retained in membership. [Sadly, I can also point you to later examples where it seemed quite clear that such a spirit was not present.] Do Friends realize this about those practices of discipline used in those days? On those rare occasions today when meetings disown individuals (I have heard of a few), do the meetings work from the same presumption that they dearly want to retain the people in membership?

In any case, so it is with confession, as the other posts suggest. Confession, in the ideal, is a healing practice. My impression is that the "guilt" that Catholics (and Jews?) have a reputation for stems at least partly from perceptions about confession practices in those churches. If that is true, I think it is tragic. Because my sense is that the teachings of those faiths do acknowledge that confession is a path to forgiveness, an unburdening that frees us and returns us to right relationship to God. For example, the Jewish New Year follows a holy week, of which atonement is perhaps the key element.

In recent years, I have been hearing more and more Friends use the word "accountability." When we have leadings, part of the support that is expected from our support committees and supporting community is to be held accountable to our leadings. For early Friends, the disciplinary practices of Gospel Order were a central part of their system of accountability.

Would we not all benefit if our loving and supportive spiritual community held us accountable, not just for our discerned leadings, but for the witness and testimonies and values that we embrace when we claim ourselves to be Friends?

What role would a Friendly approach to confession play in the process? Is there more we can learn from early Friends and Gospel Order?

I hope this helps and is of interest.

Ken Stockbridge
Patapsco Friends Meeting
Ellicott City, Maryland, USA

Liz Opp said...

LKLA - Thanks for this reminder, that the experience of the Light can be both nurturing and penetrating. And yes, sometimes fFriends can "pull the shades up for us"--and sometimes it is the Light itself that might reach us.

I think it is reaching into me, actually. I am not ready to write about it, but it is something else within Bownas' writing that has stirred a thing in me, and the Light is helping illuminate it for my observation and possible instruction...

Lynn - you write, "I do feel a need sometimes to confess to other people..." This is my experience too, to some extent, as far as it relates to having a need to "process things externally," by talking through them with someone else (or in my recent case, writing them out, as I do in my subsequent post).

But what I share publicly here on The Good Raised Up is not the sort of confession to which I refer in this post. I wonder if "confession" and the felt-need to "confess" is sharper somehow... My pain in knowing I have "missed the mark" is too great to bear on my own.

Maybe it is that pain that you, too, write about, Lynn... Thanks for commenting.

Ken - Nice to see you here as well! ...I was hoping that a reader could direct me (us) to something specific, which you've done in the early part of your comment. If you or anyone else discovers specific chapters or page numbers in Lloyd Lee Wilson's or Sandra Cronk's or Rex Ambler's writing, I'd love to know where to find those references. (But I don't have ready acess to minutes from the late 1600-1700s, unless they are online somewhere. Ken...?)

And yours is a beautiful way to sum up the gift of confession: Confession is an unburdening that frees us and returns us to right relationship to God.

(And because of your reference to the Jewish High Holy days, I can't resist linking to an essay about the Jewish season of atonement, written by the Velveteen Rabbi.)

Thanks to all of you for helping advance the conversation.