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Absolution

The question I received from someone was: why do Anglicans absolve the congregation with “you” language

…God have mercy on you,
pardon you…[A New Zealand Prayer Book page 408]

and in the Roman Catholic Mass, at that point it is “us” language:

May Almighty God have mercy on us, forgive us our sins, and bring us to eternal life.

The questioner continued that some Anglicans, apparently, are copying Rome’s approach and switching “you” to “us”…

My short response is that even though it looks as if both traditions are doing the same – we are not. And the semblance is reinforced by having it in the same place in the service.

And using the word “absolution” is also not helping.

The General Instruction of the Roman Missal helps untangle things a bit:

Then the priest invites those present to take part in the Act of Penitence, which, after a brief pause for silence, the entire community carries out through a formula of general confession. The rite concludes with the priest’s absolution, which, however, lacks the efficacy of the Sacrament of Penance.

On Sundays, especially in the Season of Easter, in place of the customary Act of Penitence, from time to time the blessing and sprinkling of water to recall Baptism may take place. [51]

The RC priest makes no Sign of the Cross over the congregation (as Anglicans are wont to do).

I hope the penny is dropping: for RCs, this point in the rite is not sacramental absolution. It is a petition asking for forgiveness.

Traditionally, the RC priest confessed first, and the server prayed:

Misereátur tui, omnípotens Deus, et, dimíssis peccátis tuis, perdúcat te ad vitam aetérnam.
May Almighty God have mercy upon you, forgive you your sins, and bring you to life everlasting.

The server is NOT absolving the priest! This is – let us stress again – a petition asking for forgiveness.

RCs only give a General Absolution in case of emergency, eg. soldiers going into a war zone, but, after this, they must go to confession as soon as possible.

Anglicans are not requesting forgiveness; Anglicans are absolving – using the subjunctive [God forgive you… God pardon you…].

I have long argued that Anglican absolution in the liturgy needs a serious rethink.

To put the problem in its baldest form: Anglicans absolve candidates for baptism prior to baptising them. Baptism, hence, appears to be plundered of its power to forgive sin! Anglicans absolve the sins of a baptismal candidate so that this candidate is worthy to receive the sacrament of baptism!!! Once you see this, you see that Anglicans do not celebrate Eucharist and receive communion “for the forgiveness of sins” – Anglicans forgive sins so that people are worthy to celebrate Eucharist and receive communion.

In this paradigm, the theological conundrum is inevitably generated: to forgive sin, why did Christ need to become incarnate, suffer, and die when all that is needed is a verbal, subjunctive absolving statement with or without arm waving?

The Anglican clergy mentioned above, who change the Anglican formulas from “you” to “us”, solve none of these problems. They are still pronouncing a general absolution, in the subjunctive mood, but simply including themselves more explicitly for those who cannot recognise their inclusion in the authorised words.

Penitential elements in the Gathering

The sacrament of baptism cleanses from sin and initiates a lifelong process of repentance and forgiveness. The Eucharist is a dimension of this process, renewing the baptismal covenant, and mediating Christ’s sacrifice “for the forgiveness of sins.” This rich understanding of the Eucharist meant that for most of the church’s history there was no verbal confession and absolution within the eucharistic liturgy. The whole eucharistic action was seen to be reconciling. Penitential practices from private medieval piety, however, were embodied into the first Anglican Prayer Book in 1549 and have shaped Anglican piety to this day.

Modern liturgical renewal is rediscovering the earlier insight that “as we take part, as we break bread and share the cup, our forgiveness is renewed and we are cleansed” (page 403). A Form for Ordering the Eucharist (pages 511 ff.) makes clear that verbal confession and absolution is not an essential element of the eucharistic liturgy. Anglican eucharistic revisions in the United States of America, Canada, and elsewhere, have highlighted this rediscovery by making confession and absolution optional within their revised rites.

This in no way diminishes sin, its gravity, or the necessity of repentance. What is being taken more seriously is that penitential elements may be included in the Prayers of the People, and be sincerely expressed in the Peace and the Lord’s Prayer. Reconciliation is also celebrated in the breaking of the bread, receiving communion, and so on. Verbal confession and absolution is only one way in which, on particular occasions, reconciliation may be expressed.

From my book, Celebrating Eucharist Chapter 6

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Image source: “Private Absolution ought to be retained in the churches, although in confession an enumeration of all sins is not necessary.” —Augsburg Confession, Article 9

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