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For penitents and confessors

05 July 2013

William Scott reads encouragement and professional advice

Confession: Looking into the eyes of God
Paul Farren
The Columba Press £8.50

Go in Peace: The art of hearing confessions
Julia Gatta and Martin L. Smith
Canterbury Press £12.99
Church Times Bookshop £11.70 (Use code CT448 )

THESE are two contrasting books about the sacrament of reconciliation, which we commonly describe as, "going to confession". One is by a Roman Catholic, and the other by Anglicans based in the United States. I seem to have had a lot to do with sacramental confession, both before ordination and after. This is because I am both a very great sinner and also much used as a confessor.

Fr Paul Farren's book is a complete gem, encouraging people to go to confession and to allow that to be a significant way of growing towards God. It is not a particularly technical book, but focuses mainly on the nature of God, to whom we confess our sins, and of confession, an encounter with love. The wonder of this book is that it does not emphasise the centrality of our sinfulness, but emphasises that God confesses his love and his trust in us. God is drawn to us, and waits for our response. A beautiful way to end God's wait is to celebrate the sacrament of reconciliation.

We are encouraged to look into the eyes of God to realise the ways we may grow closer to the Divine. Towards the end of the book, the writer uses the story of the rich young man to encourage us in self-examination, and, with questions based on that Gospel story, leads us to ask whether we want God to be the God of our lives and Jesus to be welcomed into them. He also emphasises that real contrition changes our lives as it draws us closer to Jesus and his love. This is a Roman Catholic book, and refers to the new Roman Rite of Reconciliation, which is not used by many Anglicans.

Now, I have to confess that I turned from this gem toGo in Peaceand found it rather technical and uninspiring. On reflection, this was a poor reaction, because it is a very well written and researched book. It discusses the whys and wherefores of confession and is written more for the benefit of confessors than of penitents, rather in the fashion of Belton'sManual for Confessors, although less quaint.

After a long chapter about the nature of confession, the book discusses the confessor, saying, among other things, that he or she will need enough knowledge, sensitivity, and self-restraint to deal with complex issues that straddle moral boundaries. I, rather, believe that the qualifications for being a confessor are being a sinner, a penitent, and someone with a desire, no matter how badly lived out, that God be loved and that we human beings should allow God to love us.

Go in Peace ends with specimen confession sessions comprising the confession, the advice, and what the penance may be, although it is not named as such. They remind me of counselling training of old, and are also far too neat and tidy.

Perhaps reading Farren's book might encourage the "many" of the old adage about confession, "All may, none must, many should," to turn away from the more commonly practised "All may, none must, catch me!"

Prebendary Scott is Sub Dean of Her Majesty's Chapels Royal.

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