Most liturgical traditions include a general confession in the service of Holy Eucharist. Each, in slightly different words, confesses that ‘we,’ meaning the collective we of all present, have sinned against God by what has been done and not done through failing to love God, neighbors and selves. It asserts to be sorry and repentant. It begs God for mercy and forgiveness that will help them delight in God’s will and walk in God’s ways. There are variations on the theme, of course.
I suspect it’s recited more by rote than anything else, and for many worshipers is understood to be their individual voices of personal confession joined together in one great data dump laid at the foot of the altar. My suspicions are that most can’t think of anything special about which they should confess, at least not in that particular moment. While it’s nice to have clergy pronounce God’s forgiveness over them, they’re unsure about what they are being forgiven. I confess that I’ve sometimes felt that way, and I’m supposed to know better.
I confess and regret that, in my years of active ministry, I failed in sermons and teaching to invite the congregation to slow down at the confession, allowing time for reflection on what is truly being confessed, which is our common sin, the sin of the church to be sure, but more especially the sin of the particular congregation at worship at that moment. It’s a serious question. What has the congregation done, or not done, that has failed to demonstrate love of God, neighbor, and itself as a community of the people of God who follow Jesus Christ?
Some congregations are complacently satisfied with the good works they do, but are disinterested in asking how it proclaims the gospel in ways others can apprehend. Some can’t see much difference between them and other social service agencies in town. Some are comfortable being a club of like minded folk who gather each week for worship and coffee. Some take pride in being “Cardinal Parishes” rich in liturgical self adornment, or local standing as the church to belong to. Too many are attended by people who have never been adequately educated in what it means to be Christians who worship in the ways of a particular tradition. Some claim such poverty of existence that they see little purpose for themselves beyond mere survival.
For all in the mainline (Catholics included) there is far too much whining about declining membership, the desire for more young families, and the need for more sophisticated marketing. There is far too little determination to proclaim the gospel in ways that strengthen and challenge congregations and congregants. In some congregations there is too much reliance on clergy and staff. In others, clergy shirk their duty, in the name of the priesthood of all believers, overwhelming the laity with burdens they cannot carry.
The general confession speaks to each of these and more. It’s not meant to shove congregations into pits of self pity, fits of worthlessness, or congregational self-flagellation. But it is to be taken seriously as a discipline of regular, ongoing, self examination with the intent to constantly improve. Constant improvement is accomplished not by adding more onto an already heavy load, but by saying farewell to programs and activities that have served their purpose, adding new ones to address emerging needs, seeking constant small improvements in ongoing basic services, moving on from recognized mistakes, and above all, constantly remembering that all is to be done to the glory of God’s name so that “others will see your good works and give glory to their Father in heaven.” (Matt. 5) To make that more clear: so that others will see your good works and give thanks not to Saint Swithens in the Swamp, but to God Almighty.
The general confession demands an answer to two questions. Who are we? Why are we here? The general confession, understood in this way, will bring many, not all, but many congregants to their personal reflection on what it means to be a Christian in this congregation, what’s expected of them, and to their own confession of repentance, turning to enter in new or renewed ways into the life of Christ in community.