Confession is an important, an essential part of our armoury, vital to our Christian development, essential to personal growth in our life in Christ. In the tradition of the Russian Orthodox Church there is a ruling, certainly a strong expectation, that believers will have confession on every occasion before receiving Communion. So important is this preparation considered to be, this self-examination has often developed into a period of retreat, <govéniye>, accompanied by fasting and taken very seriously. The unfortunate down-side of this practice is that people have tended to have less frequent communion because they put so much effort into this preparation and self-examination. At its worst, Communion became reduced to a maximum of four times a year.
We advocate frequent Communion, for the healing of soul and body and for the remission of sins. But also essential is regular confession. Confession need not be linked directly to Communion.
I am concerned, and members of our clergy with whom I have discussed this are also concerned at a drastic falling away by members of the Church from this whole area of self-examination and confession, examination of thoughts and motives, and participating in the Mystery of Confession. This falling away is particularly serious among converts to Orthodoxy from other Christian traditions. They are tending to bring with them the lack of order and discipline, the ‘doing of their own thing’, which is prevalent among some Western Christian confessions.
This is not the way of the Orthodox Church. In the past, converts to Orthodoxy were among the most zealous in emulating their elder brothers and sisters, the ‘cradle’ Orthodox, and following the discipline and tradition handed down in the Church. It was expected of us. Our adoptive Orthodox parents expected it of us. Greek and Russian Orthodox, Serbs and Romanians may have different customs relating to the place or to whom we go to confession; there may be variations in frequency and details of practice, but confession is expected to be a major part of their Christian life. Bishop Anthony was a strong advocate of regular confession, and expected it of his ordained clergy as well. Bishop Kallistos and former Bishop Basil have followed similar practices. Some of us have gone half way across the country on a regular basis to make our confessions.
Amongst us there are brothers and sisters in Christ of many years standing, senior members of the Church, who are stuck, who are not growing in their spiritual life, who are not being healed, who are not coming to freedom in Christ, because they choose the easy path or depend solely on their own efforts. Yet they have available the riches of the resources of the Church, but do not use them.
The Apostle John says: ‘If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness’ (1 John 1:8, 9).
Some people think, ‘I have not committed any serious sins. I don’t need confession. I don’t feel guilty.’ This is quite wrong! Confession is not a matter of feelings, it is about how we fall short of the example and image of God, the perfection that we see in our Lord Jesus Christ. The Apostle James says: ‘Confess your sins one to another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed’ (James 5:16).
Confession’ and ‘forgiveness’ are at the core and are indispensable to our spiritual well-being, to our life in Christ. This cannot be stressed too often. We are told ‘not to let the sun go down on our anger’. Likewise, we are expected to confess our sins to our Lord Jesus Christ every day in our prayers, and to accept that we will be forgiven. Both this, and bringing all our sins, our troubles, our failings to our Lord Jesus Christ at the Cross, in the Mystery of Repentance or Confession regularly in the Church, are essential to our growth and spiritual development as Christians. The only model we have is the perfect life of our Lord Jesus Christ. We are not to compare ourselves with others, we are not to judge or condemn others. This is a commandment of the Lord, and one of which we are constantly reminded in the Scriptures, which should be our daily food.