A view from the Anglican Patrimony
Despite their modern reputation, Anglicans have long been known for being good at misery. Newman famously said that when he was one his companions were wonderful and his religion dreary, whereas as a Catholic it was quite the opposite. For many years, he would have read the General Confession and Absolution at Mattins and Evensong with its lingering syllables and resonant language of sin, death, mercy and redemption. With a power all its own, it was written to give a certain shape to the life of Churchmen. To renew one’s resolution publicly, ‘meekly kneeling upon their knees’, imploring the help of grace was the lot of devout Christian Englishmen for generations and for some still is. Uttering those words with some amount of sincerity day after day, evening after evening, is a medicinal (or some might say ‘healing’) experience. With great poetry and beauty, it initiates the Christian into the joy of penitence.
It can be no surprise that devout men and shy women, uttering those words amid the grand and holy ruins of ‘this island of saints’, would rediscover the joy and necessity of sacramental absolution. Although Anglicanism had never entirely lost or proscribed confession, it had faded from mind and practice. Wesley’s ‘Classes’ had provided a forum for burdened souls to ‘open their grief’ and to hold one another accountable yet that did not suffice. The rediscovery of the catholicity and social nature of Christianity by the Oxford Movement also propelled reliance away from the collective forms of penitence to its deeper expression in individual penance. That is, the joy of penitence could only be fully genuine when enabled to take root in the life of an individual, henceforth more radically bound to his brethren in Christ.
The joys and pains of those who did ‘open their grief’, many of whom would become Catholics, can only be guessed. Yet that tradition bears witness not only to the truth and wisdom of Catholic doctrine and practice, but also to its healing nature. The regularity and frequency of the Anglican liturgical tradition in calling to penitence is a wholesome and fruitful thing, worthy of being integrated into the Catholic tradition (for which Anglicanorum coetibus provides). Yet beyond this mere sketch is a distinctive characteristic from which we may profit.
The sobriety of Cranmer’s prose belies the ‘soothing tendency’, as Keble put it, of the Prayer Book. It is one of the wonders of life to become a daily attender of Choral Evensong in a great cathedral. Evening after evening, the same long faces gather to be lifted heavenward. Even if the prayers of penance are omitted, it remains a penitential experience. It becomes the domain in which one’s life is reformed by constant exposure to the word of God in psalm, canticle, lesson and prayer. It shows the transcendent action of God more clearly and more easily than many a modern liturgy. Rather, beauty opens the heart to the inspiration of grace and gives voice to the primordial desire for God. Behind each of those long faces is the search for God, kindled perhaps by triumph or disaster. To go, day after day, before ‘the throne of grace’ is to go in hope, even in the hour of desolation. It makes of life a pilgrimage of praise, joy and hope in the strength of God.
Such an experience of penitence is a rare privilege. It is a reflection of Newman’s Anglican thought on forgiveness after baptism, which is demanding and to be found in repentance and amendment of life as confirmation of the action of God. In this, he reflects Pope Benedict’s description of the grace of forgiveness as a dynamic force, which removes sin in a real way (ablatio) and enables a new event to take place. The rhythm of corporate penance gives it life and vigour, uniting individual contrition and amendment of life to the Church’s sacrifice of praise. At Evensong, the penitent is not only comforted and even made to rejoice, the work of his own redemption is in train. His misery gives him a holy and sober hope, not to be disappointed, that girds him with strength for the labour of the day. The essentially Christian and deeply human nature of this orientation is proved in the experience of tribulation. I do not think I was alone in resorting to the Prayer Book in the time that preceded me being received into full communion with the Catholic Church. Newman’s own misery, mentioned above, prefaced the conversion of mind and heart needed before his submission. He maintained his use of the Prayer Book, as far as I know, to the day of his fateful meeting with Blessed Dominic Barberi.
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