As you know, our most common form of Confession in Anglicanism takes place during the regular Sunday liturgy. Some are surprised to learn that the Episcopal Church also offers confession privately to a priest for those desiring it. In fact, this option is characteristic of the majority of Christianity, including all of the Orthodox family of Churches, The Roman Catholic Church, and our own Anglican tradition. Please see pages 446-452 in The Book of Common Prayer for the two rites that we use.
The difference between us and some other traditions is that we offer private confession; we do not require it. An old saying captures it well: "All may, none must, but some should".
Private confession is good for those times when we need to unburden our hearts and seek God's forgiveness, in the presence of a fellow human being, who is sworn to secrecy and who is serving as an instrument to declare God's forgiveness and the restoration of right relationship to the broader Church.
Lent is a particularly good time to engage in such unburdening. As in our sister churches, what is confessed to a priest is kept in the strictest confidence. The priest also gives counsel and encouragement. I can tell you that Priests really do forget what they hear in confession, (perhaps a little gift from the Spirit).
But I feel I need to make another offer to you: If any of you feel you need to make a private confession and would not like to do so in my presence, I will be happy to find another priest for you and set up the arrangements. Just let me know. Otherwise, I stand ready to set up an appointment with you. It is a sacred honor and a holy privilege.
Reconciliation of a Penitent
The Anglican tradition is full of hidden treasures, among the chief of which is the discipline of private confession, now usually called the Reconciliation of a Penitent. Forgiveness, of course is basic to the Christian way of life, as we seek to do God's will and fall short of doing it. Episcopalians are encouraged to experience God's forgiveness in a number of ways: by acknowledging their sins in their own prayer before God; by use of the Confession and declaration of absolution by the priest which is a normal part of the celebration of the Eucharist; as well as by the rite of Reconciliation, now found in the Book of Common Prayer (pp.456-462). This rite continues the ministry Jesus gave to the church:
"Receive the Holy Spirit.
If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them;
If you retain the sins of any, they are retained."
(John 20 : 22-23)
The Church has come to value the discipline of private confession because it is a way of spiritual growth. Our perspective on our own actions is always limited, and we are not necessarily the ones best able to assure ourselves that God forgives us. In this form of confession to a fellow Christian, there is an opportunity for shared perspective, and the benefit of encouragement from another person who is on the same journey. When the confession is made to a priest, the absolution pronounced by him or her is given by one authorized by the community to declare God's forgiveness. The priest is bound absolutely to keep confidential the contents of each confession, and never to bring them up again unless invited to do so by the penitent.
Sin strikes most of us as a "gloomy" subject, but experiencing God's forgiveness is a crucial way of experiencing the victory of Jesus' resurrection. If you are new to this way of growth in the Christian life, you are encouraged to consult with a priest in advance so that he or she may answer any questions and help you prepare. Spiritual growth depends upon self-knowledge and shared perspectives in community, both of which are part of the Reconciliation of a Penitent.