But in our haste to do the right thing in ending the abuses of the church, we should be careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Though there are a variety of reasons it has fallen out of popularity, perhaps the primary one is that the church (and her priests) do not encourage--and in some cases are not familiar with--the rite, its use, and its benefit. As a result, misperceptions around the sacrament abound.
There is a common idea, especially among Episcopalians, that one need not go to confession unless one has some grave mortal sin weighing on one's soul. The thought is that confession may be appropriate for someone who has committed a murder, someone who is guilty of adultery, or perhaps someone who has embezzled funds from their company. The famous mantra of "All may, some should, none must" becomes something closer to "All may, they probably should, but I certainly don't need to." And this is a particularly risky place to find oneself. It is tempting, of course, to pull the mote out of our brother's eye, but we are warned not to do so without first pulling the log out of our own. We all, after all, have fallen short of the glory of God, and we all stand in need of forgiveness and redemption.
And therein lies the beauty of confession. There is not one single person who could not benefit from making a confession and hearing God's forgiveness pronounced, not in a general sense to the gathered community, not in the "God forgives everyone's sins" sense, but directly, individually, personally. You, beloved child of God, are loved, reconciled, and made new.
We don't only need to hear that when we're in a state of grievous mortal sin, we don't only need to hear that when we are in extremis as we approach the end of life, we don't only need to hear that before a major threshold. It is a benefit to each of us, a reminder of God's boundless grace, of God's divinity, and of our own personal, fragile, and precious humanity to hear "I absolve you from all your sins: In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit." We are part of a community, part of the body of Christ around the world and throughout time, but we are also individuals in need of the empowering love of God.
The purpose of confession is exactly that type of restoration and reconciliation. It is not to beat us over the head with guilt or shame, it is not to make us feel bad about our shortcomings, it is not to mire us in the muck of our own sin, it's to help us be aware of how God moves us from that darkness and trouble into light and peace. We may say "all may, some should, none must," but the reality is that all may, and all should. So let me encourage each and every person to make a fearless moral inventory and confess to God and the Church our shortcomings, so that we can hear those comforting words and re-enter the world forgiven, loved, and free.
*The rite is listed in the Book of Common Prayer as Reconciliation of a Penitent. Though I am a strong advocate for the rite, I prefer to call it confession. Reconciliation occurs anytime someone is absolved of their sins, whether corporately or individually. The Sacrament of Reconciliation does just that, but it does it through an intentional accounting and confession of individual sins one has committed, and much of the pastoral significance of the rite is the opportunity to name before God and the church our sins, to "get it off of our chest" so to speak. As such, my preference is to continue to refer to the rite as confession as I have done through most of this posting.