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Dear Friends in Valhalla Parish—

I write to you today with a great deal on my mind, especially as the Council of General Synod—our national church's governing council—meets online and in Toronto this week. Amongst many things on the church's agenda is a letter coauthored by those who survived abuse at the hands of male clergy in our church. This is a letter to which I am a co-signatory, not as an abuse survivor, but as one seeking to show solidarity with those who have been harmed. 

On Sunday, in my homily, I spoke briefly about this letter, and the temptation not to sign it. Not to stand for justice. Not to take whatever risks might be inherent in following my conscience. Not to join with the survivors of abuse in their calls that our church repent for the evil that it has done. I did sign the letter, but I confess, it took me awhile to get there.

The temptation towards self-preservation—in a time that I was facing a number of other difficult decisions—was great. It was through prayer and conversation with a number of trusted friends and colleagues that I arrived at a place where I chose to sign the letter. When—with my community—I discerned my next faithful steps, I signed the letter, and informed the Archbishop of the actions I had taken.

Earlier this week I had a wonderful conversation with someone who wondered about the form of Confession we are using throughout the Season of Lent. The form we are using for these 40 days is a mutual confession that emerged from the Iona Community in Scotland. The confession reads this way:

Before God, and  with the people of God, I confess to my brokenness: to the ways I wound my life, the lives of others, and the life of the world. 
May God forgive you, Christ renew you, and the Spirit enable you to grow in love. 

Before God, and with the people of God, we confess to our brokenness: to the ways we wound our lives, the lives of others, and the life of the world.  
May God forgive you, Christ renew you, and the Spirit enable you to grow in love. 

This confession starts with the words of the leader confessing their sins, speaking and embodying a way of confession before God and God's people.

After doing so, the community invites the leader to receive God's forgiveness. The community expresses its own participation in, and hope that the leader will receive this gift from God. This form of confession acknowledges the horizontal and vertical axes of both sin and forgiveness. We sin against God and one another. We receive forgiveness from one another, and from God. The liturgy next takes us through the congregation's confession, and voiced by the leader, the words of God's forgiveness.

Perhaps this form of confession takes us on a different journey than the one we are familiar with, and yet the territory is familiar: its contours include an acknowledgment of our manifold sins and wickedness (as the BCP puts it) and leads us towards God's promised and present forgiveness.

So why do it this way? What's wrong with the General Confession? 

First, there is nothing wrong with the General Confession! In fact, I love it. When I was a fresh seminary student, new to the Anglican Church of Canada, it was the first part of the liturgy I discovered I had internalized. Not intentionally so, but after a few weeks of mass, I found both that I had memorized it, and that in doing so, it began to work deeply in my soul. It gave new language (as someone emerging from evangelicalism) to my desire to be reconciled to God.

I love that we confess to our sins together—sins that are both corporate and individual. I especially love the moment in the liturgy when the promise and reality of God's forgiveness is proclaimed by the priest, assuring us of the breadth and power  and immediate reality of God's liberation. 

So why do it this way? In this season, and especially in this time when we have become increasingly aware of the abuses perpetuated by leaders of the church, this confession from Iona offers one way to acknowledge such brokenness. When I go first in confessing my brokenness before you, and when you point me towards God's forgiveness, this is one way in which we practice what it means to be a Christian community together. This is one way in which I, as a leader in the church, practice my confession before you. This is one way in which I demonstrate my accountability to God, and the community God has called me to serve.

As a leader, I do and will fall short. I hope and pray that as I do, I will be practiced at confessing my sins and seeking your forgiveness. Of course we acknowledge that church leaders sin. I'm certain each of you have seen the ways in which church leaders "wound their lives, the lives of others, and the life of the world" with their actions. It is a painful reality of humanity. It is a painful reality in the church. 

In this season of Lent, we are taking the opportunity to include this in our liturgy as a way of practicing confession in a new way. Not as a replacement for how we typically do so, but to cause us to reflect and create new pathways to seeking forgiveness when we, from time to time, do harm to one another.

When this season is over. When we find ourselves on the other side of Jesus' triumphal entry, his last supper, his betrayal, crucifixion, and resurrection, we will return to our familiar confession. For now, however, may we dwell for a time in this practice as we seek to navigate new pathways forward, pathways that are also grounded in God's grace and mercy, and a forgiveness that is available to one and all when we confess our sins.

Every Blessing, 

Andrew Stephens-Rennie
Valhalla Parish Missioner