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Ministry Monday: Retaining ‘you’ in absolution: further reflections (1/2)

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Posted by Tom Woolford, 24 Oct 2016

Tom Woolford continues the discussion about saying 'you' in the absolution.

Last week I posted a defence of the traditional ‘you’ absolution, and – by my modest standards – it provoked a flurry of discussion of the blogosphere. I believe it was ‘shared’ on Facebook at least 8 times!

In this first of two further reflections, I’d like to make an observation and offer some clarifying remarks – particularly with reference to the most common question I received; namely, ‘Isn’t the ‘you’ absolution still a petition?’

The observation is this: support for my angle came from a surprising variety of sources. It was ‘liked’ and retweeted both by robustly Reformed Anglicans and Presbyterians, by at least one Lutheran, by some more ‘Catholic’ Anglicans, and by several Reformed Baptists. It was critiqued by some low-church Anglican Evangelicals and some who traced their church tradition (in at least some degree) to anabaptism.

The dividing line between those who agreed and those who disagreed was emphatically not soteriological, but between those with a traditional high view of ordination and the ministry (permanent, catholic, distinct), and those with a traditional low view of ordination and the ministry (occasional, local, democratic).

Those with (radically) differing grounds for their high view of presbyteral ordination and ministry (for instance a more Roman sacramental-ontological view, and a high Lutheran/Reformed Word-mediating-functional view) were agreed on its liturgical implications – particularly as it concerns the absolution and presidency at the Lord’s Table. But it was clear that many of those uneasy with the ‘you’ absolution had never understood – or even encountered – the high Reformed view of ordination. When Nigel Atkinson presented such a view to the JAEC conference, many – of these ordinands and junior clergy – were hearing it for the very first time (a printed version of Nigel’s address is available in this book).

There seems to be a lacuna in contemporary evangelical discourse. We need to fill it, not least so that we better understand our Reformed heritage.

Isn’t it still a petition?
The most common query was this: isn’t the ‘you’ absolution still a petition? My interlocutors agreed that the ‘us’ version did make the absolution into something indistinguishable from a petition (or even, as I argued, another confession). But they contended that the ‘you’ version still fell short of a declaration, as it is still a request for God to do something.

It is meant as a pronouncement
The Prayer Book clearly regards it as a declaration. Its rubric states, following the general confession:

“Then shall the Priest (or the Bishop, being present) stand up, and turning himself to the people, pronounce this Absolution.”

However the absolution sounds to modern ears, the intention is certainly that the absolution is heard as a pronouncement rather than a petition.

The jussive mood
The second thing to say is that I think there is indeed some admittedly archaic (but not yet extinct) grammar going on here!

The absolution – I think – takes a jussive ‘mood’ – “a grammatical mood of verbs for issuing orders, commanding, or exhorting (within a subjunctive framework).” Such a mood exists in English, but is ‘not marked’ (you can’t tell from the naked form of the verb, but only from context).

It is true, therefore, that the absolution is not strictly ‘indicative’ – a plain statement of fact. But the jussive mood in the absolution is not a petition in the same sense as the confession. It can’t be in any straightforward way: it is addressed to ‘you,’ the congregation, and we don’t petition the congregation to grant their own forgiveness.

By its jussive mood, the ‘you’ absolution is as close to a command as it is reverent to address to God. The jussive mood preserves the actual granting of forgiveness of sins to God alone – it recognizes liturgically that it is his work – while being simultaneously addressed to the second person plural (‘you’) with the force of a declaration. Clever, eh?!

Such a concept is not so alien to Bible readers as we might suppose. In Jude 9 we read that even the archangel Michael when contending with the devil, “did not presume to pronounce a blasphemous judgment, but said, ‘The Lord rebuke you.’” The archangel was in no doubt that the devil was worthy of condemnation – nor that he would indeed be condemned – and intended that his words were to be heard with the force of God’s curse. But by his jussive address, “The Lord rebuke you,” Michael humbly acknowledged that the condemnation was the Lord’s to make. God is the primary author of the verdict pronounced by his servant. So too in absolution – but for forgiveness, not curse.

The absolution, then, has the force of a declaration to ‘you’ after all, but is carefully nuanced in the mood of its implied address to God.

[Some might claim that the ‘us’ absolution is also in the jussive mood. The problem remains that, given the jussive is formally ‘unmarked’ in English, the ‘us’ absolution is completely indistinguishable from a petition/confession - indeed almost identical to sections of the general confession. The jussive with the second person address (‘you’), however, is clearly different to the confession. So if you want the jussive mood to come through in the absolution, the ‘you’ version makes it clearer than the ‘us’ version. Which is ironic, given that the ‘us’ absolution is favoured by some for being ‘clearer.’ If it is not another confession - which it isn’t/shouldn’t be - the ‘us’ absolution is actually less clear!]

Representing Christ
Third, simply by addressing the congregation in the second person (‘you’) the minister is by definition speaking by virtue of his office. If he were not, then he would join himself in word and position with all the other saints. But in pronouncing absolution he is fulfilling the function of a presbyter: ‘turning himself to the people,’ he mediates the word of the Gospel to God’s Church.

He is not mediating in a soteriological-ontological mode (for there is One Mediator in that sense), but in a liturgical-functional mode. When we hear the gospel word proclaimed in the congregation (and what is the absolution if not the gospel word proclaimed?) we hear God speak. And when God speaks, new reality is created. His word is effective. The absolution is a speech-act: “If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven;” “whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” This is Christ’s commission as he prepares his people for ministry in his bodily absence. God’s design, wrote Calvin, is “to consecrate the mouths and tongues of men to his service, making his own voice to be heard in them” (Institutes IV.i.5). When you hear the presbyter address and absolve ‘you,’ you are, as-it-were, overhearing Christ make his certainly-granted intercession on your behalf before his Father. That makes it a better, more powerful word to hear than the straightforward (wonderfully true) indicative statement, “God has mercy upon us.”

Note in passing (for more information, consult Andrew Atherstone’s Latimer book) that in the Prayer Book’s order for the private visitation of the sick, the presbyter even says the very words, “I absolve thee from all thy sins.” But he only does so having first established that he is speaking by virtue of his office: the form for the pronouncement itself makes clear that it is in the name of “Our Lord Jesus Christ, who hath left power to his Church to absolve all sinners,” and “by his authority committed to me” that the priest says “I absolve thee.”

Christ gave the keys of the kingdom to the apostles. Whether we believe that the keys were given to the apostles as the church, or to the apostles as the first church leaders, we end up in the same place liturgically: the presbyter acting in his office as either the appointed representative of the church, or the successor to the office of apostle (or both), putting the keys to use. The question is not, ‘Has Christ given the keys of the kingdom?’ The question rather is, ‘Do we dare use them?’


Tom Woolford is a Diocese of Blackburn Ordinand, studying at Oak Hill College.

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