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

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Posted by Tom Woolford, 31 Oct 2016

Tom Woolford continues his defence of the 'you' form of absolution, addressing the questions "Who absolves the presbyter?" and "Is it worth explaining?"

In what shall be my final post in this series on the ‘you’ form of the absolution, I consider another two questions often asked in response to my first piece, (second piece here) and offer a final challenge.

Who absolves the presbyter?
One of the advantages of social media is that one’s ideas can get sharpened by a series of penetrating questions. A couple of astute friends were more-or-less convinced by the argument for retaining the ‘you’ in absolution, but wanted to ask, ‘Who absolves the presbyter?’

Two closely-related concerns, I believe, lie behind this question. First, a concern for the congregation: how does the presbyter show liturgically that he, too, is a sinner in need of absolution from outside himself? If he is ever absolving and never absolved, that is (unintentionally) communicating a difference (in holiness? In closeness to God?) between the person acting as presbyter and the people. Second, a concern for the presbyter himself: given that the ‘you’ absolution is an effective, affective means of grace, how can the presbyter himself receive this benefit? Excellent questions. I offer two brief responses and make one tentative suggestion (for which I invite critique):

1. If there is more than one presbyter in the church, the problem goes away. Taking it in turns to fulfil the office of presbyter liturgically in the congregation, the minister receives absolution from another, and the church sees him do so.

2. When the bishop visits – as the Prayer Book rubric dictates – he pronounces the absolution. This is one of the benefits of an episcopal visit: it does liturgically and appropriately humble the man who is normally only seen leading.

Now, there is not a problem of infinite regress here (‘Who absolves the bishop? Who absolves the archbishop who absolved the bishop?’) because – as we have seen – absolution is pronounced by a presbyter in his liturgical-functional office, not his ontological-personal self. So absolution emphatically doesn’t need to ascend up a ladder of being! When absolution occurs, it is Christ absolving: there is no higher up to go! The bishop absolves - as a presbyter - acting in the stead of Christ. He absolves as the man fulfilling this presbyteral function at this particular moment. On other occasions, he will not be acting in that capacity, and will receive absolution and the sacrament at the lips and hands of another who is then liturgically representing Christ.

3. A tentative suggestion, perhaps for churches with just one presbyter and rare episcopal visits: Could we come up with a form of words that could, occasionally, be used by the congregation to pronounce absolution for their presbyter in his capacity as an individual, sinful Christian? “Tom, we – the Church – pronounce you absolved.”

I admit there are several problems with this (the congregation has not been ‘duly authorised,’ there is no Anglican precedent [I think], it doesn’t seem to correlate with how the Lord’s Supper is administered, and others besides) – but they may not be insuperable, and in certain contexts it might bring benefit that outweighs some of its inconsistencies. The only precedent I can think of is monastic: the abbot would hear confession and absolve the monks privately, but then receive absolution himself by all the brothers together. Doubtless a medieval monastery asking the question, ‘who absolves the absolver?’ is likely asking it for different reasons (many of which we’d reject). Even though our reasons are liturgical-functional and not sacramental, however, it is the same question – and perhaps instructive that this was once an attempted answer. I am not convinced of my own suggestion, but I hope it stimulates further thought.

Is it worth explaining?
I may have satisfied readers of the doctrinal legitimacy of the ‘you’ absolution and yet not convinced them to use it. The concern for some remains that either or both of the subjunctive mood and the minister’s liturgical-functional mediation of Christ are too obscure to be understood; and that, therefore, either the petitionary ‘us’ form or some third person indicative declaration – even if a dilution of the properly-understood ‘you’ absolution – is nowadays appropriate.

I respect ministers’ right to make that call. But I think investing time (or space in our printed service books?) teaching what the liturgy is actually doing at this and other points is worth the pay-off – the pay-off of hearing that the otherwise abstract and historically-distant ‘forgiveness of sins’ (in terms of our corporate liturgical expression) is actually applied by the agency of the Spirit through the Word ministered in the congregation to you. To me. The Gospel breaks through both my subjective plea to God (‘have mercy upon us’) and the brute, objective – though true and glorious! – third person fact (‘God has forgiven those who repent and believe’) to grab me from outside myself and outside my orthodox systematic theology to say ‘this has been done for you.’

A moral problem?
Finally, I want to ask a provocative question. I hope it provokes not anger, but self-examination. I think there’s sometimes an undercurrent not of an intellectual inability to grasp the legitimacy of the ‘you’ absolution, but a moral difficulty in accepting it. Consider:

Presbyter: “Have mercy upon you, pardon and deliver you from all your sins…”

Response: “You have gone too far! For all in the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the Lord is among them. Why then do you exalt yourselves above the assembly of the Lord?”

This response sounds a bit like my previous objection to the ‘you’ absolution. But the words, of course, are - rather uncomfortably - from Numbers 16:3: Korah’s rebellion. It may be that a part of the objection to the ‘you’ form of absolution is a jealousy – dressed up in the respectable clothing of the true and good principle of the royal priesthood of all believers – that God through his Church calls some to the noble office of presbyter but not all. The ‘you’ absolution may have been sacrificed in part and subconsciously on the altar of Equality. ‘Us’ in the absolution obviates all distinction in the congregation (indeed, that’s precisely why some adopt it).

But presbyter, in some senses you have been set above the assembly! What’s more. you know this! That’s why you police the pulpit and fence the Table.

And people – you have set him above you in those senses. At his ordination as presbyter, you assented to and prayed for his ordination – at which the Bishop committed to him the authority to absolve sins in Christ’s name. You have fewer grounds for resenting his delegated exercise of authority than Korah did – for Moses was not called by God through the people, as our presbyters are, but despite!

Questions and concerns will doubtless remain for many – of whom several I am sure are not guilty of Korah-esque jealousy nor of capitulating to the spirit of the age. But self-examination can’t hurt, just in case.

SDG, and God bless you!


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

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