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Liturgy of Repentance



THE RITE OF CONFESSION has been observed from the beginning of the Christian Church and developed into three liturgical forms:

  1. Private Confession, after self examination, directly to God or to other Christians;
  2. Sacramental Confession to God before a priest or pastor leading to personal acts of penance;
  3. General Confession by the whole worshiping assembly for its unrighteousness before God and the human community. A statement of absolution by a duly constituted representative of the Body of Christ follows the General Confession.

CHURCH TRADITION has maintained that the three forms of confession are distinct and that only the General Confession of the whole body is appropriate for public worship. There were some occasions, especially in the Ash Wednesday service of the ancient church, when a private confession of a grave sin (murder or idolatry) led to a person’s exclusion and then, after penance, readmission to the worshiping body. General confession by the whole body, however, became normative.

The liturgy this evening is built on the traditional claim that the General Confession in worship is directed to God and that everyone in the assembly is invited to make confession. Even though the assembly is confessing a particular sin of racism, all worshipers are encouraged to participate in the signs of penance and reconciliation.

THE ORDER OF THE WORSHIP SERVICE for this evening is structured by the three parts of the General Confession, prefaced by an Opening Ritual. The flow of the liturgical action will be:

Opening Ritual
General Confession
  Part I Lament
  Part II Petition for Forgiveness
  Part III Resolve to Amend
Sending Forth

Protestants have tended to focus on Contrition and Confession (Parts I and II) while being less forthcoming about the necessity for acts of penance or restitution to seal the Resolve to Amend. The Resolve to Amend should free the church, however, to choose actions in the future that will help to repair the harm and to affect reconciliation with those who have suffered.

THREE BIBLICAL SYMBOLS will occur during the service to help the assembly move into the General Confession. The three prophetic signs are: the Plumb-line (Amos 7:7-9); Salt (Numbers 18:19; 2 Chronicles 13:5; Matthew 5:13); Sackcloth and Ashes (Joel 1:13; Jeremiah 6:26-30; Lamentations 2:10).

TRUE REPENTANCE is one of the most difficult tasks any Christian communion can undertake. This will, therefore, not be a comfortable service of worship; in fact, the assembly should experience a variety of challenging emotions. The General Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns and The Council of Bishops offer this night as an occasion when the representative assembly can acknowledge endemic racism in our church and move, in cooperation with the Pan-Methodist Commission on Union, toward justice and unity.

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