I received an email asking why the confession in church is plural, “we confess,” rather than singular, “I confess.” Here’s the original email and my response:
This has been bugging me for a while and I’ve just never managed to corner a priest on Sunday. Why is the confession in the plural form?We confess we have sinned against You in thought, word & deed by what we have done and by what we have left undone…Why? Shouldn’t it be ‘I confess I have sinned against You…’ What if my sin bucket is larger this week than last week? Shouldn’t I take ownership of my larger sin instead of hiding behind the WE of the congregation? What if I was really really mean to my neighbor and really didn’t love them with my whole heart but the guy sitting in the pew in front of me totally loved their neighbor and helped with their gardening?And if it’s the Royal We then it invalidates the phrase “We are truly sorry and We humbly repent…” because you cannot be truly sorry and humble if you’re thinking of yourself as Royal.So why the WE?
What a great question! I’ve been pondering it ever since I received it.
I have a couple of thoughts. There is a tension in our spiritual lives between our personal, individual identity and our communal identity. In ancient times, individual identity was not important. The core unit of existence was the community. The “I” only existed in the service of the “we.” You can see some of this sensibility in Asian cultures. This of course can move to an unhealthy extreme, as in the “Borg” in Star Trek (If you’re familiar with this show. The Borg was a collective of beings where there was absolutely no individual identity.)
In contrast to this, our modern western sensibility stresses the “I” often to the exclusion of the “we.” Individual rights and freedoms are emphasized to the exclusion of community responsibility. Spiritually, you can see the emphasis on the individual in religious traditions that stress the salvation of individuals. From this perspective, Christianity is about individuals getting right with God so they can go to heaven. I believe there is a big danger in this perspective. I believe we are created to be in community and the tendency we have to separate ourselves from others is sinful. The Presiding Bishop, in one of her sermons at The General Convention, said this stress on individual salvation was the heresy of Western Christianity and I would agree.
I believe we need a balance between individual identity/responsibility and communal identity/responsibility. And I think given our inborn tendency in the west to stress the individual, we need to emphasise the communal.
In the Episcopal church, there is emphasis on both. We honor individual thought and perspectives. Nobody is expected to leave their individual identity or beliefs outside. We also honor the importance of individual spiritual practice.
At the same time, we are strongly communal. Sunday morning worship is not a collective of individuals who just happen to be together in one room. Rather we see ourselves as one Body. We are mystically connected to one another, and we rely on one another. At times I’m weaker, or plagued with doubts or anxieties, and it is the strength of the person next to me in the pew that keeps me going. In the creed we say, “WE believe” rather than “I believe” for this reason. The same is true for the confession. Your sins are not your business alone. Although you may be the only one who knows what your sins might have been, they still impact the community in ways we will never understand. For me, rather than hiding my sins in the royal “we,” there is a greater exposure knowing that my sins aren’t simply about Me ‘n God but there is a way in which I let the whole community down. And the community is failing in ways known and unknown and we need, as a community, to be absolved.
Yes, individual confession is important, and ideally you would have a practice of indivual confession, either by yourself or in the presence of a priest. But when we gather for Eucharist, we are expressing the communal part of our identity.
I hope this helps. I’ve copied Canon Carey on this email. He is very good at answering such questions and he might have a different perspective that would be helpful.