Understanding Confession in the Episcopal Church

The sacrament of confession, also known as reconciliation or penance, varies significantly among Christian denominations. Within the Episcopal Church, confession holds a particular place, distinct from its role in the Roman Catholic tradition. Understanding these …

The sacrament of confession, also known as reconciliation or penance, varies significantly among Christian denominations. Within the Episcopal Church, confession holds a particular place, distinct from its role in the Roman Catholic tradition. Understanding these differences and the overall Episcopal approach to confession can provide insights into their broader theological and liturgical practices. This article delves into what confession means in the Episcopal Church and examines related questions such as Episcopal views on saints, praying to saints, and the comparison between Catholic and Episcopal Eucharistic practices.

Understanding Confession in the Episcopal Church

Confession in the Episcopal Church is distinct from the Roman Catholic Sacrament of Penance. Epistemologically, it is considered a rite rather than a formal sacrament. Episcopalians often refer to it as the “Reconciliation of a Penitent.” Unlike in Catholicism, where confession is generally more mandatory and regular, the Episcopal Church holds the tenet that “all may, some should, none must.” This phrase encapsulates the somewhat relaxed approach towards confession in the Episcopal tradition, underscoring its voluntary nature.

In Episcopal liturgy, the general confession occurs during worship services, where the congregation collectively prays for forgiveness. This form of confession is communal rather than individual and reflects the Episcopal focus on corporate worship and community. Individual confession is also available and can be done privately with a priest, who offers absolution. However, it is less regimented compared to Catholic practice.

The Role of Confession in Episcopal Liturgy

The general confession is an integral part of the Episcopal liturgy, especially in the Holy Eucharist and Daily Offices like Morning and Evening Prayer. During the service, the congregation collectively confesses their sins and receives absolution from the priest, reinforcing the community’s shared faith and repentance.

Private confession, although less common, is available for those who seek personal absolution and counsel. This practice provides an opportunity for personal reflection and guidance under the confidentiality of the confessional. However, it is not seen as a requisite for participating in communion or being in good standing within the Episcopal Church.

Historical Background of Confession in the Episcopal Church

The approach to confession in the Episcopal Church is rooted in the Church of England’s history and its break from Roman Catholicism during the Reformation. The Book of Common Prayer, established in the 16th century, laid the foundation for public and private confession practices within Anglicanism. The Reformation emphasized a direct personal relationship with God, reducing the emphasis on sacraments administered exclusively by priests. This perspective influenced how confession is viewed and practiced in the Episcopal tradition.

Episcopalian vs. Catholic

Differing Perspectives on Confession

The Catholic Church considers confession a sacrament, essential for the forgiveness of sins and the penitent’s reconciliation with God. Confession must be made to a priest, who acts in persona Christi (in the person of Christ), to offer absolution. Regular confession is strongly encouraged, especially for mortal sins that sever the believer’s relationship with God.

In contrast, the Episcopal Church’s less stringent approach allows for more personal discretion. There is a greater reliance on communal prayers of confession within liturgy and a more symbolic role for private confession. The Episcopal Church maintains that while confession is beneficial, it is not indispensable for receiving God’s grace.

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Views on Saints and Intercessory Prayer

In both traditions, saints hold an important place, but their roles and the practices surrounding them differ. The Catholic Church venerates saints and encourages the faithful to seek their intercession through prayer. These saints are seen as mediators who can intercede before God on behalf of individuals.

Episcopalians honor saints and recognize their exemplary lives and contributions to the faith. However, they do not emphasize praying to saints for intercession. Instead, they focus on looking up to saints as models of Christian virtue. The belief is that all believers are united in the Body of Christ, and while the saints are venerated, they are not viewed as intercessors.

The Eucharist: Catholic vs. Episcopal

The Eucharist, or Holy Communion, is central to both Catholic and Episcopal worship, but significant theological differences exist. The Catholic Church teaches the doctrine of transubstantiation, where the bread and wine become the actual body and blood of Jesus Christ. This belief underscores the sacramental mystery and the presence of Christ in the Eucharist.

Episcopalians hold to a belief in the Real Presence but do not define it in the same terms. The Episcopal understanding is often described as “real yet mystical” and does not embrace the specific concept of transubstantiation. The Eucharist in the Episcopal Church is a means of grace and a communal act of remembrance and thanksgiving.


Understanding confession in the Episcopal Church illuminates broader differences between Episcopalian and Catholic practices and beliefs. In the Episcopal tradition, confession is viewed more as a beneficial practice than a mandatory sacrament, reinforcing personal and communal repentance. Episcopalians honor saints but do not typically pray for their intercession, focusing instead on their inspirational lives. Additionally, the theological nuances of the Eucharist highlight differing views on the presence of Christ in the sacraments between the two traditions.

Here are a few FAQ

Does the Episcopal Church have confession?
Yes, the Episcopal Church does have confession, both in a communal form during services and privately with a priest, but it is not as mandatory or frequent as in the Catholic Church.

What is the Catholic view of the Episcopal Church?
The Catholic Church views the Episcopal Church as a Christian denomination with valid baptisms but does not recognize its priesthood or sacraments as equivalent to those in the Catholic Church.

Do Episcopalians believe in saints?
Yes, Episcopalians honor saints and view them as exemplary figures in the Christian faith.

Do Episcopalians pray to saints?
Generally, no. Episcopalians acknowledge saints more as role models than as intercessors and do not typically pray for their intercession.

What is the difference between Catholic and Episcopal Eucharist?
Catholics believe in transubstantiation, where the bread and wine become the actual body and blood of Christ. Episcopalians believe in the Real Presence in a less defined, mystical sense without the specific doctrine of transubstantiation.



  • “The Book of Common Prayer” by The Episcopal Church
  • “The Anglican Tradition: A Handbook of Sources” edited by Geoffrey Rowell
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  • “Confession in the Episcopal Church” by The Living Church
  • “Understanding the Sacraments: Reconciliation” by The Anglican Digest

The Role of Confession in Episcopal Liturgy

Confession holds a significant place within the liturgical practices of the Episcopal Church. Unlike the Roman Catholic Church, where confession is typically a private sacrament conducted in a confessional box, confession in the Episcopal Church often occurs within the context of public worship. This communal aspect of confession underscores the Anglican theological understanding that sin affects not only the individual but also the community.

General Confession in Regular Services

During the regular services, notably in the Holy Eucharist, a general confession is made by the congregation. This corporate confession is usually led by the priest, who invites the congregation to either kneel or remain seated while collectively acknowledging their sins before God. The Book of Common Prayer, a cornerstone of Anglican worship, provides the liturgical text for this general confession, which typically includes phrases like “We confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed,” thus covering a range of moral and ethical shortcomings.


Following the confession, the priest offers an absolution, which signifies God’s forgiveness. It is essential to understand that, in the Episcopal tradition, the priest acts as a representative of the community and God, affirming the communal nature of reconciliation. The liturgy proceeds with the assurance that the congregation, now absolved, is prepared to participate fully in the Eucharist.

Private Confession

However, private confession and absolution, often referred to as the Rite of Reconciliation of a Penitent, are also available in the Episcopal Church. Though not required, it is an option for those who feel the need for individual confession and bespoke pastoral care. This rite is confidential, and the seal of confession is absolute; the priest may never disclose what is confessed.

Multiple Roles of Confession

Confession thus serves multiple roles within the Episcopal liturgy: it is an acknowledgment of human fallibility, a communal expression of repentance, a channel for divine forgiveness, and a means for personal spiritual guidance. These elements together contribute to the holistic spiritual health of both the individual and the community.

Historical Background of Confession in the Episcopal Church

The concept of confession in the Episcopal Church has deep historical roots that date back to the early Christian church, reflecting a rich tapestry of theological evolution and liturgical practice. Understanding this historical background sheds light on how contemporary Episcopal confession rituals have been shaped.

Early Christian Church

In the earliest days of Christianity, confession was predominantly a public act. Penitents confessed their sins before the entire congregation and received public penance. This practice underscored the communal nature of sin and reconciliation, aligning closely with the early Christian understanding that sin damages the fabric of the entire community, not just the individual.

Medieval Period

As the church evolved, particularly during the early medieval period, the practice of private confession and penance began to emerge more prominently. This shift was influenced significantly by the monastic tradition, where regular private confession was part of monastic discipline and spirituality. By the 5th century, the sacrament of penance as a private act became more formalized.

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The Reformation

The Reformation in the 16th century brought about significant changes in the theology and practice of confession in various Christian traditions, including Anglicanism. Leaders like Martin Luther and John Calvin critiqued the Roman Catholic sacrament of penance, emphasizing that confession to a priest was not necessary for forgiveness, which could be granted directly by God. This theological perspective influenced the Anglican reformers, shaping the emerging Church of England’s approach to confession.

Post-Reformation Era

The Book of Common Prayer, first published in 1549, incorporated a general confession within its liturgy, reflecting both the Reformation’s theological convictions and the retention of certain traditional elements. This move aimed to balance the need for individual repentance with a communal expression of sin and forgiveness.

1979 Edition of the Book of Common Prayer

In the Episcopal Church, the practice continued to adapt. The 1979 revision of the Book of Common Prayer, which is currently in use, provides comprehensive rites for both general and private confession. This edition includes a renewed emphasis on the Rite of Reconciliation of a Penitent, making explicit provisions for private confession and absolution.

Contemporary Perspective

Throughout its history, the Episcopal Church has maintained a distinctive approach to confession that is less sacramental than that of the Roman Catholic Church but more structured than in many Protestant traditions. This middle way reflects the broader Anglican ethos of via media, blending reformed and catholic elements.

Understanding this historical progression helps to appreciate the Episcopal Church’s nuanced and multifaceted approach to confession today. It highlights the church’s ongoing commitment to both individual spiritual growth and communal integrity, rooted in centuries of evolving Christian practice.


1. What is the purpose of confession in the Episcopal Church?
Answer: The purpose of confession in the Episcopal Church is to provide a means for individuals to acknowledge their sins, seek forgiveness, and receive spiritual guidance and absolution from a priest.

2. Is confession mandatory for Episcopalians?
Answer: No, confession is not mandatory for Episcopalians. It is seen as a pastoral tool that is available for those who feel called to use it, but it is not a required practice.

3. How does the confidentiality aspect work in Episcopal confession?
Answer: The confidentiality aspect of confession, known as the “seal of confession,” ensures that anything disclosed during the sacrament remains completely confidential between the individual and the priest, and cannot be disclosed to anyone else.

4. Can confession be done privately in the Episcopal Church, or does it have to be part of a public service?
Answer: Confession in the Episcopal Church can be done privately, often referred to as “auricular confession,” and does not have to be part of a public service. Individuals can schedule a private session with a priest.

5. What is the role of a priest during confession in the Episcopal Church?
Answer: The role of a priest during confession in the Episcopal Church is to listen to the individual’s confession, provide guidance, offer counsel, and pronounce absolution, assuring the penitent of God’s forgiveness.

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