Recently I have been attending a 1662 Book of Common Prayer service. Each week the service is the same, and each week we pray the same confession. It begins,
Almighty and most merciful Father, We have erred and strayed in our ways like lost sheep, We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts, We have offended against thy holy laws, We have left undone those things which we ought to have done, And we have done those things which we ought not have done, And there is no health in us ...
This is a stark confession. It is a confession that I am wrong. A confession that I am lost, that I am an offender, and I am sick.
I make these statements every Wednesday morning, in a church in the middle of Sydney's CBD. I am increasingly aware what's being said inside the church is very different to what is being said outside. At its core, this is the message: You have followed your heart too much. I do not think I hear this anywhere else.
Morality and desire are colliding in our culture. Within an ever-widening set of boundaries, what we want is what is right and any interrogation of those values is seen as an attack on the self. Set against the rise of the unimpeachable self, many of the statements in the confession simply do not make sense.
The confession admits we are not enough. We acknowledge we hurt ourselves, and hurt others; sometimes ignorantly, often deliberately. Our hearts do not always choose love and beauty, but also choose to be selfish and miserly and small.
The confession advocates for wariness of unchecked desire, because to follow our hearts will sometimes mean we choose the things we hate. The confession goes even beyond this. It does not paint a picture of a good human who occasionally makes bad decisions; but of one who carries something dark within them, a corruption which stains even the good decisions they make.
A message of humility
This is not a gospel of self-deprecation. The Bible's message is not ultimately one of self-loathing, but of humility. If humility is not thinking less of ourselves but thinking of ourselves less, then the prayer book presents not so much a confession of disgust at ourselves, but a confession of our need for another.
Where are we left?
The confession draws us outward, beyond ourselves. We are not told to dig deeper and find the goodness within us. We are reminded to throw ourselves into the arms of our almighty and most merciful Father, no matter how muddied and scarred we are by the road we have chosen.
In the prayer book we confess a liberty: we are in need of external redemption; the answer does not lie within us. What remains, then, is to receive grace and walk in humility.
James MacLeod lives in Sydney and is starting life as a commercial lawyer.
James MacLeod's previous articles may be viewed at http://www.pressserviceinternational.org/james-macleod.html