Students who worship at the Absalom Jones Episcopal Center are not necessarily Episcopalian. In fact, many of them get their first introductions to a liturgical tradition via the Center. Because of their unfamiliarity with the tradition, some rather odd things can happen during the liturgy. Most of the oddities are non-consequential, but one student’s interpretation of the Compline confession has made a lasting impression:
At the last Compline of the fall semester, I invite a student to lead the liturgy. Although he regularly attends this service, this is only his second time leading. So, rather timidly, Peter begins the service. With the first few lines handled well, Peter confidently reads, “Let us confess our sins to God.” I make eye contact with him hoping to remind him to provide time for silent confessions before continuing with the corporate confession. Peter pauses for a beat, and then he proceeds by stating his confession aloud.
Softly and humbly, the young man says, “I pray for forgiveness because I have harbored jealousy in my heart.” Some of my students begin to giggle nervously, others stare at him in shock, and internally I’m saying some bad words out of fear that he’s going to “over-share.” He continues, “I really like this girl, and every time I see her boyfriend, I just can’t help it. I’m so jealous…” He finishes his confession with a sigh, and then an awkward silence ensues. Facial expressions from other students convey their bewilderment and questions. Their eyes ask me where do we go from here?
Responding to their need for direction, I simply thank the young man for trusting us enough to articulate aloud his confession. Internally, I’m completely thrown off and don’t really know what to do. But I continue speaking, “I now invite you all to make your own confessions. You may do this out loud, as so beautifully illustrated by Peter, or you may confess silently. After some time for reflection, we will all together make the corporate confession to God as printed in your leaflets.”
The silence blares. I fearfully wait for someone else to speak. I wait fearing that I myself might speak. Should I, the priest, the chaplain of these young souls confess aloud of my sinfulness? Could I, the one who pronounces absolution to them, admit aloud my own personal need of absolution? Would I allow my students a glimpse of my own vulnerabilities and provide a witness to the sacredness of this moment?
Before I can answer those questions, Peter begins, “Almighty God, our heavenly Father: we have sinned…” A chorus of relieved voices joins in the remainder of the confession.