There seems to be a dispute between various priests regarding the use of general confession in the local parishes. Some acknowledge its use and some do not. In my time at St. Vladimir’s Seminary, it was used on a frequent basis. This is very confusing to the local parishoner.
Please explain the concept of general confession? How did it come into being? When is it proper to be used and how? Please settle this dispute once and for all.
In February 1972 the Holy Synod of Bishops of the Orthodox Church in America promulgated a document, “Confession and Communion: Report to the Holy Synod of Bishops of the Orthodox Church in America” by Protopresbyter Alexander Schmemann, in which General Confession is discussed. It is clear in this document that General Confession is proposed as a “school of repentance,” as a means of strengthening one’s spiritual life and bolstering one’s experience of individual Confession. It is stated quite clearly that “General Confession is not meant simply to replace individual confession” and that it “is not and must not become a substitute.” Father Schmemann also notes: “Experience shows, that those who take part in such a General Confession begin to have a much better individual confession.”
In the nearly three decades since this document was produced, there have been a variety of experiences, positive as well as negative, which people have shared concerning General Confession. While indeed many who take part in General Confession are much better prepared for individual Confession, there have also been cases in which, as a result of General Confession, people have in fact stopped going to individual Confession. This, of course, contradicts the intention of General Confession as a supplement to and preparation for individual Confession, thus making it the only form of Confession some people acknowledge.
One may say that, in cases where General Confession does indeed inspire people to repent and to offer a more thorough and serious individual Confession, it is to be encouraged. Pastorally speaking, however, one may also say that the best explanations, the best teaching, and the best preaching on the nature of General Confession cannot guarantee that people will not abuse it by considering it as a replacement for individual Confession. In cases where individual Confession has all but disappeared in favor of General Confession, one cannot necessarily assume that the fault lies with the pastor or his teaching style. [The best math teacher in the world cannot guarantee that every one of his or her students will understand what he or she is teaching in exactly the same way.] So, to some degree, General Confession has created some confusion in some places, especially where the people, despite the teaching of the parish priest, elect on their own to participate in General Confession while refusing to participate in individual Confession.
In my own pastoral experience, I noticed two things years ago:
Indeed, many people came to individual Confession much better prepared because they had consistently participated in General Confession.
At the same time the number of individual Confessions, as well as their frequency, was greatly reduced.
A frequently-cited concern is that, regardless of how well the concept of General Confession is explained—in my case I distributed copies of the 1972 document to everyone in the parish, held adult discussions, published a special pamphlet, and delivered sermons on the subject!—there will always be those who see General Confession as an “easy option,” as a way to “go to Confession” without having to “get personal,” so to speak. This can create exactly the opposite effect that General Confession was intended to generate.
In every instance a pastoral approach must be taken. If it is the experience in a given community that General Confession indeed fulfills its purpose as an aid to the faithful in repentance and a form of preparation for more serious individual Confession, then it would seem that it should be encouraged. If, on the other hand, General Confession has become a replacement for individual Confession—and this indeed can happen even when the parish priest makes it very clear from the onset that such is not the case—then confusion arises and individual Confession falls in danger of extinction. The “disputes” between various priests over the matter are undoubtedly generated by their genuine, individual experiences which, of course, can vary dramatically from parish to parish.
The full explanation of General Confession in the 1972 document is found on pages 13 through 16. You may wish to ask your parish priest for a copy of this document, in which the subject is discussed in detail.