“Penance” is one of those “gloomy” words which are considered unfashionable and counter-productive these days. Penance suggests that we have done something wrong and there is practically nothing which is considered wrong in the present age! That is a curious perversion of the modern mind in view of the fact that modern mind accepts psychiatry without question and even with enthusiasm.
Yet what is the psychiatric couch but a modern variation of the religious confessional box? On the couch, the patient pours out all the things which have gone wrong in his life -- or, more accurately, all the things he has done wrong. We call these wrongs complexes or traumas. But what are complexes and traumas but sin? And what is the story poured forth to a psychiatrist but confession and a search for healing and forgiveness? Christ and His Church discovered these truths long before medical psychiatry did.
Repentance is as old as Christianity (and indeed much older, for the Old Testament is full of exhortations and examples of repentance (e.g. Job 42:6). Christ’s ministry began with the command to repent (Mark 1:15) and it ended with the command to preach repentance (Luke 24:47). Accordingly, the Christian Church has always included the confession of sin, the asking of forgiveness and the resolution to do better as among the duties of a true Christian.
Penance starts with repentance, with sorrow and regret for the mistakes we have made, the sins we have committed. For what is sin but a mistake in the eyes of God, a transgression of the laws of God? In some cases it may be a major and deadly sin, like murder or adultery. In most cases it is a minor sin, like cheating, gossiping, an unkindness. These are things we are all guilty of at times. We prefer not to think of them as sins, but they are, and unless repented of, they can be damaging to us and to our relationship with God.
The starting point, then, is acknowledgement of error, mistake, wrongdoing, sin-acknowledgement first to ourselves, then to God, either directly or through His priest. That is repentance, resulting in confession. Then comes the asking for forgiveness and the obtaining of absolution from God, directly or through His priest, so that a new start can be made, a new path followed. A new start, of course, involves a resolution to do better. Repentance, confession, forgiveness and resolve to do better -- these are the elements of penance.
Most parts of the Catholic Church provide formal ways in which penance can be made. In some Anglican churches, this is also true. However, Anglicanism certainly recognizes the need for repentance and absolution, even though it provides no special office for this purpose. In the Holy Communion and in the Daily Offices, the Book of Common Prayer makes provision for a “General”, or common and public, Confession, followed by absolution in God’s name by the priest. The Office for the Visitation of the Sick makes provision for confession of sin if the sick person so desires. And in the second Exhortation printed at the end for the Order for the Holy Communion (pp 86-88, BCP), all whose consciences are uneasy are specifically enjoined to confess to God or the priest for counsel and forgiveness.
Thus Anglicanism implicitly and in some ways explicitly recognizes Penance as one of the sacramental ways in which the Christian worshiper and believer can draw nearer to and reconcile himself with God seeking (and, if sincere, obtaining) forgiveness and thus healing and spiritual health. The Church knew and preached these values long before psychiatry did and it still offers them as free and priceless gifts of God to all who seek him.