While a system of Church discipline carried out by presentments and excommunications was still, more or less effectually, in force, commutation of penance was very properly a matter for grave and careful consideration. It was obvious that laxity on such a point might fairly lay the Church open to a reproach, which Dissenters did not fail to make, of ’indulgences for sale.’ One of William III.’s injunctions of 1695 was that ’no commutation of penance be made but by the express order of the bishop, and that the commutation be applied only to pious and charitable uses.’ Early in Queen Anne’s reign, in consequence of abuses which existed, the subject was debated in Convocation, and some stringent resolutions passed, by which it was hoped that commutations, where allowed, might be rendered perfectly unexceptionable. Some lay chancellors, on the other hand, wished to do away with penance altogether, and to substitute a regular system of fines payable to the public purse.
The poet Wordsworth has said that one of his earliest remembrances was the going to church one week-day to see a woman doing penance in a white sheet, and the disappointment of not getting a penny, which he had been told was given to all lookers-on. This must have been a very rare event at that date—about 1777. Early in the century this sort of ecclesiastical pillory was somewhat more common. But it was evidently quite unfrequent even then. Pope’s parish clerk is made to speak of it as distinctly an event. This, which was called ‘solemn penance,’ as contrasted with that lesser form which might consist only of confession and satisfaction, was an ordeal which sounds like a strange anachronism in times so near our own. Bishop Hildesley thus describes it in the Isle of Man, where it was enforced upon certain delinquents far more generally than elsewhere. ’The manner of doing penance is primitive and edifying. The penitent, clothed in a white sheet, &c., is brought into the church immediately before the Litany, and there continues till the sermon is ended; after which, and a proper exhortation, the congregation are desired to pray for him in a form prescribed for the purpose.’ This having been done, so soon as it could be certified to the bishop that his repentance was believed to be sincere, he might be received back again, ‘by a very solemn form,’ into the peace of the Church. In England generally the ceremony was in all respects the same, except that no regular form existed for the readmission of penitents. Jones of Alconbury, in the ‘Free and Candid Disquisitions’ (1749), spoke of the need of a recognised office for this purpose. That which was commonly used had no authority, and was very imperfect. A form also for excommunication was also, he thought, a definite want of the English Church. For want of some such solemnity, excommunication was very deficient in impressiveness, not at all understood by the people in general, and less dreaded than should be, as signifying for the most part nothing more than the loss of a little money.