Andrew Atherstone writes: The Church of England has at last published the report of the ‘Seal of the Confessional’ working party, more than a year after it finished its work. It is a contradictory report, which does not follow through on its own logic. Its key assumptions deserve scrutiny.
The very name of the working party – ‘the seal of the confessional’ – has skewed its conclusions. Their focus is on the question, ‘Should the seal of the confessional by abolished or retained?’ But we need to take a step back and ask instead a more foundational question: Does the Church of England teach the seal of the confessional? According to our Anglican formularies and canons, is ‘the confessional’ (as distinct from pastoral conversation) and ‘the seal’ (absolute as distinct from general confidentiality) part of Church of England doctrine? If it is not, then to ask whether we should abolish or retain ‘the seal of the confessional’ is a wrong-headed question, and we need a new approach to the whole subject.
First, do our Anglican formularies and canons teach ‘sacramental confession’, as somehow distinct from other pastoral conversations in which sin is confessed and forgiveness declared?
The report repeatedly insists that there is a clear distinction. It speaks throughout of the ‘sacramental ministry of reconciliation’, taking its lead from the 1973 Revised Catechism, though it does admit that this is anachronistic language and ‘in tension’ with our historic formularies (§1.9-11). This tension should give us immediate pause for thought. Whether such a ministry is in some sense sacramental is not the issue here. The working party chose the phrase because it ‘emphasises the formal and liturgical character of this ministry’ as distinct from ‘pastoral conversations’ (§1.12). But is this a real distinction? No, it is merely an untested a priori assumption, which leads the working party in the wrong direction.
Elsewhere, we read that the distinctive nature of this ministry ‘rests on some strong foundations’ (§5.6.2). But when examined, those foundations turn out to be extremely flimsy indeed – the 1973 Revised Catechism again, a 1973 ARCIC statement on ordained ministry, and one phrase about absolution from the 2005 Common Worship ordinal. This is a very thin defence. The only text proffered from our Anglican formularies are the words of Jesus in the Upper Room, ‘Whose sins thou dost forgive, they are forgiven’ (John 20:23), quoted in the Book of Common Prayer ordinal. But Anglican commentators for centuries have argued that this command to ‘forgive’ or ‘retain’ sins, in the context of John 20, is not a reference to some ritualized ministry of confession and absolution, but is rather a shorthand way of describing the ministry of gospel proclamation which calls all people to repent and believe in Jesus Christ, parallel to the Great Commission in Luke 24:45-49 and Matthew 28:18-20. On this basis Thomas Cranmer included the phrase in his Reformation ordinal. The working party have not come anywhere close to proving their first basic assertion, that the Church of England teaches a distinction between ‘sacramental confession’ and pastoral conversation.
Canon B29 (‘The Ministry of Absolution’) draws upon two other places in the Book of Common Prayer, from the Exhortation before Holy Communion and a rubric in the Visitation of the Sick. But again we must be careful not to read back into those texts a more ritualized or sacerdotal practice than they imply. The report quotes (§3.4.2) from the famous Exhortation:
And because it is requisite, that no man should come to the holy Communion, but with a full trust in God’s mercy, and with a quiet conscience; therefore if there be any of you, who by this means [self-examination, confession to God, reconciliation with neighbours] cannot quiet his own conscience herein, but requireth further comfort or counsel, let him come to me, or to some other discreet and learned Minister of God’s Word, and open his grief; that by the ministry of God’s holy Word he may receive the benefit of absolution, together with ghostly counsel and advice, to the quieting of his conscience, and avoiding of all scruple and doubtfulness.
The report observes, rightly, that these words are substantially the same in the Prayer Books of 1552, 1559 and 1662, but then jumps to the conclusion that: ‘There is no reason to doubt that auricular confession was practised at the time of the 1603 canons’ (§3.4.4). But look more closely. What sort of ministry is really implied here? Compare the equivalent words from the earlier 1549 Prayer Book, ignored by the working party:
And if there be any of you whose conscience is troubled and grieved in anything, lacking comfort or counsel, let him come to me, or to some other discreet and learned priest taught in the law of God, and confess and open his sin and grief secretly, that he may receive such ghostly counsel, advice, and comfort, that his conscience may be relieved, and that of us (as of the ministers of God and of the church) he may receive comfort and absolution, to the satisfaction of his mind and the avoiding of all scruple and doubtfulness. Requiring such as shall be satisfied with a general confession, not to be offended with them that do use, to their further satisfying, the auricular and secret confession to the priest. Nor those also which think needful or convenient for the quietness of their own consciences particularly to open their sins to the priest, to be offended with them that are satisfied with their humble confession to God and the general confession to the church. But in all things to follow and keep the rule of charity, and every man to be satisfied with his own conscience, not judging other men’s minds or consciences; whereas he hath no warrant of God’s word to the same.
Notice the important theological shifts which took place between 1549 and 1552 / 1662:
- All mention of ‘auricular confession’ is dropped.
- The troubled person is no longer to ‘confess and open his sin and grief’ but to ‘open his grief’. The focus on confession is dropped. What is intended is not an enumeration of all the penitent’s sins, but of the particular issue which is troubling them.
- The troubled person is no longer to go to ‘a discreet and learned priest’ but to ‘a discreet and learned Minister of God’s Word’. In other words, this is no longer envisaged as a sacerdotal ministry but may involve a deacon or even a biblically-literate layperson.
- The troubled person no longer receives comfort and absolution ‘of us’ (that it, from the clergy), but ‘by the ministry of God’s holy Word’. Again, any sacerdotal emphasis is deliberately deleted. The focus moves instead to the pastoral role of applying the promises of Scripture to the person’s particular need, offering spiritual counsel and advice.
These are significant changes. It is by no means clear that the 1662 Book of Common Prayer envisages a pattern of ‘auricular confession’ or a ‘sacramental ministry of reconciliation’. On the contrary, what the 1662 Exhortation before Holy Communion describes is a pastoral conversation in which sin, repentance, forgiveness and the gospel of grace are addressed. Whether or not this takes place by appointment, or includes written liturgy, makes no difference – it is still a pastoral conversation.
This pattern of ministry is found often elsewhere in our Anglican texts. For example, ‘An Homily of Repentance and of True Reconciliation unto God’ from the Second Book of Homilies (1563) reads: ‘if any do find themselves troubled in conscience, they may repair to their learned curate or pastor, or to some other godly learned man, and show the trouble and doubt of their conscience to them, that they may receive at their hand the comfortable salve of God’s word …’ (The Book of Homilies: A Critical Edition, ed. Bray, p. 503). Here again is a description of a pastoral conversation, entirely consonant with the Book of Common Prayer, not some distinct priestly rite. The working party report itself observes: ‘Take away a late-medieval Catholic view, alien to Anglicanism, of the supposedly sacramental quality of such pastoral conversations between pastor and disciple, and the case for having special rules about disclosure that do not apply in any other pastoral conversation simply evaporates’ (§5.5.3). Very true! But this idea is then mysteriously dropped by the report, and the logic not pursued.
Instead of examining the Anglican formularies closely, the report builds instead upon a very recent and dubious text (§1.8), the Guidelines for the Professional Conduct of the Clergy (2015), which assert that ‘A clear distinction must been made between pastoral conversations and a confession that is made in the context of the ministry of absolution’, and that abuse must be reported if revealed in the first context but never in the second. The Guidelines further assert that ‘confidentiality’ and ‘proper discretion’ is required in pastoral conversations, but that the ‘canonical duty of absolute confidentiality’ applies to ‘the ministry of absolution’. But these assertions are highly contentious. According to the working party’s report, ‘under the law as it now stands, there is a boundary, wherever precisely it should properly be drawn, between the category of cases falling within the Proviso [Canon 113] and a wider category of pastoral conversation’ (§3.5.8). When we ask where the Church of England actually teaches these separate categories, we are pointed again to the 2015 Guidelines. This is a circular argument. What if these new Guidelines are themselves misguided, as appears to be the case? Their validity should have been tested by the working party, not embedded in the report’s foundation.
Later we read that if ‘the seal’ were qualified (that is, if abuse could be reported) then ‘what would without question be lost is the distinctiveness of the sacramental ministry of reconciliation … Ultimately, perhaps, it comes down to the question of how far that distinctiveness is valued. The more highly it is valued, the more necessary the “seal” becomes as critical for maintaining it’ (§5.6.14). So, in other words, the seal is needed because this ministry is distinctive and this ministry is distinctive because of the seal. Here is more circularity. Even suppose this ministry is in some sense distinct from pastoral conversation (a distinction not found in our Anglican formularies), it is not clear why a distinctive ministry needs a special ‘seal’, nor why its distinctiveness is undermined without a ‘seal’?
Second, do our Anglican formularies and canons teach ‘the seal’? – defined in the report as ‘the obligation of absolute non-disclosure’ (§4.1.11). The fact that these words ‘the seal’, with all their hidden theological freight, do not appear anywhere in our formularies and canons should again give us pause for thought.
The theological heart of the report (chapter 4) summarizes the practice of confession from a variety of doctrinal perspectives, but contains very little about ‘the seal’. It describes the seal’s evolution in thirteenth-century Roman Catholicism (§184.108.40.206-8). It also notes that the confidentiality imposed by Canon 113 allows exception, and that even such a prominent Tractarian as T. T. Carter SSC (1808-1901), founder of the Confraternity of the Blessed Sacrament and a vocal defender of auricular confession in the Church of England, argued that the extent of the seal could be varied by episcopal authority (§220.127.116.11). Yet surprisingly there is no attempt by the working party at a theological defence of ‘the seal’, beyond the observation that sinners must be able to ‘trust that no civic use will be made of their confession’ (§18.104.22.168).
It is startling, therefore, that chapter 5 opens with the remarkable assertion that chapter 4 has shown that ‘the seal’ (‘absolute non-disclosure’) is an ‘integral dimension’ of the Church of England’s practice of confession; and that chapter 4 has built ‘a strong case’ for retaining ‘the seal’, without which ‘the sacramental ministry of reconciliation is fatally undermined’ (§5.1.1, reasserted at §5.6.1). Chapter 4 – the most overtly theological chapter – makes no such claim and does not attempt to build any such case.
Most of Canon 113 of 1603 has long since been abolished, but the remaining un-repealed fragment is still on the statute book and rightly the focus of debate:
Provided always that if any man confess his secret and hidden sins to the minister, for the unburdening of his conscience, and to receive spiritual consolation and ease of mind from him; we do not in any way bind the said minister by this our constitution, but do straitly charge and admonish him that he do not at any time reveal and make known to any person whatsoever any crime or offence so committed to his trust and secrecy (except they be such crimes as by the law of this realm his own life may be called into question for concealing the same) under pain of irregularity.
In interpreting this canon, the working party again resort to wishful thinking. They admit that the canon does not mention ‘the seal’ of the confessional, but claim it is ‘certainly implied’ (§3.3.9). But where is it implied? It is nowhere to be seen! They repeatedly assert that under Canon 113, the priest’s duty of confidentiality ‘is an absolute duty’ (§3.8.4). In case of doubt, we are told again that the canon upholds ‘the duty of absolute confidentiality’ (§6.2). But once more we ask, where does the canon say this? On the contrary, the canon explicitly allows for an exception – ‘except they be such crimes as by the law of this realm his own life may be called into question for concealing the same’ – so confidentiality in the original context of the canon was not absolute. The working party dodge this detail by suggesting that the exception ‘can now for all practical purposes be disregarded’ (§3.3.9), because Anglican clergy are no longer in danger of capital punishment. Yet the significance of the exception, is precisely that it is an exception, written onto the very face of the canon. It embeds the basic principle that confidentiality, when sins are confessed to a minister, is certainly strict but never absolute. So it is surprising to hear Anglican advocates of ‘the seal’ insist that this is a gospel issue on which their ministry stands or falls. Strict confidentiality is of course essential, to give the penitent confidence ‘to speak with absolute freedom before God’ (§5.6.5). In the same way, strict confidentiality in the doctor’s surgery is essential. But the Church of England has never taught in its canons or formularies that confidentiality must be absolute in all and every circumstance. Indeed Canon 113 allows exceptions for serious crimes. So it would be more theologically consistent for General Synod to update the canon by explaining what exceptions are permissible today, rather than to remove the exception altogether as some are seeking to do.
In another place (§5.2.4), the report pursues precisely this reasoning. We hear that in Canon 113, ‘there was no absolute “seal” of non-disclosure’, but a built-in exception. ‘In choosing to continue with the “seal’, the Church of England was from the beginning willing to qualify it in cases where the confessor received information that raised the possibility of intervening to prevent grave harm …’. Although the specific seventeenth-century grounds for the exception are no longer relevant, ‘the precedent remains compelling’. But, once again, this idea is immediately dropped, and the working party do not pursue their own logic.
This question interlocks with the previous over whether ‘sacramental confession’ is a distinctive ministry, as opposed to pastoral conversations. The report is again contradictory. In one paragraph it tells us that ‘a request for prayer in which a disclosure is made is not sacramental and the seal does not apply’ (§7.2.10). But in another paragraph, that Canon 113 covers all pastoral conversations, not just ‘auricular confession’, because ‘there seems no compelling reason to give the Proviso a narrower interpretation than its actual words suggest’ (§3.5.5). The report is bristling with these unresolved rival narratives.
The breadth of pastoral encounter envisaged by Canon 113, and its capacity for permissible exceptions to the rule of confidentiality, is shown further by comparison with the much tighter canon which was intended to replace it, drafted in 1947:
If any man confesses any secret or hidden sin to a Priest for the unburdening of his conscience and to receive spiritual consolation and ease of mind and absolution from him, such Priest shall not either by word, writing, or sign directly or indirectly, openly or covertly, or in any other way whatsoever, at any time reveal and make known to any person whatsoever, any sin, crime, or offence so committed to his trust and secrecy; neither shall any Priest make use of knowledge gained in the exercise of such ministry to the offence or detriment of the person from whom he has received it, even if there be no danger of betraying the identity of such person; neither shall any Priest who is in a position of authority in any place, make use of any such knowledge in the exercise of his authority.(§3.10.1)
This proposed canon deliberately pushed in a sacerdotal direction by replacing the language of ‘minister’ with ‘priest’, and by adding priestly ‘absolution’ to Canon 113’s ‘spiritual consolation and ease of mind’. It was also stridently absolutist, deliberately echoing Canon 21 of the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215 (see §3.1.1, and the repeated language of ‘by word or sign’). Here was pure Roman doctrine intruding in the modern Church of England. It is salutary, however, to remember that the Church Assembly in the 1950s drew back from this absolutist text because it was arguably illegal (§3.10.4). Some Anglicans were also nervous that by proposing a new canon, Parliament would be given the opportunity to scrutinize the practice of priestly secrecy, and so they preferred not to raise the question. Yet the Church of England today seems to behave as if this failed absolutist canon of 1947 applies. It does not! Canon 113 of 1603 has been the legal position on this subject for the last four centuries. It teaches a general duty of confidentiality in all pastoral conversations, but no more than this.
To ask whether the Church of England should retain or abolish ‘the seal of the confessional’ is therefore to begin in the wrong place with unwarranted assumptions. The Church of England in its formularies and canons does not teach either ‘the confessional’ or ‘the seal’ in any medieval or Roman or absolutist sense. So there is none to retain or abolish. And it will be detrimental if the new training envisaged for ordinands and clergy, and the new bishops’ advisers about to be launched in every diocese (§7.3), merely promulgate the errant position of the Lateran Council of 1215, the failed draft canon of 1947, and the misguided Clergy Guidelines of 2015. Instead we need training and advice properly rooted in the historic formularies and canons of the Church of England, which insist upon strict confidentiality in all ministerial encounters where sin is confessed, but allow the possibility of exceptions to this general rule.
Andrew Atherstone is Latimer research fellow at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford, and a member of the Church of England’s General Synod, The Faith and Order Commission, and the Liturgical Commission.
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