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Interpreting the formularies on confession

14 November 2014


From the Rt Revd Dr Colin Buchanan

Sir, - At the end of your report that "Synod will debate the confidentiality of the confessional" (News, 31 October), you ask at for your readers to vote on "Should the seal of the confessional be absolute?" In this question, your terminology goes beyond anything in the report about the projected guidelines, though I recognise that the words you use are in frequent currency.

We should, however, surely be wary of giving too great a substance to concepts that form no part of our formularies, and are clearly borrowed uncritically from the Church of Rome. To be precise: at the Reformation, the Church of England retained no rite that could be called the "confessional"; it stated in Article XXV that "Penance" had arisen from the "corrupt following of the apostles"; and it provided for someone troubled by some particular scruple or sin to go to a "learned minister of God's word" and "by the ministry God's word . . . receive comfort and the benefit of absolution" - clearly a pastoral interview with the Bible open between minister and troubled person.

The special moving of a dying person similarly to confess any particular matter on his or her conscience had none of the characteristics of the Roman confessional; for it came in the open context of a brief liturgy at the bedside with other members of the family present.

The requirement in Canon 113 of 1603 is a requirement of proper confidentiality in ministering at a private interview, but it has no mention of a "seal", and the inability of the Canon Law revisers in the 1960s to find any agreed way of bringing it up to date meant that no further definition of confidentiality such as to amount to a "seal" came into our formularies.

Common Worship admittedly makes provision (as a way commended by the bishops, not as an authorised service) for the "Reconciliation of a Penitent", but this is simply a suggested way of meeting pastoral needs, and there are many other ways, and of course no mention of a "seal".

It is not simply a matter of terminology. As I understand it, Roman Canon Law says the seal is absolutely "inviolable", and it sets that inviolability into a carefully defined context of the "confessional". Without the definition of a "confessional", there can be no application of a "seal".

The Church of England lacks both, and so would be wise to avoid the terminology. That, however, in no sense diminishes the concern for the highest possible degree of confidentiality in one-to-one forms of ministry, and guidelines that chart the possible limits on such confidentiality are much to be valued.

21 The Drive
LS17 7QB

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