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Reading the formularies in the Catholic sense

21 November 2014


From the Revd Neil Bryson
Sir, - Bishop Buchanan omits vital evidence (14 November). He claims that the Church of England "retained no rite that could be called the 'confessional'"; he need look no further than the 1662 Visitation of the Sick, where it specifies: "Here shall the sick person be moved to make a special confession of his sins. . . . After which confession, the Priest shall absolve him." The words of absolution are authoritative and reassuring to the penitent that all his sins are forgiven and absolved.

Article XXV includes the other five "commonly called Sacraments": it does not state that they are not sacraments. If the Bishop wishes to call confession "corrupt following of the apostles", then the same applies to the other four: are marriage and confirmation corrupt, and does anointing of the sick, commanded by James and used by the apostles themselves (Mark 6.13), merit the same epithet - to say nothing of the holy orders conferred three times on Bishop Buchanan?

The Bishop also refers to the BCP's exhortation to a penitent's seeking quieting of conscience before communion, which he interprets as being purely pastoral. Nobody reading it could mistake it, surely, for being anything but sacramental confession as understood by the RC Church: "that by the ministry of God's holy Word [the penitent] may receive the benefit of absolution, together with ghostly counsel and advice".

Finally, of course, the phrase "seal of the confessional" is not used in Canon B29 or in the unrepealed Canon 113 of 1603. It is obvious to the reader, nevertheless, that the "seal" is precisely what is meant; for whatever other interpretation can possibly be given to this wording? "We . . . do straitly charge and admonish [the priest] 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. . ."

I cannot be alone in being alarmed by proposals for removing "the seal" for certain crimes. The prospect of a priest's using a mobile phone to call the police during sacramental confession would put an end to the exercise of this important sacrament: the breach of trust involved would mean nobody would ever confide in us again, because we would become agents of the State, and not ministers of the Lord.

This is different, of course, from a pastoral interview, when that course of action would be legally obligatory for some crimes. It is only when it is put on a formal footing, understood by priest and penitent to be sacramental confession, that the seal applies. This is nothing new.

What to do, then? Good practice has always been that the priest does not give absolution without seeing genuine repentance; with serious crimes, that repentance is shown by the penitent's handing himself over to the police. Pastorally, the priest should offer to accompany the penitent, and, once the written confession to the police has been signed, then to give the penitent absolution.

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