THE seal of the confessional came under discussion when the
General Synod debated the revised guidelines for clergy conduct
from the Convocations of Canterbury and York (the House of Bishops
and Clergy convoked as the upper and lower houses of each
Chairing the debate, Geoffrey Tattersall QC
(Manchester) explained that the guidelines were not a General Synod
document. The Synod's role, he said, was to debate the guidelines
and give feedback to the joint committee of the Convocations which
had drawn up the guidelines.
The Prolocutor of Canterbury Convocation, the
Ven. Christine Hardman (Southwark), said that the draft Guidelines
were a revision of the 2003 version, and had been prepared by a
working party established in January 2010. The working party "was
clear about the desire to preserve and honour the principles
undergirding the original Guidelines," Archdeacon Hardman said. "In
particular, there was a determination to keep the essential essence
of the Guidelines as being based not on canon or ecclesiastical
law, but on the Ordinal itself."
She said that a theological reflection in the Guidelines by Dr
Francis Bridger "shows us the need to have a theology of
professionalism which is rooted in vocation"; but she said that the
use of the word "professional" "should not . . . be hijacked by
those who would see it as managerialism or a list of competencies";
and spoke of the meaning "to profess".
"These Guidelines are rooting the understanding of what it is to
be a deacon, priest, or bishop in a theology of vocation. The
Guidelines are not a rule book, but express an aspiration for the
very highest standards to be expected of those who serve as
deacons, priests, and bishops in the Church of God."
The draft Guidelines included changes in the area of
safeguarding. "As a Church, we are having to learn from past
failures and commit [ourselves] to doing our very best to ensure
that our safeguarding policies and systems are as robust as they
When the working party next discussed the Guidelines, it would
invite representatives of Minister and Clergy Sexual Abuse
Survivors to attend. The working party was "well aware of the
tensions" between the "sensitive area of the absolute
confidentiality of the confessional" and "the responsibility of the
Church to protect children and vulnerable adults from harm". But,
Archdeacon Hardman said, "it's really important to remember that
the Guidelines can only express the law as it currently
She said that the working group would "take account of comments
made in this debate" before taking the Guidelines back to the
Convocations for final approval next year.
The Revd Mark Ireland (Lichfield) said that he
was uncomfortable about the guideline that said that the clergy
should not take sides in disputes when called on for pastoral care.
"Sometimes it is the gospel thing to do, to take sides," he said;
and priests should look out for the vulnerable.
He recounted how he felt compelled to take the side of one of
his elderly and ill parishioners who had been taken to court by a
"vexatious and bullying" parishioner. "If we leave this wording
unamended, then it gives an opportunity for such a vexatious person
in the future to take out a complaint under the Clergy Discipline
Measure against a minister who may actually be speaking out for the
weak against the strong."
Fr Philip North CMP (London) spoke against
proposals that would weaken the seal of the confessional in the
case of child abuse. He said that, in the thousands of confessions
he had read and heard, never did anyone confess to child abuse or
any serious crime. "But I have heard that the utter secrecy can
allow survivors to speak about their abuse for the first time. It's
often the place where a journey to healing can begin."
He urged the Synod not to undermine the confidentiality of the
confessional, because "once it has gone in one area, it is gone for
good." He also said that there was a danger that an "invaluable
pastoral tool" would be destroyed by lawyers and those who, because
of their particular ecclesiastical background, found the
confessional difficult to understand.
Mary Johnston (London), a member of the working
group that has been contemplating the revision of the Guidelines,
said that there would be a specific review of confidentiality and
confession. The clergy also needed to be reminded, however, about
the importance of discretion after informal conversations about the
personal troubles of parishioners.
"In our contemporary culture, social media encourage a
breathtaking lack of privacy and a careless lack of discretion,"
she said. "It may become necessary to teach ordinands not just the
need of confidentiality, but actually what it means to be
discreet." Mrs Johnston also said that instances of clerics' being
unkind or ostracising other priests, however rare, had a dreadful
impact on lay people.
The Bishop of Durham, the Rt Revd Paul Butler,
said that he was able to be "fully supportive" of the Synod's
taking notice of the guidelines, but might not have been, had the
note and GSMisc not been included at the end. There were, however,
adjustments that could be made "without too much difficulty".
There was a need to address the concern about clergy colluding
with one another for mutual protection. The duty to report abuse
should also be clarified further. There was a need to make it clear
that the responsibility for safeguarding lay not only with the
clergy, but with the PCC and congregation. He also questioned
whether the guidelines adequately addressed the issue when clergy
Anne Martin (Guildford) noted that the
guidelines called on clergy to "recognise, affirm, and encourage"
the ministry of lay people "in their workplace and communities". He
would like this latter phrase to be amended so that all ministry of
lay people was recognised, not just that which took place in these
Tim Hind (Bath & Wells) wanted to affirm
the guidelines, but suggested that they referred to "what clergy do
to laity". He argued that the Church was now "moving into different
times . . . where we will be expecting a large amount of
collaborative ministry". There was thus a need for a "subtle"
change in language, "so we can talk about how the laity support and
affirm clergy, and how the work that the laity and clergy do
together forms a whole".
The Revd Paul Benfield (Blackburn) called for
better drafting of the section suggesting that clergy facing
marriage breakdown contact their bishop: was this in a pastoral or
Anne Foreman (Exeter) spoke as someone involved
in ministerial development. She questioned whether the guidelines
would "feel either weighty, and hence another task for hard-working
clergy, or have content so obvious as to be put to one side". She
suggested that "no amount of guidelines will make incompetent
people competent, or make those with unsafe motives safe."
The laity had "a responsibility to step up" and support the
clergy. She was pleased to see the word "appropriate" used in 2.7:
"Sometimes the only appropriate response is an arm around a
shoulder or hug, and it would be a sorry state of affairs if
anxiety about guidelines prevents that simple human response."
Martin Sewell (Rochester) spoke as someone with
30 years' experience in child protection. He spoke of how, in other
professions, "we keep on making the same basic errors." He noted
that "strength lies in the weakest link, and that is the most
inexperienced." Priests with concerns who felt that they might have
to breach a confidence must take advice from a
safeguarding adviser, he said, not "should".
Canon Christopher Sugden (Oxford) emphasised
that "we stand against cover-ups," but asked: "If the absolute
confidentiality of the confessional is breached, then to whom else
will a burdened soul turn?" If such a person knew that the priest
was legally bound to disclose information to the authorities, then
they would not, he suggested, turn to the priest for help. "If they
want to give themselves up, they will.
"If the confidentiality of the priest is breached, then there is
literally no one to whom such a person, hopefully on the road to
repentance, can turn." It would "deny vital pastoral support as the
Spirit of God works to bring people to repentance."
Instead, the priest should make absolution conditional on the
penitent's going to the authorities. He warned that ending the seal
of confession was "very likely to decrease the number of
child-abusers whose crimes come to the notice of the police".
Fr Thomas Seville CR (Religious Communities)
asked for an expansion on the section on prayer. He said that it
focused on teaching rather than prayer. "Prayer matters, and prayer
changes things," he said, and quoted Archbishop Welby: "Prayer is
missional. It is putting us in the presence of God, his mission and
Gavin Oldham (Oxford) said that the Guidelines
provided "measurement" to ensure that the values of love, expressed
in the document, were carried out. In his business, the
organisation Investors in People measured whether their five stated
values were carried out. "Why don't we do this in the Church of
England?" he asked. It was not even mentioned in the
Penny Allen (Lichfield) brought "the voice of
abused children" to the debate, having worked as a teacher to whom
abuse had been disclosed. She said that those preparing the Code of
Conduct for the clergy should look at the similar code for
teachers. She was looking for "some deep thinking" about how the
Church protected children and abused people.
She raised the use of pornography. She also spoke about the
place of other staff in churches, apart from clergy, and "some
acknowledgment of the serious impact on [the] lives" of people who
had been abused. She asked the working party to "please have a
careful think about the confidentiality issues".
Canon Simon Butler (Southwark) said that the
Guidelines didn't include proper guidance about how discipline
should be applied as well as received by the clergy. "There is a
definite connection between discipline and discipling. When
exercised in Christian compassion and love, discipline is
The Archdeacon of Rochdale, the Ven. Cherry
Vann (Manchester), said that "guidelines in the making are better
than no guidelines at all," and welcomed the work done by the
Dr Philip Giddings (Oxford), who chairs the
House of Laity, said that he knew too many clergy who suffered from
stress but who didn't admit it. "There are very many injunctions in
this document that seek to invite clergy to do yet more with the
time available to them. But those who have responsibility for the
care of the clergy need to ensure that clergy are given appropriate
help with managing their time and managing their stress."
The Archbishop of York, Dr Sentamu, said that
he wanted to "address the issue of the confessional". It wasn't a
question of tradition, but about doing what the Church of England,
both Catholic and reformed, was about. "However sacred this thing
may be, if you listen to those who have been abused, you come away
simply saying, 'Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy.'" If the Church
was not prepared even to think about the issue of confidentiality
of confession, it would "find it very, very difficult to bring
The take-note motion was clearly carried.