MANY people who are members of the Church of England do not know that the confession of sins to a priest is part of the Church’s life, and that this is taught in the Book of Common Prayer for all.
It is true that confession to a priest once a year ceased to be compulsory in England during the Reformation, but all the English Prayer Books make provision for a rite of confession, and there is a contemporary version of this in Common Worship.
Private confession to a priest, what is called “auricular confession”, is particularly associated in the Church of England with the great revival of Catholic practice known as the Oxford Movement, which took place in the 19th century.
But long before this, Anglicans knew about confession and took it seriously, especially — as the Prayer Book asked them to — in time of illness. One of the first English novels, Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones, written in 1749, has a scene in which Squire Allworthy, who is thought to be dying, refuses to allow his local priest to visit him.
The priest is outraged: “Who but an atheist could think of leaving the world without having first made up his account? Without confessing his sins, and receiving that absolution which he knew he had one in the house authorised to give him? He . . . will lament the want of that absolution without which no sinner can be safe.” Fielding evidently thought that his readers would understand this without any need for special explanation, in a novel which is far from being particularly religious.
Why should this be? Why should confession to a priest be thought important at all, and what is meant by absolution, the word used in the Prayer Book to mean the form of words by which the priest declares the person who has confessed to be free from the bond of sin?
The call to repentance is fundamental to the preaching of the gospel: as St Peter declares in Acts 2: “Repent, and be baptised every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ, so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”
Forgiveness of sins depends on two things: repentance, conversion of life on the part of the individual, and then the act of the Church in administering the sacrament of baptism in the name of Jesus, the outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.
But what about sins committed after baptism? This was a particular problem, and we see this reflected in different ways in the New Testament. The writer to the Hebrews says bluntly: “It is impossible to restore again to repentance those who have once been enlightened” (Hebrews 6.4). In contrast, the first letter of St John makes a distinction between sin that is “mortal” and sin that is not (1 John 16-17), and in both St Matthew’s Gospel (18.15-20), and St Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians (5.4-5), we see ways in which the church community under the authority of its leaders exercised a power of correction and expulsion over its members.
An extract from the Book of Common Prayer’s Order for the Visitation of the Sick
Whether Christians who had fallen into serious sin after baptism could be reconciled at all to the practice of the faith was a controversial question for the first four centuries of Christian history. But, in the end, the teaching prevailed that the commission of Christ to his apostles given immediately after his resurrection — “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained (John 20.22) — gave authority to reconcile to the communion of the Church all who repented after committing grave sins.
How did this work out in practice? Confession of sins in the Early Church seems to have generally been public: the sins were confessed before the church community under the presidency of the bishop, and then the sinner was reconciled to the Church and readmitted to communion, generally after a period of penance in which the individual expressed outward sorrow and the intention to reform.
But public penance gave rise to scandal: not simply embarrassment and gossip, but in the case of some penitents, most notably adulterous women, the prospect of civil retribution and the sentence of death. So public confession and penance began to give way to private confession and absolution, in which the sins confessed were told to the bishop or priest alone, who acted as the representative and judge for the whole Christian community.
The discipline of the Church of England, as it is contained in its liturgy and canons, reflects this change. Those who cannot quiet their conscience by prayer and by using the forms of communal confession contained in the liturgy are encouraged to “open their grief” to a priest, and this ministry is particularly encouraged and enjoined on those whose life is threatened by sickness.
Priests must never disclose or act upon anything told in confession, under pain of irregularity, a penalty that inhibits them from any exercise of their ministry whatsoever. Those who make use of this rite today in the Church of England fall roughly into three categories: those who make a confession regularly as part of their rule of life (confessions “of devotion”); those who make a confession perhaps once or twice in their lives, because they are troubled in conscience and seek the assurance of forgiveness, as the Prayer Book encourages them; and those who make a confession because they are perplexed about some moral problem in their lives, and seek the counsel of the priest to resolve this.
This is, therefore, a difficult and demanding ministry, which requires proper and systematic training.
Those training to be priests need proper doctrinal formation to understand how this rite has developed, and how the way in which the forgiveness of sins expressed by the outward sign of reconciliation with the Church has come to be understood as working in a sacramental way. They need a thorough grounding in ascetical theology, so that they can give the spiritual formation and encouragement that those who come to confession regularly, for many years, seek and expect. They need gravity and personal maturity in dealing with difficult and harrowing cases. And they need faithful agility in moral theology, so that they can guide and help the perplexed to come to decisions that their conscience can endorse as sound.
This ministry has a spiritual benefit and effectiveness for conversion which is evident in the lived experience of all who use it. But, like all great goods, when it is corrupted, the corruption is all the more grave because of the good that it dissipates.
Confession is corrupted by the ignorance of priests, and by the moral depravity of priests. Ignorance leads to penitents’ receiving bad advice, bad spiritual formation, and excuses that lead them trapped in morally corrosive behaviour rather than freed from it.
Moral depravity leads to the abuse of spiritual relationships for sinister and exploitative ends. When the Church tends to find spiritual fervour surprising and overwhelming, ascetic “stars” can establish themselves in a way that makes them invulnerable to criticism and able to exploit the vulnerable, often sexually. We are right to be very concerned about this.
But the Church of England has arrived at a point of crisis about confession. The General Synod has recently reaffirmed what the canons already say: “Canon Law constrains a priest from disclosing details of any crime or offence which is revealed in the course of formal confession; however, there is some doubt as to whether this absolute privilege is consistent with the civil law.”
This has the force of an Act of Synod. But in some dioceses, most notoriously the diocese of Canterbury, this binding obligation is being undermined by attempting to compel clergy to read out a waiver before hearing confessions, in which anything that concerns the “wellbeing” of an individual is declared open to disclosure (News, 1 June).
This might appear attractive, superficially, as a response to what have undoubtedly been woeful safeguarding failures. But it completely overthrows both the understanding of the seal of confession as the Church of England has maintained it, with the vast majority of other Christian Churches, and will simply not be obeyed by those who are faithful to the original discipline, which is evidently still in force.
The ministry of confession in the Church is not a spiritual backwater that needs tidying up, a safeguarding loophole that has outlived its usefulness. It places difficult and burdensome responsibilities on priests, and they need proper and appropriate formation to deal with these.
But it remains what the great Anglican bishop and divine John Cosin of Durham called it: “The truth is, that in the Priest’s Absolution there is the true power and virtue of forgiveness, which will most certainly take effect . . . as in Baptism.” We must not let that be lost.
Canon Robin Ward is the Principal of St Stephen’s House, Oxford.