PRIESTS are being called on by Forward in Faith (FiF) to reassure the laity that they will maintain the absolute confidentiality of the seal of the confessional under all circumstances.
In a unanimous resolution, the organisation’s National Assembly, meeting in St Alban’s, Holborn, in London, also called on the House of Bishops to reaffirm the seal as “an essential principle of the doctrine of the Universal Church, as received by the Church of England”. If it did so, members were told, it would simply be reaffirming the unanimous resolutions taken by the Convocations in 1959.
Speakers were scathing about what the Principal of St Stephen’s House, Oxford, Canon Robin Ward, called the “Wilmott Waiver” (so named after the Bishop of Dover) — an attempt in the diocese of Canterbury to require the clergy to qualify the seal by making a safeguarding declaration to the penitent before the confession begins, stating that “anything that affects the well-being of another person” may not remain confidential (News, 30 May, Features, 16 November).
This amounted, Canon Ward said, to abolition; and he described the agitation against the seal as “virtue-signalling” in the wake of safeguarding and spiritual-abuse scandals, even though none of these particularly related to it: “It’s a desire to do something to show that the Church of England will, as it were, make a gesture towards what is perceived as being necessary, without the more fundamental and far-reaching reform that is needed. It is in fact an issue about holiness that has caused the problems in which we so sadly find ourselves.”
Alan MartinWilliam Nye addresses the Forward in Faith National Assembly on Saturday afternoon
The clergy, he said, must therefore be prepared to stand up and say: “We will not obey an unjust law. We will not taste the flesh of the sacrifice.”
The Vicar of St Stephen’s, Gloucester Road, in London, the Revd Philip Barnes, reported that he had heard “many, many confessions” at the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham and as a parish priest. “It was never abusers who made a confession, ever. But I did have survivors who wanted to talk about what had happened to them. . . The loss of confidence that setting aside the seal of the confessional would create would risk us losing a means of grace for those who are survivors of abuse. . .
“Any priest tasked with the hearing of confessions should know what they are about. They know the clear guidelines that already exist in the Canons of the Church of England and in the absolutely clear Guidelines for the Professional Conduct of the Clergy. They know that they can withhold absolution. They know that they can encourage a penitent to tell their story again after the confession. They know how to make a clear distinction between a pastoral conversation and a formal confession — not least through the wearing of the stole.”
The Rt Revd Nicholas Reade, the former Bishop of Blackburn, told the assembly that confession without the seal “could no longer be seen as confession to Christ — because Christ doesn’t go and tell someone about our sin”.
The assembly was addressed on the Archbishops’ Council’s Renewal and Reform programme by the Council’s secretary-general, William Nye, who urged that this was not a “secret Evangelical conspiracy”, but sought to support evangelisation and discipleship “in every type of church”. “Dioceses, in the spirit of mutual flourishing, should engage all traditions in their strategies for growth; and Society parishes — if they have the will and the intention — have as much chance as any of participating in initiatives funded through SDF [the Strategic Development Fund].”
Mr Nye asked whether there were “Society parishes in areas close to universities and colleges . . . who can reinvent themselves, or create new parallel congregations, designed to appeal to students and young people, while still being true to your Catholic traditions.”
But the assembly also heard of the need to be alert during parochial vacancies. “It is possible — and there has been more than one isolated instance of this — that the Archdeacon doesn’t possess or follow any concrete plan about the future of a parish and has very little understanding of its theological conviction and scant knowledge of the Five Guiding Principles,” Anne Gray told the assembly in a presentation. She urged them not to be charmed by “a gentlemen’s agreement”.
The principles, the Revd Paul Benfield said, were “something that may need to be argued very strongly in the vacancy process”.