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Letters to the Editor

08 June 2018

Canterbury’s confessional guidance, safeguarding liturgy, Bishop North’s propsals, and tax corruption


The seal of the confessional

From Canon Rupert Bursell QC

Sir, — In the light of your report (News, 1 June) in relation to the confessional, may I clarify my position in relation to that of Forward in Faith?

In my view, there is, indeed, a seal of the confessional. As I understand it, however, many Anglo-Catholics argue that the seal applies immediately the person coming to a private, aural confession begins the process of that confession. If that argument is correct, it would logically mean that a joke confession or a confession entered into not out of true penitence but as a manipulation of the priest (as has happened) would nevertheless attract the seal of the confessional.

In fact, nowhere in Anglican Church law is a “confession” legally defined. It is, therefore, my argument that the prerequisites necessary before a confession is recognised by the law must be sought (1) in the exhortation in the Order for Holy Communion in the Book of Common Prayer; (2) in the relevant rubric in the Order for the Visitation of the Sick, also in the Book of Common Prayer; and (3) in the Proviso to Canon 113 of the 1603 Canons (which, of course, remains in force).

Those prerequisites are: a true intention by the penitent to unburden his conscience; a true intention to amend his future life; a readiness to make restitution and satisfaction for his sins; and, finally, absolution by the priest. Without any one of these there is, in my view, no legally recognised confession to which the seal of the confessional can attach. It follows, for example, that, if the “penitent” abuser of children fails to report himself to social services or to the police as directed by the priest, there would not be what may be termed a complete confession and the priest may therefore legally (and, in my view, should morally) report the matter himself to the police.

If my view of the law is incorrect, it would mean that a confessor cannot himself report to the police a so-called penitent who has failed to hand himself in to the police although he has admitted during confession to the rape of a child in relation to which someone else is already serving a long prison sentence. I just cannot believe that such an outcome can be right, either morally or legally, more particularly as the child (and, indeed, other children) would remain entirely at risk.

Pear Tree Cottage
Hatchet Leys Lane
Thornborough MK18 2BU

From the Revd Dr Bernard Randall

Sir, — In the advice of Canterbury diocese on confession, we see once again the gap between theological thinking and some of what goes on in the Church of England. It is particularly puzzling that the confessor is advised to say that he or she is “duty bound to pass [particular] information on to the relevant agencies”.

Whence does this “duty” come? Not from the law, since the unrepealed proviso is in no way unclear, covers “any crime or offence”, and is part of the law of the land. Not from church authorities, since the Guidelines for the Professional Conduct of the Clergy are equally clear. Not from doctrine, since the existence of the Proviso bears witness to the Church of England’s having received the teaching of the confessional’s inviolability. And not from morality, since at priestly ordination we vow that we will “faithfully minister the doctrine and sacraments of Christ as the Church of England has received them”, which doctrine upholds the seal, and which vow it would be immoral to break.

Against any who might think that there are occasions when a vow may morally be broken, others elsewhere have argued that removing the seal would make it less likely that offenders might be persuaded to submit themselves to justice, so that breaking the vow might well do more harm than otherwise. I would add the real risk that a judge might rule that evidence gained from passing on a confession was inadmissible in court (as breaking a common-law privilege), and the case might collapse; thus breaking the vow could lead to a wrong not-guilty verdict.

Is the doctrine of the confessional, theologically well-grounded and tried and tested down the ages, being sold for the expedience of the moment? A mess of pottage has its right and important place, but it is not more important than the birthright.

2 Brecon Close
Long Eaton NG10 4JW

From the Revd James Mather

Sir, — The attempted clarification by the Diocesan Safeguarding Officer just adds to the Canterbury confessional confusion. “It is intended to advise the penitent not to divulge in confession something which would legally compromise the position of the priest” sounds rather like Rumpole cautioning his clients that, if they told him they were guilty, he could not defend them.

Quite aside from the canonical question, sadly, neither the original advice nor the clarification has the air of practical knowledge of the confessional.

The ministry of absolution is not “talking therapy”, but the bearing of the soul before God in the presence of the priest. In Common Worship, at the end of the confession, the penitent says, as a sign of true repentance: “Therefore, O Lord, from these and all other sins I cannot remember, I turn in sorrow and repentance.”

The Canterbury advice and clarification effectively encourages penitents knowingly to withhold sins and secretly to make only a partial confession. It is bringing this vital ministry into disrepute.

The Rectory, Downham Market
Norfolk PE38 9LF

Abuse survivors disown new liturgical resources 

From Graham Wilmer and seven others

Sir, — We are survivors of physical and sexual abuse by office-holders in the Church. Our abusers include bishops, a dean, an archdeacon, several parish clergy, and at least one Reader. We are just a few of the scores of victim survivors who are forced to struggle for justice against the deaf and intransigent hierarchy of the Church.

Last week, one more example was added. The Liturgical Commission published a set of resources (“Safeguarding liturgy for survivors is published”, News, 31 May), which, it said, had been “chosen in consultation with survivors”. This was not true, as the compilers presumably knew.

One of our number, Graham Wilmer, who reviewed the collection, is very unhappy that his comments about it have been taken out of context and used without his permission in the launch material. No other survivors appear to have been consulted. MACSAS, the organisation for Minister and Clergy Sexual Abuse Survivors, was not approached; nor was the collection seen or approved by those survivors who sit on the National Safeguarding Panel — the only national Church of England body with representative victims of abuse.

Survivors, some of whom are accomplished liturgists themselves, would not have produced such an inane collection of prayers; nor would they have allowed the inclusion of “trigger” phrases that can easily add to the trauma of abuse.

These things matter. They matter because bishops should not deceive the Church. They matter because acts of betrayal feel to us like fresh acts of abuse. And they matter because it is victims, not bishops, who have the experience to guide the Church in dealing with its current abuse crisis.

Last month, we witnessed victims and survivors of the Grenfell Tower tragedy speaking passionately and extensively about their experience, at the start of the public inquiry. It was a model of sensitivity and humility in the treatment of victims. There is no doubt that it will have been a healing experience for those who spoke, and also a valuable resource to the inquiry.

In contrast, the bishops of the Church of England have not even begun to put into practice their promise to listen to survivors, and to put them first. All of us have multiple experiences of unanswered letters, long silences, and absence of pastoral care.

At the General Synod safeguarding presentation in February, survivors were not allowed to speak for themselves, even though many of us were standing outside the building. At present, the same looks set to happen when the Synod talks about us again next month.

It’s a shame that we have to be the ones to say this, but the right, just, and constructive way to treat victims of abuse is to give us the chance to speak in person, in our own words, and on our own terms.


c/o 17 Rushford Avenue

Manchester M19 2HG

Bishop North’s proposals will not lead to growth 

From Dr Phillip Rice

Sir, — I fear that the Bishop of Burnley, the Rt Revd Philip North (Comment, 1 June), is leading us astray. In his analysis, redistribution is the cure for many ills, and 1976 was the annus mirabilis.

Let me be clear: the problem is the route that Bishop North is taking. It does not lead to the destination of growing congregations, rebuilt buildings, and generous service at the heart of the community. We are being treated to an outdated and partial view of economics.

What matters is the idea of how growth arises. Firm Dynamics, with the strapline “It is not about small: it is about new”, relates to the study of how growth, economic or more generally, arises from small enterprise (LSE Growth Commission, 2013, on infrastructure).

I maintain that the application is to young congregations, not to small congregations. The policy intervention is to support where the growth is taking place, and not because it is small, relative to some yardstick, which may be derived from, in this instance, a 1976 yardstick.

The application goes more deeply into church policy than might be expected. It tackles thoroughly the weaknesses of the redistributive model, where the idea of investment is not mentioned. Growth comes because resources of clergy or lay paid staff or volunteers, money, or time are allocated to young enterprises that have a mind to grow. This choice can be made from national to diocesan level, or diocesan to lower levels, within the cohort of possible opportunities.

Finally, on the disparities of wealth which Bishop North identifies, there is something wrong with using current diocesan and parish boundaries as a measure. This, if we are thinking of glebe, gives the game away; for it is a structure that had wealth generated by agricultural rents. The digital economy and a powerful economy working on the service sector suggest that networks that are little to do with parish boundaries would be the way forward for a different radical mindset.

With this mindset, one would expand the Strategic Development Fund and enable it to run challenges for schemes relating to new church-growth opportunities, have bidding for match funding, and be more focused on those networks where people actually live, move, and have their being.

Retired government economic adviser and member of London diocesan synod
23 Christchurch Square
London E9 7HU

Vatican call chimes with Fair Tax Fortnight 

From the Revd David Haslam

Sir, — The statement by the Vatican on tax corruption is very timely, as the pressure intensifies on big business, wealthy people, and tax havens to rejoin the human family (News, 25 May). The enormous amount of wealth currently hidden with the connivance of the City of London and both UK overseas territories and the Crown dependencies is an affront to a society that still claims some vestigial adherence to Christian principles.

The cross-party amendment to the Anti-Money Laundering Bill, which the Government was finally forced to accept last month, owing to its fragile majority, was a small step forward. Those territories that house endless private trusts and foundations will have to reveal their ownership, but still not until the end of 2021. This still gives a great deal of time for funds to be reallocated elsewhere.

In the mean time, the first Fair Tax Fortnight is upon us, dating from 9 to 24 June, when companies and investors are being challenged to seek the Fair Tax Mark, and take a more moral and civilised approach to tax.

Church investors have been rightly publicly critical of the failure of the fossil-fuel companies to accept international norms on how to combat climate change. It is to be hoped that they will now be as outspoken about the need for, especially, the banks to be far more rigorous in examining from where money comes and to where it goes.

Church Action for Tax Justice (CAT) was launched in April (News, 20 April), and churches are encouraged during Fair Tax Fortnight, or soon after, to highlight the mission imperative of tax justice in their Sunday services. Worship materials are available from www.catj.org.uk, and there is more on Fair Tax Fortnight from www.fairtaxmark.net.

Chair, Church Action for Tax Justice
59 Burford Road
Evesham WR11 3AG

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