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Opinion: Clarity needed about confession

21 July 2023

Bishops should ask how the seal relates to the Church’s doctrine, says Christopher Hill


THE seal of confession is the very longstanding tradition of the absolute confidentiality of what is said to a priest in the ministry of absolution (private confession, or, more theologically, the ministry or sacrament of reconciliation).

The House of Bishops has invited contributions to its current work on this, which the Ecclesiastical Law Society (ELS) responded to by establishing a working party, which I was asked to chair, and whose report has now been published online. While the report is not exhaustive (there is a massive amount of material on the subject), it attempts to cover relevant issues for the Church of England, not least as the Government is currently engaged in consultation on potential statutory reporting on safeguarding issues by professionals.

The working-party report begins with a reminder that, when the C of E canons were revised in the 1950s by the then Convocations, absolute confidentiality was reaffirmed in an Act of Convocation as an essential principle of church doctrine. At that time, the earlier canons of 1603-04 were repealed, except for a proviso to the old Canon 113. This charged a minister hearing “secret and hidden Sins” not to reveal to any person whatsoever any crime or offence so confessed.

The exact meaning of this has been disputed; but the majority view is that this, in effect, maintains the canonical position long established in the Western Church and codified in the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215. In the 1950s, a new draft canon more clearly stating confidentiality was understood by both church and government lawyers to be in conflict with the modern law of evidence. So, the retention of the (unrepealed) Proviso to Canon 113 was a Church and State compromise.

LOOKING at the pastoral position, the working party examined the Guidelines for the Professional Conduct of the Clergy (also an Act of Convocation) and current safeguarding legislation. The working party then gave proper space to a report of the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA), which included witness evidence from a number of C of E bishops as well as others (News, 21 October 2022).

This suggests that (contrary to received opinion) abusers do not go to confession. What is the case is that victims and survivors go to confession as a “safe space”. IICSA was also told, however, that there were examples of “people talking over the kitchen table”, and it was claimed that this was “under the seal of the confessional”.

The working party pondered on this conflicting evidence, and were clear that such occasions were not easily recognisable as formal confessions in terms of either the Canons, the Book of Common Prayer, or the provision in Common Worship (Initiation Services, Reconciliation of a Penitent). They were, however, recognisable as similar to the practice of some pastors, in groups or one-to-one spiritual mentoring sessions, where an older, usually male, leader asks personal questions of individuals.

The working party calls for a clear distinction to be made between this (with its openness to spiritual abuse) and the traditional practice of private confession. While the latter also is not immune from the possibility of abuse, it does have safeguards in terms of its practice which need to be taught, understood, and maintained.

The working party looked at conflicts of conscience in terms of the confessor hearing a confession. Which has priority: the possibility of preventing further abuse, or the maintenance of a longstanding tradition understood to be C of E doctrine?

We noted the former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Williams’s own statement to IICSA, where he said that he would find himself “very conflicted”.

If there were to be mandatory reporting, the priest or bishop would, additionally, find themselves in conflict with secular legislation and liable to statutory penalties. Other Anglican Churches in the UK were considered, and the Anglican Church of Australia’s change in its canons were examined. Ecumenical evidence from Europe and the Roman Catholic Church was also considered. The long history of penance was summarised, recalling that, in the Early Church, penance was public, not private, and that public penance continued in the C of E until the early 19th century.

THE House of Bishops is due to issue a Code of Practice (Safeguarding and Clergy Discipline Measure 2016 and Safeguarding Practice Measure 2021). The House must determine how such a code will affect the seal of confession and current directions on confidentiality in the Guidelines for Professional Conduct.

The House will also need urgently to respond to the Government in the consultation on mandatory reporting (closing date 14 August). Inevitably, the House will need to consider the status of the seal of confession in relation to the Church’s doctrine and what its scope is, and that some clergy will still feel bound in conscience by the seal, whatever Church or State determine.

The working party’s view was that the proviso to Canon 113 should not be repealed, nor new canons be attempted, because this would be highly divisive and very time- consuming. Should the Government decide on mandatory reporting for clergy, this will not be an entirely new thing, as the old Canon has been in technical conflict with the modern law of evidence for some time.

A further strong emphasis in the report is on the necessity of training clergy (all clergy, not simply those who regularly hear confessions) on how to respond to a person making a confession in which abuse is spoken of. Clergy need training in helping the person confessing, whether abused or abuser, in how to receive professional help and healing, and sometimes to take responsibility for their actions. This was similarly emphasised in my conversations with Roman Catholic canonists.

The Rt Revd Christopher Hill, a former Bishop of Guildford, is president of the Ecclesiastical Law Society and chair of the working party.

Read the full report here

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