‘Confidentiality’, so the old clerical joke runs, ‘means only telling one person at a time.’
In reality, of course, confidentiality is no laughing matter and is the priest’s stock in trade. When a man comes to a priest he must be able to rely on his absolute discretion and know that, whatever secrets of his heart he may disclose, will be laid prayerfully at the foot of the Cross and never be disclosed to the public gaze. The secrets of the confessional must go to the grave with penitent and confessor alike. There can be few graver breaches of a priest’s calling than to fail in this solemn duty of trust.
Nor is confidentiality limited to the practice of sacramental confession. A good priest will find that, as his people’s confidence grows, time without number he will be invited to be the prayerful companion of the deepest matters of the heart and soul, He will know much and yet, in the public domain, often appear ignorant. He will bear the concerns of his people in his heart before God and go about his daily tasks benignly forgetful of what has wisely been placed in the Lord’s hands.
The knowledge entrusted to the priest will make him better able to care for the soul in his care not more judgemental of it. Indeed between penitent and confessor there is most often a sense of joyful solidarity as redeemed and thankful sinners before the mercy seat. A priest that does not make his own confession should not hear other people’s. Only by facing his own sinfulness will he know the true burden of the task he has undertaken for others. Only by embracing the wonderful mercy of Christ can he know the urgency of encouraging his own people to follow this costly and joyful path.
Confidentiality is a solemn trust and undertaking. Parishioners sometimes assume, quite mistakenly, that a priest’s wife (the two being one flesh) will be privy to personal information. A priest’s confidence must be absolute and does not include his household however important their ministry may be. A priest has to be a man used to aloneness in the things of God. A confidence may only ever be shared with the express permission and direction of the person concerned and even then the priest may weigh the matter and counsel against.
A priest’s knowledge of his people must never be used as a source of personal power or self glorification. He is a doctor of the soul who needs to know the symptoms only to administer the medicine of immortality. No more, no less. Personal prurience and private judgement have no place in a priest’s ministry. A priest, faithful to the Word, must continue to make public pronouncements on sin but he is not at liberty to discredit the sinner who has trusted him as friend and pastor.
In the light of all this it follows that a priest who decides to write his memoirs must be especially careful not to transgress the borders of that sacred trust. He may reflect, like the great pastors, that his autobiography is best written on the hearts of his people and that he should worry far less about the judgement of history than that of Almighty God.
For militant liberals and feminists the Act of Synod is an offence and must go. For orthodox Anglicans it has often been the only way in which they can conceive of remaining in their Church. For Parliament it was the moral undertaking that enshrined the rights of the original integrity and allowed the permissive legislation to ordain women to the priesthood to proceed. For the bishops and Synod that agreed it, the Act of Synod was a solemn and binding agreement upon them and their successors during the period of discernment and reception. It was carried overwhelmingly with but a small handful of votes against.
Ten years on as the women priest movement celebrates its triumph and prepares for the episcopate, we can look back on the origins, purpose and workings of the Act. From its earliest inception it was deeply unpopular with many of the bishops who had signed up to it. Parishes seeking to exercise their rights under the Act were frequently subjected to campaigns of harassment and disinformation. As new bishops were appointed some of them declared that they had not signed up to it and would not be bound by it. Most, new and old, wherever possible attempted to behave as if it did not exist.
When the Bishop of Blackburn’s massive and painstaking enquiry into the workings of the Act came before General Synod which had commissioned its report, the response was salutary. It was simply dismissed with a ‘move to next business’ vote. The bishops then invented a code of conduct for would-be orthodox parishes which has no legal or moral force and whose provisions cannot be found in the Act of Synod.
Ten years on, we are now in the hands of Pharaohs ‘who knew not Joseph’. Some of them, like the Bishop of Bristol, simply side with the liberals and feminists and want the Act abolished. Protection for the orthodox was presumably not a promise intended to have cash value.
Others smile concernedly and say ‘Well, it isn’t really working, is it?’ The simple answer is that it is working very well where it is allowed to. The truth is that in far too many cases bishops and archdeacons go out of their way to make the life of orthodox priests and parishes as difficult as possible and their rights under the Act troublesome to obtain.
As the campaign against the Act of Synod hots up we can expect more bullying and misinformation. Nor will this apply simply to parishes that have voted Resolution ‘C’. Many bishops, having installed clerical carpetbaggers in ‘A’ and ‘B’ parishes, will now start to pressurize these parishes to rescind for fear of increasing the credibility of an orthodox province.
In the light of all this New Directions is pleased to print an article by Jonathan Redvers Harris explaining, once again, the Act of Synod. There will be more in subsequent issues to help orthodox know the history, the intention and the facts of the matter. We will also begin an advice column, staffed by our legal team, dealing with frequently asked questions and problems that arise.
Ten year ago those who argued that nothing less than legal protection would suffice to protect us from the depredation of a liberal establishment were dismissed as cynics. Experience has taught hard and unwelcome lessons and to survive the next onslaught we must know our facts.
Those who seek to behave dishonourably should know that with every injustice perpetrated the case for a free and orthodox Province grows.