Throughout New Directions this month you will see a new logo: #KeepTheSeal. This is part of a campaign launched by Forward in Faith to ensure that the Seal of the Confessional is kept by the Church of England; that is to say, everything said to a priest in the confessional is totally confidential, and the priest cannot repeat what is said under any circumstances. The bishops of the Church of England are meeting later this year to discuss the Seal of the Confessional. We hope in their deliberations they will take into account the important contributions to the debate featured in this month’s New Directions.
As well as these, and other articles in the months to come, we hope readers of New Directions who use the Sacrament of Reconciliation and make their Confession might write to their Diocesan Bishop to tell them of their experience of the sacrament. In particular the bishops will want to hear how important the strict confidentiality of the Seal is to the person making their confession and how removing the Seal would affect the way in which someone makes a confession, and indeed if it would prevent or put someone off from doing so. This is an important campaign that requires us all to work together: a change in the nature of the Seal of the Confessional would be a change to the very nature of the sacrament in which God offers through the Church His mercy and reconciling love.
It is often said of Confession: ‘all may, none must, some should.’ On the recent Society of Mary pilgrimage to Lourdes the youth group had their own reconciliation service on one of the evenings. This offered an opportunity for Bishop Philip North to do some serious teaching about the gifts God offers us through the Church. The most beautiful, he reminded them, is the ability to come to the priest and make a confession to God; and then to hear that you are forgiven, that you are loved by God, and reconciled to him. He emphasised that what was said in confession could never be repeated and that priests were willing, in the most extreme cases, to go to prison, rather than divulge something that was said in such a sacred context. If the Seal is held as sacred and important by clergy and laity alike, this has a profound effect on how we view and how much we value this gift from God.
As part of thinking about the need to #KeepTheSeal we would also encourage priests and people to do some teaching in their parishes about the importance of the sacrament. Perhaps a time of teaching and readings, followed by a service of reconciliation, with priests available to hear confessions and to guide those coming to the sacrament for the first time through what can be a daunting prospect. We need to find new ways of teaching about the sacrament and explaining it to people; it is not just for the ‘very religious’ but for everyone, and as we showed in last month’s edition it is fully part of our Anglican identity.
We also need to be sure that our priests are trained in how to hear confessions and to give counsel and advice. There should be courses for Ordinands and for those in their curacies; these should be organised by experienced priests and spiritual directors who are able to discuss openly and frankly what is required. It is in this way that the safeguarding concerns raised by many who want the Seal removed can be worked through. An open and honest conversation is required about this sacrament, and we hope that those who value it and seek to maintain it, whatever their views on other theological issues, will join with Forward in Faith in this campaign. We need to stand together in defence of the Catholic faith in the Church of England, and in particular this gift of mercy and reconciliation. Do not, however, simply think that someone else will take up the fight to preserve the seal: speak to your priest about having a service of reconciliation, having a teaching day on the sacrament, and making available literature in church. Think about how you can promote this spiritual exercise and how much you value it. And please do write to your diocesan bishop and let them know that this is a matter of importance to the whole church, and the very nature of the Church of England. The Body of Christ hung on the Cross bloodied and bruised by man’s sins in order that we might be forgiven and reconciled with God. He has given the Church the means of that reconciliation, we should not turn away from it, or abandon it now when it is most needed to heal the Body of Christ on earth, bloodied and bruised as it is by man’s sins.