Robin Ward reminds us of the historical, theological and practical importance of the seal of the confession

The Church of England has always made provision for her members to confess their sins to a priest and receive absolution. At the Reformation the obligation to do this once a year at Easter was removed, but in the Book of Common Prayer, the Ordinal, and the Canons of the Church of England it is made clear that the practice is not abolished but retained and encouraged. In particular, those who are sick and those who are troubled in conscience are encouraged to open their grief and receive the benefit of absolution: the declaration by the priest in the name of Christ that the sins confessed are truly forgiven.

At the time of the Oxford Movement in the nineteenth century and subsequently, the practice of going to confession regularly became part of the rule of life for many Christians intending to live a catholic spiritual life in the Church of England, and this remains so. Even before then, confession and absolution, particularly in the case of serious illness, was understood to be a normal part of Christian practice; the novelist Henry Fielding has one of the characters in his novel Tom Jones say: ‘Who but an atheist could think of leaving this world without having first made up his account? Without confessing his sins, and receiving that absolution which he knew he had one in the house duly authorized to give him?’ Not only did the Church of England preserve and encourage the practice of going to confession, the law of the church also preserved the fundamental obligation of secrecy imposed on the priest who heard the confession, not to disclose or act on anything learned from a penitent. This law was expressed in the so-called proviso to Canon 113 of the Canons of 1603, which remains in force to this day. This canon obliged parish clergy and their churchwardens to present notorious public sinners for discipline in the church courts, but the proviso makes clear that if a person makes a confession of ‘secret and hidden sins’ the priest may never reveal or make known these sins under ‘pain of irregularity’, a penalty depriving the priest of any capacity to undertake the work of his office.  

English law is complicated, and it is not entirely clear how this canonical obligation would protect a priest asked to give evidence in a court of law: as the House of Bishops puts it in its advice to clergy: ‘Canon Law constrains a priest from disclosing details of any crime or offence which is revealed in the course of formal confession; however, there is some doubt as to whether this absolute privilege is consistent with the civil law.’ But the principle on which the canon law rests is not simply a legal one, in the sense that it is a church rule that can be changed according to circumstances; it has its foundation in what is called the natural law, the way in which human beings learn and understand how to act morally from the evidence of God’s purpose in creation.

What exactly is absolution? Jesus commissions the apostles immediately after his resurrection with these words: ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven. If you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’ (John 20.22–3). These are the words that the Ordinal of the Church of England includes in the form for ordaining priests. Confession and absolution is, then, an act of judging established by Our Lord himself in the Church, and exercised by those who are ordained to succeed the apostles in the priesthood. A sacrament is ‘an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace’ and in the sacrament of confession, the outward and visible sign is reconciliation with the Church, which is what absolution means. The penitent is received back into the fellowship of the Church by the declaration of forgiveness, and according to Christ’s own institution that reconciliation is a sure sign that grace is given and sin forgiven. As the great bishop Cosin of Durham wrote: ‘The truth is, that in the Priest’s Absolution there is the true power and virtue of forgiveness, which will most certainly take effect… as in Baptism.’ Of course penitents must be sorry for their sins, and resolve not to sin again: confession and absolution are not an empty form or a magical excuse. But if they are sorry, the absolution given for sins is as effective as a new baptism.

Why then should there be any secrecy about this? In the early church we know that penance was sometimes public: the church in the person of the bishop exercised discipline over the congregation by excluding some sinners from communion, and those who had committed grave sins performed penance before the congregation and were readmitted. But it soon became apparent that this discipline would not enable all penitent sinners to return to communion with the Church. St Basil the Great noted the predicament of women who had been guilty of adultery: this was a capital offence in the Roman Empire, and so he allowed those who had been guilty of this very serious sin to confess and be reconciled with the Church in secrecy. We see here a development, rather like the sort of development that led to the baptism of infants becoming the norm: public penance, because of the difficulties and risks of administering it, gives way to private penance in which the priest reconciling the penitent is strictly enjoined to maintain an absolute secrecy about what has been confessed.

St Thomas Aquinas spends some time considering why this secrecy, the seal of the confessional, is so important. He considers first, as most important, what many people feel to be the strongest argument against the seal: why should the priest keep what is known from a confession secret, if revealing it would do good to those who are harmed by the sin? Thomas uses the example of a person who confesses he is a heretic; we would be more likely to use the example of someone involved in the abuse of the innocent. The fundamental point that Thomas makes is that the priest hears the confession as God’s minister, and that because the sacrament is instituted by God as a remedy and taking away of sin, it is a violation of the very nature of the sacrament to reveal what has been confessed. As he puts it: ‘Charity does not require a man to find a remedy for a sin which he knows not; and that which is known in confession, is, as it were, unknown, since a man knows it, not as man, but as God knows it.’

The seal then rests on an obligation that has three sources. The first is the one founded on natural law: the penitent comes to confess on the clear understanding that his or her confession is to remain secret, and a breach of this is a breach of that obligation of truthfulness between persons that nature proposes as fundamental to human relations. The second is the institution of the sacrament itself, in which Christ orders the forgiveness of sin through this sacrament as an act of judgement, which would not be possible without the seal. The third is the consistent witness of the canons of the church to the inviolability of the seal, not only in the Church of England (which in this respect continues and reasserts the teaching of the Fourth Lateran Council) but also the witness of the Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox churches, who administer this sacrament with a similar secrecy.

It is good that the Church of England preserved this discipline about the seal in its latest statement on this issue contained in the Guidelines for the Professional Conduct of the Clergy published in 2015, a document which has the force of an Act of Synod. In section 3.5 the Guidelines state: ‘If a penitent makes a confession with the intention of receiving absolution the priest is forbidden (by the unrepealed proviso to Canon 113 of the Code of 1603) to reveal or make known to any person what has been confessed. This requirement of absolute confidentiality applies even after the death of the penitent.’ However, this discipline is now under review in the light of the egregious failures of safeguarding that have taken place in the Church of England. This has happened most notoriously in the diocese of Canterbury itself, which has issued instructions to the clergy on hearing confessions there that palpably and unashamedly break the current law.

Priests hearing confessions in the diocese are now required to make the following statement before administering the rite: ‘If you touch on any matter in your confession that raises a concern about the wellbeing or safeguarding of another person or yourself, I am duty bound to pass that information on to the relevant agencies, which means that I am unable to keep such information confidential.’ This is no sort of seal at all. We all know that horrible crimes have been committed by people who have abused the spiritual trust placed in them by others, but there is scant evidence that the seal of confession has contributed to this, and much evidence to suggest that if the clergy had in the past reported penitents to the authorities after hearing their confessions—homosexuals or women who have had abortions at a time when the criminal law punished such acts—the scandal would be all the greater now.

It may be that in the Diocese of Canterbury sacramental confession is seen simply as part of the lumber room of outdated churchy practices that don’t have a role to play in modern mission. Certainly the length of time that the few remaining parishes of a definite catholic tradition there are kept vacant would suggest there is not much sympathy from the diocesan hierarchy. But anyone who experienced the recent Walsingham Youth Pilgrimage, at which five hundred young people were invited to come to a personal faith in Jesus Christ, and many of whom did so by making a confession of their past lives and receiving absolution, will know that this ministry is a living fountain of grace in the heart of the church. It is not hard to imagine what the effect on these young people would have been had the priests at Walsingham been compelled to read the ‘Wilmott waiver’ to them before beginning. It is scandalous for both priests and penitents that such a contradictory and, frankly, immoral situation should obtain with regard to confession and absolution. Catholics in the Church of England will need to be emphatic in the resistance they offer to any change in the law of the seal of confession, particularly as the review of the current discipline undertaken by the House of Bishops comes to its conclusion later this year.

Father Robin Ward is the Principal of St Stephen’s House, Oxford.