On church noticeboards across the country there used to be notices headed ‘What the Church of England teaches about Confession.’ The notice set out from the Order of Holy Communion in the Book of Common Prayer why there was a need for confession, from the Ordering of Priests what was meant by ‘the power of the keys,’ and finally from the Canons of the Church of England what was understood by the seal of the confessional. The Canons, it seems, are very clear: ‘If any man confess his secret and hidden sins to the Minister, for the unburdening of his conscience, and to receive spiritual consolation and ease of mind from him; we…do straitly charge and admonish him, that he do not at any time reveal and make known to any person whatsoever the crime or offence so committed to his trust and secrecy…under pain of irregularity.’
It therefore came as something of a shock to read that the Diocese of Canterbury had issued guidelines that seemed to go against the canon. Let us be clear the sacrament of confession is not some fad used solely by Anglo-Catholics, but a part of what it is to be an Anglican, deeply rooted in the Book of Common Prayer, the Ordinal and the Canons. The diocese instructed that, before each confession, the confessor should inform the penitent that should they confess any criminal activity then the confessor would report it to the police. One assumes that, being told this, the penitent would simply deliberately withhold the sin from the confessor (an act which is in itself a serious sin and unhelpful spiritually). It is important to remember, in terms of safeguarding, that telling a confessor of something that has been perpetrated against you is not covered by the seal, and neither is telling the confessor of something you intend to do. Therefore, saying during a confession that you intend to commit a crime does allow for the confessor to go to the relevant authorities. Furthermore if a crime is confessed then the confessor would instruct the penitent that as part of their act of contrition they had to go to the police. Confession is not a place to seek to hide secrets, but rather a place in which they can be brought before God, acknowledged and forgiven. Neither is confession a replacement for spiritual direction or therapy; it is a sacrament in which a person can put themselves right with God. Their intention must be ‘to sin no more,’ to put the past behind them and to move forward reconciled to God the Father. The act of making a confession is a spiritual one and its benefits are spiritual; the act indicates a desire to be reconciled to God and to make amends. It is important that the confession is made open and honestly or there is simply further deception not only of the self but also of God as well. The nature of the seal allows for complete openness and honesty because the penitent is speaking God and laying bare the deepest thoughts of their hearts and lives. To break the seal would also be detrimental to the life and spirituality of the confessor. The confessor sits in persona Christi and this is an important part of what it means to be a priest, to be one who has the power of the keys: ‘Whose sins thou dost forgive, they are forgiven; and whose sins thou dost retain, they are retained.’
Readers associated with the Community of the Resurrection will recall when at compline in the 1980s the community prayed for ‘our Brother Timothy in prison.’ They were praying for Father Timothy Stanton CR, imprisoned by the apartheid regime in South Africa for refusing to break the seal of the confessional. He was willing to suffer imprisonment because no government or authority, however powerful it may imagine itself to be, has the ability to force a priest to break the seal. It seems almost believable that the wickedness of apartheid should lead to such injustice; is this now to be repeated here in England, not by an oppressive government but by the General Synod? Let us all pray that this will not be the case.
This issue has brought together Anglicans from many different parts of the church. Should we be surprised that there are attempts to change the nature of the sacrament of confession? Probably not—after all, if you can change the nature of the sacrament of holy order and holy matrimony, what is to stop you changing other sacraments as well? Those who seek to defend the seal of the confession would do well to consider how they defend the other sacraments. An erosion of the nature of confession is an attempt to erode the very nature of the Church and her sacraments just as it has been done before.