Philip Barnes calls on Anglo-Catholics to celebrate the liberating power of forgiveness in the Sacrament of Reconciliation
Just a few weeks ago I was privileged to be in Avila with a party of clergy from the See of Fulham. Amongst the many wonderful things we saw was the Convent of the Incarnation, just outside the ancient city walls, which Teresa entered as a young woman in 1535, and where she lived for some thirty years – serving for a while as its Prioress. At the back of the Church there is a small, plain, wooden door, leading into a tiny chamber with a stone seat and an opening filled with a metal grille. Over the door is written ‘the confessional of St John of the Cross’. We know nothing of the conversations that St Teresa of Avila and St John of the Cross had in that confessional. But we do know that the grace that Teresa received in that sacrament had a transforming effect.
In the Sacrament of Reconciliation we are not just doing something backward looking, casting our eye over our record of failures in order to remove some black marks. It is the place where the Holy Spirit is at work, and where God’s new creation is made manifest in our lives. And that’s an incredibly important gift for us to recognize in this conversation about the nature of sacramental Confession. You and I are not having this discussion in order to defend God’s grace, but to celebrate it.
It would be easy to make the discussion over the Seal of the Confessional into another battle in which Anglo-Catholics feel marginalized and ‘got at’, and to point to an institution so obsessed with its own safety that it tinkers with what it seems to know nothing about – sacramental life and practice. But I would urge us instead to frame our discussion as a celebration of the liberating power of forgiveness that we encounter in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, and as a recommitment to celebrating that gift in the ministry of our parishes.
I was struck afresh at this year’s Youth Pilgrimage at Walsingham by the power of this sacrament for the young. On the Wednesday evening we held a liturgy that included those healing ministries that are so central to any pilgrimage to Walsingham, the laying-on of hands and anointing. Then came the opportunity for confession, again, a key part of any pilgrimage to Walsingham. The young people were told that this was a context in which they could have confidence that what they said would go no further, and where there was no need to be anxious about admitting fear or failure; that they didn’t have to pretend that they were better than they were, or try to be something they were not; that they wouldn’t be judged or censured – just challenged to grow.
It might not surprise you to know that there were queues for the many, many experienced priests who were hearing confessions that night. Why? Because in an age of Cambridge Analytica, Revenge Porn, and Facebook security breaches, where confidences and secrets can be revealed at the click of a button, the Confessional is one of the few places left where a young person (or an older one for that matter) can have confidence that they will be heard without being exposed.
Of course, this conversation arises from the deep shock and penitence of a Church responding to cases of sexual abuse, and a concern that the seal of the confessional could be a refuge for an offender and the cause of a delay in justice. So, in recent months we’ve heard of diocesan guidelines that say that confidences should be broken after a confession, as well as of pressure in other parts of the Anglican Communion where there are is pressure for the seal to be limited. The scale of the horror of the sexual abuse of minors has changed the context in which we minister so radically, it has been suggested, that the old securities of the sacramental seal of the confessional must go.
In the midst of a search to find appropriate responses, the trouble is that panic over the seal of the confessional puts an unhelpful focus on something that isn’t the real issue. Systematic failings certainly exist, but the sacrament of Reconciliation isn’t one of them. More than that, the loss of confidence that setting aside the seal of the confessional would create would risk us losing a means of grace for those who are the survivors of abuse.
I can tell you that during the time I ministered at the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham I heard many, many, many confessions – as I do as a parish priest – of both clergy and lay people. It was never abusers who made a confession, ever. But I did have survivors, who – perhaps because they could talk in confidence to someone they wouldn’t see Sunday by Sunday – wanted to talk about what had happened to them and who, alongside the processes of restorative justice, were wanting to begin the path of reconciliation. What they found in the Sacrament of Reconciliation was a sense of being honoured, and that what defines us is not the past but our infinite potential as children of God.
Any priest tasked with the hearing of confessions should know what they are about. They know the clear guidance that already exists in the Canons of the Church of England and in the absolutely clear Guidelines for the Professional Conduct of the Clergy. They know that they can withhold absolution. They know that they can encourage a penitent to tell their story again after the confession. They know how to make a clear distinction between a pastoral conversation and a formal confession – not least through the wearing of the stole, and being clear about what the terms of a conversation or a confession are.
Nervous fidgeting over the Seal of the Confessional will not help us make the Church a safer place for the vulnerable, and it risks a loss of confidence in a means of grace that transforms lives and possibilities.
Fr Philip Barnes is the Priest in Charge of St Stephen’s,
Gloucester Road. He gave this address at
the 2018 National Assembly.