It is important for us to realize that the sacrament of Confession is very much under threat in the Church of England at the moment. It is under threat for no good reason. The agitation that has arisen about removing the Seal of Confession does not come out of any particular problem or scandal – even though there have been problems and scandals about safeguarding and spiritual abuse in our Church. It is a form of ‘virtue signalling’: it’s a desire to do something to show that the Church of England will, as it were, make a gesture towards what is perceived as being necessary, without the more fundamental and far-reaching reform that is needed. It is in fact an issue about holiness that has caused the problems in which we so sadly find ourselves. Abolishing the Seal is not the answer to any question that is being posed to the Church of England at the moment.
The Seal is not simply a piece of ecclesiastical law that can be argued over or argued away. It is a fundamental part of the sacrament, as it was instituted by Christ. The Church has always understood the Seal to be more than simply an aspect of canon law. It has its roots in the natural law, whereby a secret must be kept as it is confided, but also in divine law. When Christ breathes on the Apostles and says to them ‘Receive the Holy Ghost: whose sins you forgive, they are forgiven; whose sins you retain, they are retained’, he gives to the ministers of the Church the power of binding and loosing in his name. For that power to be exercised, the Seal is necessary. It follows that the Seal is not simply something that can be changed like a rule to do with the Faculty Jurisdiction or how to elect to a PCC. It is a fundamental part of the Church’s organic life.
Because of that, it is very important that Forward in Faith, and priests and laypeople individually, represent as strongly as they can that the law of the Church of England about the Seal of the Confessional reflects the universal law of the Church, but also the universal organic reality of the Church as the Body of Christ. We must defend this Seal by our testimony at this time.
There are powerful moves to overturn the Seal. In particular, in the Diocese of Canterbury the Bishop of Dover insists that priests make an undertaking to read, before they hear confessions, what I will call the ‘Wilmott Waiver’ (named after the Bishop of Dover), in which the priest effectively says, ‘If you say anything that affects the wellbeing of another person in your confession, then the Seal doesn’t hold and it has to be disclosed.’ This is absurd. It makes a complete nonsense of the Seal. It abolishes it, in effect. It is quite clearly contrary to the law as it stands, and contrary to any sort of moral obligation resting on the clergy to obey the law as it stands.
So we see that there are already moves afoot to undermine this discipline and this practice. What shall we do to make sure that that doesn’t happen? Firstly, we need to go to confession regularly ourselves, and value and love this discipline and sacrament. Secondly, if we are priests, we need to make sure that we are well versed in what we need in order to hear confessions reverently and well, so that people can grow in their spiritual life. And thirdly, we need to be prepared at this time to stand up and say, ‘We will not obey an unjust law. We will not taste the flesh of the sacrifice.’ We will do this thing to make sure that the sacrament of Confession, as it was revived in the Church of England by the fathers of the Oxford Movement as an integral part of what it meant to be a catholic in the Church of England, is not lost.
So I do urge you to go to confession, to use the sacrament and to value it in your own spiritual life. And I do urge you to defend it, so that the testimony of those young people at Walsingham doesn’t go for nothing. This is not simply a safeguarding issue that needs tidying up. It is not a piece of the ecclesiastical lumber room that we can now forget about. It is a living and vital spiritual reality, and it behoves all of us, but particularly Forward in Faith, to stand up for that and to defend it in every way that we can.