Thinking Anglicans

Church of England report on The Seal of the Confessional

The Church of England has today published two items:

Report of the Seal of the Confessional Working Party

Interim Statement on The Seal of the Confessional

The former is an 84 page report.The working party membership was:

  • Rt Revd Paul Butler, Bishop of Durham (Chair)
  • Rt Revd Mark Sowerby, Bishop of Horsham (Vice-Chair)
  • Fr Andrew Cole Ecumenical (Roman Catholic) representative, Private Secretary to the Bishop of Nottingham and Parish Priest of Grimsby, Cleethorpes and Immingham
  • Revd Dr Michael Lloyd, Principal, Wycliffe Hall, Oxford [June 2015 to November 2015]
  • Professor David McClean CBE QC Emeritus Professor, School of Law, University of Sheffield
  • Very Revd Andrew Nunn, Dean of Southwark (& member of General Synod)
  • Fr Thomas Seville CR, Community of the Resurrection, Mirfield (a member of Faith and Order Commission and the General Synod)
  • Ven Cherry Vann, Archdeacon of Rochdale (Prolocutor of the Northern Convocation & General Synod member)
  • Dr Jane Williams, Assistant Dean & Lecture in Systematic Theology, St Mellitus College [February 2016 to January 2017]
  • Graham Wilmer MBE Founder, Lantern Project and member of the National Safeguarding Panel

The latter is a 3 page statement signed by William Nye, as Secretary to the House of Bishops. It says, in part:

…In recent decades, churches around the world have begun to face the many ways in which they have failed to keep people safe from abuse and failed to respond well to those who have suffered abuse. Listening to their voices has raised some significant questions about the ‘seal of the confessional’. This became evident, for instance, in the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse in Australia, and there has been discussion in the UK context as well.

Two situations in particular have been a focus for attention. The first is where the person confesses to sins that include abuse of a child or vulnerable person. Why should the normal duty on a priest to report such information appropriately not apply? The second is where it is claimed that if the person confessing their sins has referred to abuse committed by them or by someone else, that cannot then be repeated in another context, such as a statement to the police. This is simply wrong:the ‘seal of the confessional’ applies to the priest who hears the confession, not tothe person who makes it.

In response to these concerns, the Archbishops’ Council and the House of Bishops of the Church of England commissioned a Working Party on the Seal of the Confessional. It first met in 2015 and completed its report in 2017. As well as examining legal, historical and theological perspectives, it received evidence from survivors of abuse and from clergy who have extensive experience of the ministry of confession.

At present, the ‘seal of the confessional’ is upheld in the Church of England’secclesiastical law. The Working Party did not reach a consensus as to whether this should change. The diversity of view within the Working Party would be reflected more widely in the Church of England. Some Anglicans feel very strongly that the ministry of confession is an integral part of the church’s life of the church, and that its proper practice is inseparable from the unqualified observance of the seal. Some observe from their experiences that the Seal of the Confessional can offer comfort to survivors of abuse who, trusting in the absolute discretion it promises, may confide in a priest for the first time and by so doing find that they are able to unburden themselves and begin the process of healing. Others feel very strongly that the church cannot continue with any aspect of its practice that stops information being passed on which could prevent future abuse or enable past abusers to be brought to justice. The House of Bishops has been giving these issues very careful consideration

The Working Party was, however, unanimous in its recommendations in a number of key areas. One was for improvements to training on the ministry of confession in relation to safeguarding issues, with training itself becoming obligatory for all those ordained as priests, since any priest might be asked to do this. Another was for the appointment of an adviser on the ministry of reconciliation in each diocese who can be a point of reference for training, supervision and advice.

The House of Bishops is fully supportive of these recommendations. Addressing them has required consultation with a number of different groups and individuals. Further information will be given in due course about how the agreedrecommendations of the Working Party’s report will be taken forward.

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David Rowett
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David Rowett

I’d have thought that a proper confession, including ‘amendment of life,’ would demand that an individual confessing to a grave criminal offence (i.e. one where proper amendment/restitution very clearly requires serious police involvement) should turn themselves in. Not to do so would be prima facie evidence of a confession not being made in good faith, and thus not being covered by the seal, something which can be made clear to a penitent before a session begins? It did befall me once, years ago, and I accompanied the offender to the police station next morning. I’m not saying it’s a complete… Read more »

Robin Ward
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Robin Ward

And what would constitute a grave criminal offence? A woman confessing that she had had an illegal abortion in Northern Ireland? A man confessing that he had sex with a fifteen year old girl during his National Service in Germany (where the age of consent was 14) during the 1950s? A gay man confessing a sexual act with another man, at the Anglican chaplaincy in Moscow? Penance became private largely as a consequence of penitents seeking absolution for sins such as adultery which the law punished with death Only this morning the BBC reported the case of a member of… Read more »

Kate
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Kate

Let’s take a parallel. A priest who believes that sodomy is abuse hears a confession of it in a country where homosexuality is a capital offence – say Brunei. Is the priest entitled to break the seal of the confessional? Is a person to be denied absolution if they won’t also confess their crime to the police and face stoning to death? And where will it end? Had Edward Snowden or Chelsea Manning confessed to being whistleblowers should they have been denied absolution if they didn’t turn themselves in? Treason is usually regarded as more serious than sexual abuse? What… Read more »

Anonymous
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Anonymous

I think the confessor cannot compel a penitent to disclose what is said under the sacramental seal. Wouldn’t asking them to be a break of the seal and itself mortal sin?

peterpi - Peter Gross
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peterpi - Peter Gross

“Not to do so would be prima facie evidence of a confession not being made in good faith, and thus not being covered by the seal, something which can be made clear to a penitent before a session begins?” That sounds like the ecclesiastical equivalent of the “Miranda rights” warning in the USA, which I believe might be called the “warrant card” warning in the UK? Priest: I see you wish to make a confession, but before we begin the formal process, I must warn you that any acts you mention that I feel may be of a criminal nature,… Read more »

The Rev. Randall Keeney
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The Rev. Randall Keeney

Two words: Absolutely Unacceptable

Father Ron Smith
Guest

Surely, any consicentious priest would advise the perpetrator of a recognised act of personal criminal abuse to confess his sins (self-acknowledged) to the appropriate police authority. Such abuses are, in today’s world, clearly distinguished from ‘petty crimes’ and require due process of the law of the land. Of course, one realises that this could only be applied in countries where the ‘justice’ system is in line with clear humanitarian principles regarding the comon huamn rights of ALL people. The salient point is that it should not be the duty of the priest to declare the secrets of the Coinfessional. Rather,… Read more »

Edward Prebble
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Edward Prebble

Can anyone tell me, either from personal experience, or from broader knowledge, how real a problem this is? i quite understand the dilemma lying behind the working party’s work; contemporary understandings of safeguarding require reporting to the legal authorities, but the Seal of the Confession is absolute. It is quite right that various bishops in a number of jurisdictions have been called to account for their scandalous behaviour in concealing abuse. But i do not recall any of these cases that the use fo the confessional was a factor. Have I missed something? I have heard perhaps 3 or 4… Read more »

Marshall Scott
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Brother Edward, in the United States in most places the seal of the confessional is not legally recognized; but reporting of some crimes against children is legally required of all – all – professionals. In the Episcopal Church this is a very salient point, and a part of our own safeguarding training. We are “required reporters” under law. I have known clergy in other times and for distinctly other times who simply left town for a while rather than a be confronted with testifying in court. I have not heard any confessions that actively confronted me with the this issue.… Read more »

Michael
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Michael

I worked in a cathedral for nearly ten years, and probably heard more confessions than most Church of England clergy during that time. Some of them were a handful of people who came to me on a fairly regular basis; but many others were people coming in ‘off the street’ asking to speak to a priest and make their confession. I cannot remember exactly how many confessions I heard during that period, but I would confidently say it was getting close to 100. Not once did anyone confess to having perpetrated abuse, or seek to use the sacrament as a… Read more »

Russell Dewhurst
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Russell Dewhurst

Shame the report could not have come to a common mind on keeping the seal. But I think the report is otherwise pretty good all things considered, a number of emphases I would wish were different, but better than I might have expected. Recommendation on training is very good, I think. In the report, 4.2.4.4: “In the order for the Visitation of the Sick, the rubric says, ‘Here shall the sick person be moved to make a special confession of his sins, if he feel his conscience troubled with any weighty matter. After which confession, the Priest shall absolve him… Read more »

Susannah Clark
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Susannah Clark

For confession to be redemptive and a conduit of grace, there first needs to be recognition and acknowledgment of sin, then confession of it (maybe obliquely), and then quietness and listening and trust and affording of space for people to open up. Based on my own experiences of having sinned, there can be deep and searing regret, but there can also be complexity. Will other people be at risk of being harmed if my confession of sin does not lead to public confession (reporting to the police, by the individual or the priest)? Will other people be harmed or torn… Read more »

rjb
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rjb

I think this is wise and moderate. The best course has always seemed clear to me: absolutely protect the confidence of anything disclosed in the course of confession, but (under normal circumstances) presume that the confessor will strongly counsel the penitent to report to the secular authorities, and in very serious cases withhold absolution unless they do so. The Church is not the police force, and its priorities are clearly not those of the secular state – nor should they be. But the Church does acknowledge the authority of the state to punish serious offences, and in some cases the… Read more »

David Rowett
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David Rowett

By way of clarification on the questions I tried to raise in my original post. 1) Might a refusal to accept the consequences of committing a grave crime (since folk have raised Brunei, Moscow etc, I did rather assume UN-style definitions, not abusive ones) not only suggest the withholding of absolution but, if true intention be absent, also potentially invalidate the seal? At what point, if any, does sacramental confession, by dint of lack of purpose of amendment and reparation, cease to be such and become instead counselling during which a disclosure is made? When is Confession not Confession (sacramentally… Read more »

Janet Fife
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Janet Fife

It would be lovely to see the Church ’empathising with’, loving, supporting, and actively advocating for victims. But I’m not holding my breath.

dr.primrose
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dr.primrose

“[I]n the United States in most places the seal of the confessional is not legally recognized.” Without doing an individual state-by-state research, I’m afraid this statement isn’t quite accurate. In the U.S., this is a matter of state law in the each state court system and federal law in the federal court system. The Wikipedia article “Confessional privilege (United States)” states, “All fifty states, the District of Columbia, and the federal government have enacted statutory privileges providing that at least some communications between clergyman and parishioners are privileged.” Footnote 3 cites an article “Clergy as Mandatory Reporters of Child Abuse… Read more »

Rowland Wateridge
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Rowland Wateridge

I don’t know whether this has any significance in 2019, but Father Arthur Wagner, the Anglo-Catholic priest who founded (and paid for) several churches in Brighton faced this situation in the mid-19th century. I don’t recall the exact details, but a young woman confessed a crime. Equally, I don’t know whether Fr Wagner gave absolution, but he persuaded the young woman to report the offence to the police and accompanied her to the police station. Subsequently in the criminal trial Fr Wagner was called as a prosecution witness (or witness for the Crown in those days), and under cross-examination when… Read more »

David Emmott
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David Emmott

That case is the subject of The Murder at Road Hill House, a novelised account of the true facts, involving Det. Insp. Whicher of Scotland Yard, by Kate Summerscale https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Constance_Kent

Rowland Wateridge
Guest
Rowland Wateridge

Thank you for that link. Although not material to the wider issue being discussed here, my clear recollection is of reading that it was the judge at Assizes who dismissed Father Wagner as a ‘fool’. The judge’s stance was consistent with the subsequent statements in Parliament. Interesting to note that a Scottish priest was imprisoned in similar circumstances, and it was left to the Bishop of Exeter to assert the seal of the confessional so far as the C of E is concerned.

Anthony Archer
Guest
Anthony Archer

Being a bear of little brain, I am not sure I understand this report, and am without the time to read it twice. This is not rocket science and isn’t hugely relevant to the critical matter in hand, the reporting of sexual abuse in England. Forget Brunei and Russia et al. Without preempting IICSA, the whole direction of travel is towards mandatory reporting, so any disingenuous arguments about hiding behind the seal of the confessional are irrelevant. And frankly anyone who thought they could confess such to a priest and for the priest to maintain the confidentiality must be living… Read more »

Susannah Clark
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Susannah Clark

I can’t say how commonplace it is, Anthony, but confession is available in my parish.

Matthew Duckett
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Matthew Duckett

Anthony Archer: I’m amazed that you know of no parish where the ministry of reconciliation is offered. It has featured in every parish I have ever been part of or have ministered in, from “low” to “high”. Not to mention hospitals, hospices, etc. It seems to me to be only certain parishes (those that tend to sit light to their liturgical obligations) who are in ignorance that this is part of the ministry they are supposed to offer. But it is there in the BCP and in Common Worship, where the instructions are very clear. In most parishes it is… Read more »

NJB
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NJB

In terms of parishes where it is offered – there may be a tiny minority that have times on a noticeboard, but it is a duty of every priest to provide confession to anyone requesting it within the Church of England (Canon B29). In my own parish, which is certainly not Anglo-catholic, there is no formal time for confession, but it is not infrequent that people will request a pastoral conversation that results in them making confession. Often these people are on the fringes of the church (or beyond that), and my experience is that it is a valuable spiritual… Read more »

Andrew Lightbown
Guest

I am quite surprised by the ending to your reflection. There are C of E churches who continue to faithfully offer, and provide such a ministry. I don’t make a formal offer (i.e. I will be in church at such and such a time every week to hear confessions) but do hear occasional confessions. Also, during the course of ‘ordinary’ pastoral ministry the desire to make a formal confession sometimes becomes apparent. This has happened twice this year already: once when preparing an adult for baptism, the other occasion being on a hospital visit to a sick and dying parishioner.… Read more »

James Mather
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James Mather

The ignorance of the breadth of the CofE and her ministry as expressed last section is a bit shaming for one who sits on the Crown Nominations Commission.

Dexter Bracey
Guest
Dexter Bracey

The sacrament of confession is offered regularly in my parish, and in a great many other parishes that I know. Perhaps Mr Archer would like to stop being a bear of little brain and take the time to learn a little more of what goes on in the Church of England.

Rowland Wateridge
Guest
Rowland Wateridge

This from the website of All Saints’ Margaret Street:

“Confession: All may, none must, some should… At All Saints, The Confessional is available daily.”

David Runcorn
Guest
David Runcorn

Anthony Archer’s question was ‘it is still common’? And my experience too is that it is not. I have for some time been involved in ministry across the traditions and in a range of local churches and I do not find it widely present or even offered, for example, on church notice sheets or notice boards. When I lead ordination retreats I always offer confession – again to a range of traditions present – and again I find myself more often explaining it to the curious first. So I rejoice to know where it is faithfully offered and received but… Read more »

Allan Sheath
Guest
Allan Sheath

David makes a fair point. I see Ango-Catholic parishes with “Confessions by appointment” on the noticeboard, followed by the parish priest’s phone number. Yet, with no times advertised for hearing confessions, even in Holy Week, and no ‘preaching the confessional’, does anyone pick up the phone? I rather doubt it. It’s almost a form of ecclesial ‘virtue signalling’. To my mind as a priest it is incomprehensible that this valuable ministry is not offered, even if it means sitting in draughty Lady Chapels on the off chance that someone turns up.

Susannah Clark
Guest
Susannah Clark

In any case, I really appreciate Anthony’s participation here at Thinking Anglicans. Over time he has shared very helpful insights, and beyond all that, he has shown open-mindedness and openness to change in his personal spiritual journey, as demonstrated in ‘Journeys in Grace and Truth’. Many people in the Church of England in positions of influence are reluctant to come out in the open, and seem defensive about what their ‘managers’ may think if they do. Anthony, in contrast, has engaged, and been open in various Thinking Anglicans discussions, and if that openness extends to acknowledging a desire to find… Read more »

Stephen Marsden
Guest
Stephen Marsden

One is bound to wonder what planet bears of little brain inhabit. Since I made my first confession something over half a century ago, I really can’t recall worshipping regularly in any Anglican church anywhere where confessions were not heard regularly, usually at advertised times. Bears of bigger brain will recall the marvellous ‘Church Travellers’ Directory’, compiled by Fr Peter Blagdon-Gamlen, wherein churches were categorised under the four headings ‘DSCR’. ‘D’ meant a daily Eucharist on at least five weekdays; ‘S’ revealed that the principal Sunday Service would be a Eucharist; and ‘R’ indicated that the Blessed Sacrament was Reserved… Read more »

Mark Bennet
Guest
Mark Bennet

A couple of observations. First the 1603/4 Canons were formulated at a time of considerable religious tension when the proviso about the confessor’s life being at risk would have been a live issue, so while apparently irrelevant now, in context it was more significant than we might imagine. The confession of treason, for example, would have been possible – and the disclosure of treason would be a significant issue (cf the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, for which an annual thanksgiving for deliverance was included with the Book of Common Prayer until 1859). The Church of England understanding appears in this… Read more »

Michael Mulhern
Guest
Michael Mulhern

Am I being unreasonable is saying this? But I am struck by the how the majority of people commenting on this thread appear to have no direct personal experience of making their confession with any regularity, or in hearing them and pronouncing absolution. We can all speculate about the ‘secrecy’ of the seal, especially if we are considering it ‘from outside’, and jump to easy conclusions about how the Seal compounds secrecy around abuse without having any hard evidence for this. This was precisely the approach of Rupert Bursell at the IICSA hearings. It is significant that, as a frequent… Read more »

Mark Bennet
Guest
Mark Bennet

You will see that I suggested research in my comment. What I would say, though, is that however healthy “good confession” is, the potential for abuse also needs to be explored. The good people in danger of engaging in poor practice can be addressed. The bad people will do the training and ignore it – and we need to take honest steps to get in the way of bad people and to empower their victims and potential victims – the fact that most practice is good doesn’t address whether there are problems in other places. Confessional practice in some other… Read more »

Rod Gillis
Guest
Rod Gillis

Those interested in the seal of confession may find this article of interest.

https://www.ncronline.org/news/accountability/california-confession-bill-viewed-violation-religious-liberty