You can confess — but not to an Anglican priest

The Adelaide Advertiser reports the Anglican Church of Australia has lifted the veil of secrecy between priest and penitent, no longer requiring its clergy to maintain the seal of the confession.

I expect many people will be surprised and some upset by this development. Not least of all the writers of mystery thrillers who will see one of their favorite plot devices disappear.

Alfred Hitchcock used this motif in his 1953 picture I Confess. In the film a priest, Montgomery Clift, hears the confession of his gardener, who has just killed a shady lawyer. A police inspector, played by Karl Malden, investigates and comes to suspect the priest — who may have been blackmailed by the lawyer. The killer plants evidence in the priest’s room and our hero is arrested and brought to trial.

The Quebec jury finds Clift not guilty, but a mob assembles outside of the court house and threatens him. This proves to be too much for the killer’s wife, who shouts that her husband the gardener was the killer. The gardener tries to kill the priest, but is himself shot and fatally wounded by the police. The film ends with the killer dying in Montgomery Clift’s arms after he gives him absolution. Classic.

Without the seal of the confession, Hitchcock’s story makes no sense and is much less fun.

Unfortunately the Roman Catholic understanding of the priesthood and the sacrament of confession a la Hitchcock has been applied to this Advertiser article about Anglicans. The reporter has used Catholic language and Catholic assumptions to report an Anglican story. While they share a common heritage, haberdashery and vocabulary — Anglicans are not junior Catholics with the addition of women — they have different doctrines. Confession is one of them.

The lede states:

Church leaders have unanimously backed a historic change that starkly sets Anglican policy against that of the Catholic Church, which maintains that “the Seal of Confession is inviolable”, and creates grounds for a major rift between the nation’s two most powerful Christian bodies.

About 250 members of the Anglican Church, including bishops and clergy representatives, voted to amend the 1989 canon on confession at the General Synod in Adelaide on Wednesday. The Christian convention of strict secrecy of confessions is believed to be more than 1000 years old.

The article cites the local Anglican archbishop who favors the change, while the layman who proposed the initiative notes priests should be required to report instances of child abuse and other crimes: “it seemed to me that protecting children and the vulnerable takes precedence over the confidentiality of confessions.”

The details of the charge are:

The existing law says the confession of a crime is to be kept confidential unless the person making the confession consents to a priest disclosing it. But the new policy will allow priests to report serious crimes if the person making the confession has not reported the offence to police and director of professional standards. These crimes include child abuse, child pornography or other offences that would lead to a jail term of five years or more.

The article closes with comments from the Catholic archbishop.

But Australia’s most powerful Catholic, Archbishop of Sydney George Pell, insisted that priests who hear confessions of child sex abuse must keep quiet because “the Seal of Confession is inviolable”.

The article is nicely crafted and well laid out. However it suffers from the handicap of thinking private confession or auricular confession in the Anglican sense is the same thing as private confession in the Catholic sense. Private confession in the Catholic Church takes place in the context of the sacrament of reconciliation followed by absolution.

Private confession in the Anglican world is not a sacrament, and was denounced as one of the abuses practiced by the Medieval church and was dropped by the English Church following the Reformation.

The Book of Homilies (No. 32), one of the sources of Anglican doctrine states:

It is most evident and plain, that this auricular confession hath not its warrant of God’s word.

Whilst John Sharp a former Archbishop of York wrote:

“Could they produce but one text of the Bible to prove this Auricular Sacramental Confession of Sins to a Priest was recommended by our Lord or his Apostles, or that it was practised by any Christian, either of the clergy or laity, or so much as mentioned by the holy men of that time, something might be said. But this they cannot do, and therefore to impose their doctrine on all the Christian world is most intolerable.”

And former Archbishop of Canterbury, John Tillotson wrote:

 ” … the necessity of confessing our Sins to Men (that is to the priest), in order to the forgiveness of them, is a great point of difference between us and the Church of Rome, it being by them esteemed a necessary Article of Faith, but by us, so far from being necessary to be believed, that we do not believe it to be true.”

Some Anglican divines commended private confession to those who felt so called, but it was never a mandatory part of the practice of the faith. The issue, at heart, is the understanding of the charism of priesthood. The Catholic Church holds to the doctrine in persona Christi, “in the person of Christ.” The Code of Canon Law (1983) as amended in 2008 lays out the ontological nature of the sacred ministry.

Can. 1008 By divine institution, some of the Christian faithful are marked with an indelible character and constituted as sacred ministers by the sacrament of holy orders. They are thus consecrated and deputed so that, each according to his own grade, they may serve the People of God by a new and specific title.

Can. 1009 §1. The orders are the episcopate, the presbyterate, and the diaconate. §2. They are conferred by the imposition of hands and the consecratory prayer which the liturgical books prescribe for the individual grades. §3. Those who are constituted in the order of the episcopate or the presbyterate receive the mission and capacity to act in the person of Christ the Head, whereas deacons are empowered to serve the People of God in the ministries of the liturgy, the word and charity.

The Book of Common Prayer, the Homilies, the Articles of Religion and other sources of Anglican doctrine do not teach the doctrine that the priest acts in persona Christi or in persona Christi capitis. The traditional Anglican view is closer to the Orthodox understanding of in persona Ecclesiae.

In his essay, “Man, Woman, Priesthood” Bishop Kallistos Ware explains the difference between the Catholic and Orthodox understanding of the role of the celebrant in the Eucharist.

“In the medieval west, as in most Roman Catholic thinking today, the priest is understood as acting in persona Christi. When, that is to say, the celebrant recites the Words of Institution, ‘This is my Body … This is my Blood,’ he speaks these words as if he were himself Christ; or rather, at this moment Christ himself is understood to be speaking these words through the priest.” p 47.

He goes on to say:

“In the Byzantine rite, on the other hand, throughout the consecratory anaphora the celebrant speaks not in persona Christi but in persona Ecclesiae, as the representative not of Christ but of the Church.”

This understanding that the priest is not acting in the person of Christ, coupled with the view of the Reformers that confession to a priest has no more merit or imparts no greater grace than to a layman, helps explain what is happening in Adelaide.

What we are seeing is a swing of the Anglican pendulum away from Anglo-Catholicism towards the Low Church or Evangelical wing. As the quotes from The Advertiser show, the Catholic wing of the Church (Archbishop Driver) is backing away from the hard line position on the sanctity of the confessional due to the clergy abuse scandals. The push has come from modernists who like the symbolism but are appalled by the abuses that have been protected by the seal of confession. The growing Evangelical wing never believed in auricular confession in the first place and is happy to see it go.

The article is correct in noting that there has been a rift between the Catholics and Anglicans on this issue. But it did not happen on July 3, as The Advertiser reports, but about 500 years ago.

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  • wlinden

    I think you are conflating the requirements surrounding sacramental confession-and-absolution, and the expecting of confidentiality where clerical counseling is involved. I suspect that most people will expect that if you tell something to a member of the clergy in confidence, it will stay confidential (indeed I hear things like “Doctors have to keep your confidence, just like priests” and vice versa), and would be surprised to be told “No, that’s only for Catholics, Protestant ministers can tell or not as they see fit.”

    Most of the “clergy privilege” references given in Wikpedia’s “Priest-penitent privilege” article do not distinguish. E.g., “New York law (NY CPLR 4505) provides that: unless the person confessing
    or confiding waives the privilege, a clergyman, or other minister of any
    religion or duly accredited Christian Science practitioner, shall not
    be allowed to disclose a confession or confidence made to him in his
    professional character as a spiritual advisor.”

    Under “Fiduciary”, a “fiduciary relationship” is ascribed to “Priest / parishioner seeking counseling: Doe v Evans” ( 814 So.2d 370 (Fla. 2002))

    A separate article on “Seal of the Confessional and the Anglican Church” does not specifically mention Australia, but for the Church of England we read
    ‘The Guidelines for the Professional Conduct of the Clergy (2003), which
    are currently in force throughout the Church of England, state at
    section 7.2 “There can be no disclosure of what is confessed to a
    priest. This principle holds even after the death of the penitent. The
    priest may not refer to what has been learnt in confession, even to the
    penitent, unless explicitly permitted.”;[5]
    and add at section 7.4 “If a penitent’s behaviour gravely threatens his
    or her well-being or that of others, the priest, while advising action
    on the penitent’s part, must still keep the confidence”.’

    • George Conger

      Interesting points. In one of the speeches made at the Australia Synod by the new primate Melbourne Archbishop Philip Freier outlined the history of the seal of confession, including the harsh penalties for clergy who broke the seal and the understanding of the Reformers that the seal of confession was not absolute.

      I know that in the United States a number of states do not permit clergy to withhold information about child or elder abuse, even if disclosed in pastoral dialogue.

      • halflight

        Things are a bit more complicated than that, at least in my jurisdiction.

        In the State of Michigan, a clergy member “who has reasonable cause to suspect child abuse or neglect” is required to report it within 72 hours to the child welfare agency. MCLA 722.623.

        HOWEVER, the Michigan Rules of Evidence states “No minister of the gospel, or priest of any denomination whatsoever, or duly accredited Christian Science practitioner, shall be allowed to disclose any confessions made to him in his professional character, in the course of discipline enjoined by the rules or practice of such denomination.” MCLA 600.2156

        How does this work out in actual practice? The clergy member must report suspected abuse, but any confession made to the clergy member is inadmissible as evidence against the penitent/defendant unless the defendant waives the priest-penitent privilege. The child welfare agency and the police must investigate and provide sufficient evidence of child abuse without using the privileged confession as evidence in court.

        So mandatory reporting laws do not necessarily override priest-penitent privilege.

        • Julia B

          Interesting distinctions.

  • Jonathan

    “The secrecy of a confession is morally absolute for the confessor, and must under no circumstances be broken.” – pg. 446, the Book of Common Prayer, according to the use of The Episcopal Church

    • George Conger

      The full passage you cite reads:

      The content of a confession is not normally a matter of subsequent
      discussion. The secrecy of a confession is morally absolute for the
      confessor, and must under no circumstances be broken.

      Do not these two sentences contradict each other?

      • James

        How do they contradict? The first sentence says the content isn’t normally discussed. The second sentence basically says “nor should it be”.

      • bullschuck

        I don’t think so. The first states that neither party should need to discuss the confession any further. The second states that the confessor absolutely can’t discuss it further. Two different roles, one more strictly defined than the other. But no, not contradictory.

      • Geoff McLarney

        That is correct, they do not. My confessor and I do not _normally_ discuss my confessions in subsequent meetings. Her refraining from doing so with others is an absolute obligation.

        I am beginning to wonder if we have located the author of the famous “Low Churchman’s Guide”? The degree of historical nuance and the level of polemic just about fit …

    • Geoff McLarney

      Thank you for this. Fr Conger clearly is aware that there are Anglo-Catholics who inhabit a communion with him and do not share his interpretation of the prayer book formularies. So the question is, is he caught in a journalistic blind spot, or wilfully propagandizing his own “wing” of the Ang. Comm?

  • FW Ken

    First, a nit to pick: Cardinal Pell hasn’t been in Sydney since February, when he moved to Rome to run the Vatican ‘ s finances.

    Also, I would have been interested to hear what lay Anglicans who frequent Confession think. Even if their attitude is that it doesn’t affect them, that’s still a point of view that’s missing.

    Thank you for the background on Anglican orders and sacramental theology. I have bookmarked it.

  • Julia B

    I think the movie you mention is about a Catholic priest, not an Anglican.

  • kenhowes

    The seal of the confessional is somewhat analogous to an attorney’s duty of confidentiality. The proper dividing line for the priest or pastor is the same as for a lawyer: a confession that one has in the past committed a crime is protected, but a statement that one intends to commit a crime is not.

  • Wesley Mcgranor

    Obviously we our needlessly led astray in ‘our’ ecumenism and Anglocatholic infiltration.

  • R. Howell

    The differences between Anglican and RC tradition re Confession are interesting, but I do not see how they are in any way relevant to the news story under discussion. The author merely states that the story “suffers from the handicap” of confusing the two, but how?

  • Jody Howard

    I’ve heard almost as many confessions as I’ve done funerals. It’s not a weekly or even monthly occurrence, but I wouldn’t say it’s rare.

    I think the language referring to the topics discussed during confession not normally being a topic for subsequent conversation is clearly linked with the pronouncement “the Lord has put away all your sins…” The new start offered by the Reconciliation of a Penitent means that one can put ones sins behind them. Confession frees us from the past in order to life toward God in the present and future. If these things are brought up again, they should be brought up by the penitent; the confessor is to be a symbol of God’s grace filled forgetfulness unless the penitent’s conscience remains troubled, and then it is they, and not the confessor, who broaches the topic.

    The statement about the secrecy of confession regards another issue, namely, the discussion of the content of someone’s confession by the confessor with a third party, which is forbidden.

    I believe the majority of the texts you cite from the English reformers are attacks upon auricular private confession as a *dominical sacrament*, i.e. normally required of every person for salvation. Of course, Anglicans deny this. That does *not* mean that auricular confession was outlawed or not practiced. Nor does it deny its sacramental character for those who choose to engage in it. Historically speaking there is evidence to show that those who wanted used the means of the private confession in the ministry to the sick to accomplish this purpose. It was deemed appropriate since sin is indeed a sickness, for which the gospel is the cure–and the pronouncement of forgiveness of sins is at the heart of the gospel.

    I would also commend a study of the words of the Exhortation before Communion, found in every prayer book since 1549. The 1662 ends with these words: “And because it is requisite, that no man should come to the holy Communion, but with full trust in God’s mercy, and with a quiet conscience; therefore if there by any of you, who by this means cannot quiet his own conscience herein, but requireth further comfort and counsel; let him come to me, or to some other discreet and learned Minister of God’s Word, and open his grief: that by the ministry of God’s holy Word he may receive the benefit of Absolution, together with ghostly counsel and advice, to the quieting of his conscience, and avoiding of all scruple and doubtfulness.”

    There’s little doubt that this describes the practice of individual auricular confession with absolution pronounced by ordained Ministers of the Gospel.

    Since it’s apropos of the article, I’ll also share that the issue of whether, in an extreme situation, one would break the seal, came up in several of my seminary classes. You’ll be interested, I’m sure, to know that Mother Julia Gatta, who teaches pastoral care at Sewanee, teaches in line with the prayer book rubric, that the seal of confession is absolute (I heartily recommend the book on confession she co-wrote with Martin Smith, “Go in Peace: The Art of Hearing Confessions.”

    The likelihood of ever having someone confess a crime that must be reported seems low. If that did happen, I think there are several possible responses: making the person turn themselves in as a prerequisite for absolution, including the possibility of physically accompanying/escorting them to the authorities (something I have done once, though not out of the context of the rite of reconciliation, but rather a general counseling session). Finally, if I were convinced that someone were in immanent danger and the *only* way I could prevent it would be to break the seal if the confessional, then I would, and the next thing I would do is to resign my orders for having broken my ordination vows. Thankfully, that last scenario is about as likely as most ethics problems (I should note that I owe the extreme solution to my mentor the late Rev. Dr. Guy F. Lytle. We discussed this issue in his class on the Priesthood).

  • FW Ken

    A related story has come up. In this case, the Louisiana Supreme Court has decreed that a priest must testify in court about a confession in which a minor discussed being molested. They have declared him among the mandatory reporters required by the law.

  • Stephen W. Houghton

    “And because it is requisite that no man should come
    to the holy Communion, but with a full trust in God’s mercy, and
    with a quiet conscience; therefore, if there be any of you, who by this
    means cannot quiet his own conscience herein, but requireth further comfort
    or counsel, let him come to me, or to some other Minister of God’s
    Word, and open his grief; that he may receive such godly counsel and advice,
    as may tend to the quieting of his conscience, and the removing of all
    scruple and doubtfulness.” Exhortation BCP 1928

  • bob

    According to the BCP Episcopalians also believe the Nicene Creed and think the 10 commandments matter. There is no reason to think words about “confession”

    should be taken seriously either. It will mean whatever the individual cleric and

    layman thinks it means that particular day, that moment. Anglican theology is a
    moving target, I’m surprised the news doesn’t know that. It also makes news for
    the sheer rarity of Anglicans anywhere who ever heard of the idea of confession, let
    alone doing it. Next story should be about nuns who have knee pain after running a
    four minute mile. Maybe it’s better to discuss this under the medical category of a HIPPA violation, on the order of a pharmacist accidentally leaving a pice of paper in a non confidential waste basket with a patient’s name or some piece of medical information on it. That way it secularizes the topic and guarantees a civil penalty.