You can confess — but not to an Anglican priest

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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.

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