You can confess — but not to an Anglican priest

You can confess — but not to an Anglican priest July 5, 2014

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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