THE PRACTICE OF SACRAMENTAL CONFESSION
ANGLICAN DIOCESE OF THE SOUTH
Though the Reconciliation of Penitents (Confession) is not identified as a Dominical Sacrament in the formularies of the Anglican Church, it is nonetheless a recognized ecclesiastical sacrament administered by the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church. Following is an apology for its practice in the Anglican Church in North America and in the Anglican Diocese of the South and a defense of the sanctity of the confessional seal.
CONTINUITY OF FAITH AND PRACTICE
According to the Fundamental Declarations of the Province of the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA) the following statement is “characteristic of the Anglican Way, and essential for membership:”
6. We receive The Book of Common Prayer as set forth by the Church of England in 1662, together with the Ordinal attached to the same, as a standard for Anglican doctrine and discipline, and, with the Books which preceded it, as the standard for the Anglican tradition of worship (ACNA, 2019, p. 767).
Given the normative status of the Book of Common Prayer 1662 (BCP 1662) and the Ordinal attached to the same, an apology for sacramental confession within the Anglican Church of North America generally and the Anglican Diocese of the South (ADOTS) specifically may well begin there with the episcopal prayer of epiclesis in The Form and Manner of Ordering of PRIESTS:
RECEIVE the Holy Ghost for the Office and work of a Priest in the Church of God, now committed unto thee by the Imposition of our hands. Whose sins thou dost forgive, they are forgiven; and whose sins thou dost retain, they are retained. And be thou a faithful Dispenser of the Word of God, and of his holy Sacraments; in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen (Cummings, 2011, p. 642).
Two points from this epiclesis are germane to the following discussion. First, the Holy Ghost is committed for the Office and work of a Priest in the Church of God, i.e., in the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church and not merely in the Anglican Church. This universality of holy orders arguably contextualizes all those in orders within a common understanding and practice of ministry, not least in the administration of the Sacraments. Any departure from the received Tradition of the Church catholic in the administration of the sacraments challenges the claim to valid holy orders. Second, forgiveness or retention of sins is an intrinsic aspect of priestly ministry. While all forgiveness originates with God the Father through the atoning sacrifice of God the Son, forgiveness is mediated instrumentally through the ministry of the priest according to God the Holy Spirit. That a priest may forgive or retain sins is therefore given; it is common to the great Tradition. The question now follows: when and under what conditions is this priestly ministry of forgiveness exercised, specifically in the Anglican Church?
Since the ACNA accepts as “the standard for the Anglican tradition of worship” those books which preceded the BCP 1662, we may rightly appeal to the BCP 1549 which answers the foregoing question most clearly. In the exhortation to Holy Communion the rubrics require the priest to say these or similar words:
First, that you be truly repentaunt of your former evill life, and that you confesse with an unfained hearte to almightie God, youre synnes and unkyndnes towardes his Majestie committed, either by will, worde or dede, infirmitie or ignoraunce, and that with inwarde sorowe and teares you bewaile your offences, and require of almightie god, mercie, and pardon, promising to him (from the botome of your hartes) the amendment of your former lyfe. And emonges all others, I am commaunded of God, especially to move and exhorte you, to reconcile yourselfes to your neighbors, whom you have offended, or who hath offended you, putting out of your heartes al hatred and malice against them, and to be in love and charitie with all the worlde, and to forgeve other, as you woulde that god should forgeve you. And yf any man have doen wrong to any other: let him make satisfaccion, and due restitucion of all landes and goodes, wrongfully taken awaye or withholden, before he come to Goddes borde, or at the least be in ful minde and purpose to do so, assone as he is able, or els let him not come to this holy table, thinking to deceyve God, who seeth all mennes hartes. For neither the absolucion of the priest, can any thing avayle them, nor the receivyng of this holy sacrament doth any thing but increase their damnacion. And yf there bee any of you, whose conscience is troubled and greved in any thing, lackyng comforte or counsaill, let him come to me, or to some other dyscrete and learned priest, taught in the law of God, and confesse and open his synne and griefe secretly, that he may receive suche ghostly counsaill, advyse, and comfort, that his conscience maye be releved, and that of us (as of ministers of GOD and of the churche) he may receive comfort and absolucion, to the satisfaccion of his mynde, and avoyding of all scruple and doubtfulnes: requirying suche as shalbe satisfied with a generall confession, not to be offended with them that doe use, to their further satisfiyng, the auriculer and secret confession to the Priest: nor those also whiche thinke nedefull or convenient, for the quietnes of their awne consciences, particuliarly to open their sinnes to the Priest: to bee offended with them that are satisfied, with their humble confession to GOD, and the generall confession to the churche. But in all thinges to folowe and kepe the rule of charitie, and every man to be satisfied with his owne conscience, not judgying other mennes myndes or consciences: where as he hath no warrant of Goddes word to the same (Ibid, pp. 24-25).
Language difficulties notwithstanding, several crucial points emerge clearly from this exhortation. First, self-examination, restitution, reconciliation, and amendment of life are prerequisite to efficacious confession and absolution; without these, priestly absolution does not avail. Second, the normal course of forgiveness consists of private confession to God, general (corporate and public) confession to the church in the context of Morning and Evening Prayer and in Holy Eucharist, and corporate absolution by the priest. Third, if the normal course fails to provide satisfaction of the penitent’s mind and conscience, the penitent may utilize secret auricular confession, i.e., sacramental confession, to the priest. In that context, the priest not only offers absolution, but also spiritual counsel, advice, and comfort, i.e., appropriate pastoral care. Sacramental confession is more than a pro forma rite of absolution; it is a venue for the cure of souls.
While subsequent editions of the Book of Common Prayer moderate the language of the exhortation regarding “auriculer and secret confession to the Priest” and eliminate all mention of charity between those with different confessional practices, they nevertheless retain private confession to the priest as a valid practice and exhort some to avail themselves of it.
Of special importance is this rubric in Visitation of the Sick, BCP 1662.
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 (if he humbly and heartily desire it) after this sort (Ibid, p. 445).
Then follows the nearest the BCP 1662 offers to a rite of confession: an absolution offered by the priest to one who has made a personal, specific, and auricular — not public and general — confession:
OUR Lord Jesus Christ, who hath left power to his Church to absolve all sinners who truly repent and believe in him, of his great mercy forgive thee thine offences: And by his authority committed to me, I absolve thee from all thy sins, In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen (Ibid, p. 445).
Thus, it is clear from the earliest edition of the Book of Common Prayer through all those subsequent revisions deemed standard by the ACNA that (1) absolution was considered integral to the office and work of the priest; (2) absolution was normally exercised publicly and corporately during Morning and Evening Prayer and Holy Communion; (3) private, auricular confession and absolution was accepted practice and some — those unsatisfied by public confession and the spiritually troubled sick — were exhorted to avail themselves of it. It is also clear that absolution — in whatever form, public or private — was dependent upon self-examination, restitution, reconciliation, and amendment of life, as far as was possible.
That the ACNA has inherited and accepted this understanding of priestly absolution and private, auricular confession is clear from the Ordinal, The Exhortation, the rite for Reconciliation of Penitents, and the rite of Ministry to the Dying in the BCP 2019.
The epiclesis in The Form and Manner of Ordaining a Priest is a contemporary language version of that in the BCP 1662 and likewise identifies forgiveness and retention of sins as integral to the priestly ministry:
Receive the Holy Spirit for the office and work of a Priest in the Church of God, now committed to you by the imposition of our hands. If you forgive the sins of anyone, they are forgiven. If you withhold forgiveness from anyone, it is withheld. Be a faithful minister of God’s holy Word and Sacraments; in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit (ACNA, 2019, p. 493).
The Exhortation identifies the prerequisites for valid absolution and encourages those with a troubled conscience to private confession with a priest:
Therefore, judge yourselves lest you be judged by the Lord. First, examine your life by the rule of God’s commandments. Wherever you have offended, either by thought, word, or deed, confess your sins to Almighty God, with the full intention to amend your life. Be ready to make restitution for all injuries and wrongs you have done to others; and also be ready to forgive others who have offended you: for otherwise, if you unworthily receive Holy Communion, you will increase your own condemnation. Therefore, repent of your sins, or else do not come to God’s Holy Table.
If you have come here today with a troubled conscience, and you need help and counsel, come to me, or to some other Priest, and confess your sins, that you may receive godly counsel, direction, and absolution. To do so will both satisfy your conscience and remove any scruples or doubt (Ibid, pp. 147-148).
The BCP 2019 goes beyond the standard books to provide a rite of Reconciliation Of Penitents, but it maintains theological continuity with those prior books by utilizing, as the first of two options, a contemporary language version of the declaration of absolution from the BCP 1662:
Our Lord Jesus Christ, who has given power to his Church to absolve all sinners who truly repent and believe in him, of his great mercy forgive you all your offenses; and by his authority committed to me, I absolve you from all your sins: In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen (Ibid, p. 224).
The Additional Directions for Ministry to the Dying align with the rubrics in Visitation of the Sick in the BCP 1662:
The minister may inquire of the dying person as to his or her desire to be reconciled to both God and neighbor. If the dying person feels troubled in conscience with any matter, the minister should offer the rite of Reconciliation of a Penitent. On evidence of repentance, the minister shall give assurance of God’s mercy and forgiveness (Ibid, pp. 241-242).
The BCP 2019 continues the faith and practice of the standard books which preceded it vis-à-vis the priestly ministry of confession and absolution, both public/corporate and private/personal. This places Anglican faith and practice firmly in the mainstream of the received Tradition of the Church catholic.
THE SEAL OF CONFESSION
Recently, in reaction against sexual abuse both inside and outside the church, several states have designated priests as mandatory reporters of suspected or confirmed abuse of minors. That is, priests are legally required to report alleged or actual cases of abuse to the civil authorities for investigation and potential prosecution. This requirement admits no exceptions; even such incriminating information revealed during sacramental confession must be reported to the appropriate civil authorities. This is a direct challenge to the absolute sanctity of the seal of confession as historically understood and practiced. Such laws pose challenges and questions to the ANCA and to those in holy orders who hear confessions. What is the official position of the ACNA vis-à-vis the sanctity of the seal of confession? A brief historical and theological excursus is perhaps necessary to address the issue.
On Sundays, other Major Feast Days, and other times as appointed, faithful Anglicans stand during the Liturgy and confess their faith in the words of the Nicene Creed — words including these:
We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.
This statement is more than a notional recognition of the existence of “a church.” It is an expression of faith in “one Church” that shares a common faith including common holy orders and sacraments. Further, it is a proclamation that the ACNA considers itself part of that Church along with all other churches which maintain holy orders in valid Apostolic succession and which faithfully administer the sacraments, e.g., the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church. Anything done unilaterally by the ACNA or its clergy in contravention of shared faith and practice strikes a hammer blow against the ACNA’s claim to be part of the one holy catholic and apostolic Church and against the hope for visible, ecumenical unity. Arguably those who refuse to acknowledge and fail to practice that which has been believed everywhere, always, and by all (Vincentian Canon) are thereby placing themselves outside the Tradition of the Church catholic.
The inviolability of the seal of confession is the long established and universally recognized understanding and practice of the Church catholic. The Decretum of Gratian (12th century), which purports to compile earlier Church decrees, notes:
Let the priest who dares to make known the sins of his penitent be deposed.
The Fourth Lateran Council (1215) Canon 21 states:
Let the confessor take absolute care not to betray the sinner through word or sign, or in any other way whatsoever. In case he needs expert advice he may seek it without, however, in any way indicating the person. For we decree that he who presumes to reveal a sin which has been manifested to him in the tribunal of penance is not only to be deposed from the priestly office, but also to be consigned to a closed monastery for perpetual penance.
Closer to home, The Book of Common Prayer of the Anglican Church in North America (BCP 2019) contains this instruction regarding the seal of the confessional:
The content of a confession is not normally a matter of subsequent discussion. The secrecy of a confession is morally binding for the confessor and is not to be broken (BCP 2019, p. 222).
Canons, decrees, and rubrics could be multiplied, but it is the case that the one holy catholic and apostolic Church — East and West together — insists on the absolute sanctity of the confessional seal. Until the entire Church — the entire Church — is led to contrary consensus by the Holy Spirit, no member communion of that Church has the right to contravene that sacramental practice and, at the same time, proclaim itself part of the Church catholic. Even less may any individual priest do so. If a priest feels he cannot maintain the seal, he should not receive confessions.
Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s
By designating priests as mandatory reporters of suspected or actual sexual abuse of minors, state governments and civil authorities have claimed jurisdiction and authority over the sacraments of the Church. And that, the Church cannot allow if it is to render unto Caesar only that which is Caesar’s and unto God everything that is God’s. To capitulate to the mandatory reporters statute simply because it is the “law of the land” is to bow to Caesar as Lord. What sacraments are to “fall” next?
Will the civil authorities one day claim sole jurisdiction over marriage and decree by law that if a church marries anyone it must marry everyone, i.e., that a church may not determine for itself, based on its understanding of the ancient consensus fidelium, who meets the criteria for Holy Matrimony?
Will the civil authorities one day ban baptism because it imparts (imposes?) a unique identity upon the baptizand that conflicts with society’s notion of identity, as fluid as that now seems?
Will the civil authorities one day define all talk of sin, repentance, and judgment as “hate speech” and impose civil or criminal penalties for the proclamation of the Gospel?
Perhaps this sounds alarmist, but it is currently being realized — at least in part — in some Western countries. The Church cannot capitulate even to something that sounds inherently good and reasonable, like mandatory reporting of sexual abuse revealed in the context of sacramental confession lest it relinquish authority over its sacraments.
Sin and forgiveness versus crime and punishment
Sacramental confession exists to address sin and forgiveness, not crime and punishment. A priest is an advocate for the sinner, not an accuser of the criminal. While a priest’s heart can and does ache for the victim of any evil, his focus must be on the penitent in front of him, a penitent who may well be the perpetrator. Multiple souls may hang in the balance, but the one soul who has come to confess is the one who must take priority in that moment. The priest’s role is to lead that soul to true repentance and amendment of life so that absolution may be pronounced. This is not a matter of crime and punishment.
This also is not callous disregard for the victim of evil: far from it. But where does the government stop when asking the priest to report criminal behavior? Reporting sexual abuse seems so reasonable. But what about embezzlement? That is not a victimless crime and may cause serious and permanent damage to the victims. Should a priest report that to the authorities or to the victim? If not, why not? The selling of illegal drugs: does a priest report it or not? What crimes might governments require a priest to report in the future, and how will they determine that? To which civil statutes will the church capitulate? Such capitulation in even one instance is the nullification of the sacrament of confession.
Nothing new under the sun
Ironically and paradoxically, each generation considers itself intellectually and morally superior to all preceding generations (false progressivism) and also fallen from former greatness (false “golden age”). The truth is much simpler, as Ecclesiastes writes:
Ecclesiastes 1:9–11 (ESV): 9 What has been is what will be,
and what has been done is what will be done,
and there is nothing new under the sun.
10 Is there a thing of which it is said,
“See, this is new”?
It has been already
in the ages before us.
11 There is no remembrance of former things,
nor will there be any remembrance
of later things yet to be
among those who come after.
Nothing heard in twenty-first century confessionals would have shocked our priestly forefathers; sin is boringly banal in its consistency. Sexual abuse — Lord, have mercy! — is nothing new under the sun, though society’s attitude toward it evolves. Our forefathers in holy orders were presented with the same dilemma we face today: the confession of heinous sin and the sanctity of the confessional seal. They were wise and faithful enough to address the former without forsaking the latter. Wisdom lies in preserving the received Tradition, in keeping with G. K. Chesterton:
Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking around (Chesterton, 2001, p. 45).
Binding and loosing
On the day of resurrection, Jesus appeared to his disciple in the Upper Room and commissioned them to carry on his work in the world:
John 20:22–23 (ESV): 22 And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.”
This, and parallel passages, form the basis for sacramental confession and absolution. It is the apostolic authority of binding and loosing conferred upon the eleven by Jesus through the Holy Spirit, and bequeathed to their successors — bishops and priests — through the laying on of hands. Both forgiveness and retention of sins is authorized. The granting of absolution is neither automatic nor is it a right that the penitent may demand. It is a prayerful and prudential decision made by the priest. A confession is valid, i.e., genuine and “meriting” absolution only when certain elements are present. The penitent must exhibit contrition: the recognition and acknowledgment of sin and godly sorrow for it. Further, as applicable, the penitent must bear evidence of — or resolve to accomplish at the earliest opportunity — reconciliation, restitution, and restoration. In short, the penitent must submit to justice — the putting to rights, as far as is possible, what he or she violated — and must exhibit or commit to amendment of life.
A few examples might clarify this. Suppose a man confesses that he recently had spoken angry words to his wife. He now recognizes his wrong and is truly sorry for it. Before pronouncing absolution, the priest might reasonably ask if the penitent had reconciled to his wife by confessing his wrong to her and by seeking her forgiveness. If he had not, the priest could rightly ask him to do so and then return for absolution. Or, if a woman confesses that she had stolen some petty cash from her office, the priest should ask if she had returned it. If she had not, the priest should not pronounce absolution until she does so. Absolution does not bypass godly justice, but rather promotes it and is dependent upon it.
Now a more difficult situation, but no less clear. Suppose a man confesses to sexually abusing a minor. He is contrite. But that is not enough for the granting of absolution. Has he begun the process of restitution and restoration? Has he concrete plans for amendment of life? Has he met the demands of godly justice which would require, in part, his self-reporting to the civil authorities? Until these have been done, the priest could not, in good faith, pronounce absolution, nor would the absolution be valid should the priest pronounce it. The priest should offer to go with him to the authorities; he should in no way spiritually abandon the penitent. Rather, the priest should attempt most earnestly to lead the penitent to the point where absolution is appropriate, and then journey with him beyond that to amendment of life. What the priest must not do is to violate the morally absolute seal of confession if the penitent decides to leave the confessional with his sins unforgiven and bound to him. If, to the contrary, the priest does choose to report the confession to the civil authorities the priest should also report himself to his bishop and ask to be relieved of his priesthood.
All may, none must, some should
So goes the Anglican invitation to the sacrament of confession. This must now extend to priests and the hearing of confessions. By virtue of their order, all priests may receive confessions and pronounce absolution. Some are gifted confessors and should exercise that ministry to the glory of God and the welfare of his people. But, none must. Further, those who cannot in good faith and conscience maintain the sanctity of the seal of confession must not hear confessions. Rather, they should provide for alternate sacramental care for those parishioners who desire sacramental confession.
Most generally, Anglicans do not beat down the doors of the confessional or queue up for hours waiting their turn. The opposite seems to be true. Most take advantage of the Anglican loophole, “None must.” The likelihood of an Anglican priest hearing the confession of a sexual abuser of minors is relatively small. To overturn the consensus fidelium of the Church catholic, to bow the knee to Caesar and relinquish authority over the sacraments to the civil authorities, to turn from sin and forgiveness to crime and punishment for the sake of this unlikely event, to jettison the Tradition is inexcusable, particularly when the priest already has the apostolic authority of binding and loosing. The principle is sound and must be zealously guarded: the secrecy of a confession is morally absolute for a confessor.
Anglican Church in North America (2019). The book of common prayer and administration of the sacraments with other rites and ceremonies of the church according to the use of the Anglican Church in North America (BCP 2019). Anglican Liturgy Press.
Chesterton, G. K. (2001). Orthodoxy. Image Books.
Cummings, B. (2011). The book of common prayer: The texts of 1549, 1559, and 1662. Oxford University Press.
ESV Bible (2016). Crossways.
The Episcopal Church (TEC) (1979). The book of common prayer and administration of the sacraments and other rites and ceremonies of the church according to the use of the Episcopal Church (BCP 1979). Church Publishing Incorporated.