Discursus: Confession and the Anglican Way

A brief outline of traditional Anglican thinking on private auricular confession

What then have I to do with men, that they should hear my confessions- as if they could heal all my infirmities- a race, curious to know the lives of others, slothful to amend their own? Why seek they to hear from me what I am; who will not hear from Thee what themselves are? 

Augustine, Confessions Book X

A number of comments and questions have been raised concerning the question of private auricular confession and the Anglican tradition in light of the 2 July 2014 vote by the Anglican Church of Australia’s General Synod to open the seal of confession.

The comments come in two forms: praise for the action which was designed to combat child and elder abuse and prevent criminals from sheltering under the seal of confession, and anger over the abandonment of an immemorial tradition of the church. A desecration of a sacrament, some have suggested.

The statements by Melbourne Archbishop Philip Freier, the new primate of Australia, that the seal of the confession was not considered to be absolute by the English reformers has come under attack as un-Anglican and un-Christian, as has the statement in the press accounts that the Anglican reformers rejected private confession and that it was all but unknown until the Catholic revival of the Nineteenth Century Oxford movement.

Modern day supporters of private confession followed by priestly absolution point to their use of private confession as an evidence of its Anglican bona fides. They also claim passages in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer’s rite for the Visitation of the Sick and the final paragraph of the Exhortation in the Eucharist provide a warrant for the claim that private auricular confession is a traditional Anglican practice.

There is little new under the sun in church disputes. These issues were debated at great length during the ritualist controversies of the Nineteenth century. I do not hold myself out as an expert in this field and my pastoral and professional work has not permitted me to keep abreast of the latest historical researches. Though my doctoral studies looked at aspects of the Nineteenth century ecclesiastical disputes, I focused on John Colenso and the development of Biblical Interpretation – not the ritualist controversies.

What then is the basis for the statement that the Anglican reformers rejected private auricular confession followed by priestly absolution? The medieval church held that sacramental confession was a necessary practice for all Christians, and Henry VIII’s Ten Articles of 1536 made this practice compulsory for members of the Church of England. Thirteen years later in 1549 when the first Edwardian Prayer Book was released the practice was made optional. The second Edwardian Prayer Book, printed three years later, deleted the practice of auricular confession as well as a rubric in the service for the Visitation of the Sick which authorized a priest to use this form of absolution in all cases of private confession.

By the Convocation of 1562 the move away from auricular confession appears to have been complete. Edward Cardwell in his Synodalia (1842) reports that a paper was presented to Synod stating the church’s position on auricular confession. Cardwell reports that while there are no records to indicate the document was endorsed by the meeting, it did receive the backing of the Archbishop of Canterbury Matthew Parker. The paper suggested that every communicant of the Church of England should present himself to his “parson, vicar or curate” at which time “the said parsons and vicars shall take occasion to give some private godly admonition to the parishioners, if they know any faults or offences in them. What priest so ever, under color hereof, shall practice auricular confession shall be deprived of all his livings and deposed from the ministry.”

The 39 Articles of Religion declined to number the penitential rite among the sacraments, while the Homilies went so far as to condemn sacramental confession as having “no warrant of God” and had been imposed upon Christians “in the time of blindness and ignorance.”

This trajectory was continued in the 1662 BCP which offered a doctrine of the ministry incompatible with an ontology of the priesthood that could permit a priest to offer absolution (one of the arguments used against the validity of Anglican orders by Roman Catholics). The BCP also offered no rite for private auricular confession.

This textual progression away from auricular confession should also be read in context with the literature of the era, which denounced auricular confession as one of the corruptions of the Catholic Church. Auricular confession was thus absent from Anglican worship, in as much as there is no record of its practice, until the Nineteenth century.

It made its return with the rise of the Anglo-Catholic movement – and private auricular confession became one of the issues of the ritualist controversies of the day. Anglo-Catholic leaders, then as now, sought to defend the practice by reference to two portions of the 1662 BCP. (They advanced other arguments but these lay outside their Anglican heritage and are not germane to this note.)

The first was the closing paragraph of the first exhortation in the Communion Service. It states:

And because it is necessary 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 of 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.

This permission to provide private counsel and absolution was seen by the Anglo-Catholic party as a warrant to offer private auricular confession. Their opponents objected to this reading, arguing the passage was being taken out of historical and textual context.

Read in the context of the full Communion service, the private pastoral counsel of a minster sanctioned by this paragraph was for those unable to “quiet their conscience” by the ordinary “ways and means” set forth in the Exhortation and is for special cases – not for general purpose use.

A comparison to the Exhortation in the first Prayer Book of King Edward, which provided for the option of private auricular confession, demonstrated the change, opponents of the innovation argued. It stated:

And if there be any of you, whose conscience is troubled and grieved in any thing, lacking comfort and counsel, let him come to me, or to some other discreet and learned priest, taught in the law of God, and confess and open his sin and grief secretly, that he may receive such ghostly counsel, advice, and comfort, that his conscience may be relieved, and that of us (as of the ministers of God and of the Church) he may receive comfort and absolution, to the satisfaction of his mind, and avoiding of all scruple and doubtfulness : requiring such as shall be satisfied with a general confession, not to be offended with them that do use, to their further satisfying, the auricular and secret confession to the priest ; nor those also which think needful and convenient, for the quietness of their own consciences, particularly to open their sins to the priest, to be offended with them that are satisfied with their humble confession to God, and the general confession to the Church. But in all things to follow and keep the rule of charity, and every man to be satisfied with his own conscience, not judging other men’s minds or consciences ; whereas he hath no warrant of God’s Word to the same.

The differences between the 1549 and 1662 BCP they claimed were self-evident. The first sends the penitent to a “discreet and learned priest”, the second sends the penitent to a “discreet and learned minister of God’s Word”.

Once the penitent is with the priest/minister, the first tells him to “open his sin and grief secretly” while the second tells him to “open his grief”.

After having opened up, the penitent under the 1549 BCP is to “receive absolution from the ministers of God and the Church” while in the 1662 BCP “by the ministry of God’s Holy Word he may receive the benefit of absolution”.

The distinction turns upon an understanding of the office of the priest. The 1549 BCP followed the Roman tradition of the priest acting in a juridical capacity in relation to the penitent over whom he has the power to grant absolution. The 1662 BCP changes the locus of power to the “ministry of God’s Holy Word”.

The 1549 BCP acknowledges the church is going through a period of transition. It tells Christians not to take umbrage with those who follow Roman Catholic practices, “not judging other men’s minds or consciences”. The first version asks Christians “not to be offended with them that do use, to their further satisfying, the auricular and secret confession to the priest”. The second version omits this counsel.

A form for absolution following a private auricular confession was also included in the 1549 BCP. That version’s rite for the Visitation of the Sick concluded with the phrase “and the same form of absolution shall be used in all private confessions.” The Second Edwardian BCP removed the form for absolution while the Visitation of the Sick was also amended, deleting the closing words.

The use of private confession in the 1662 Visitation of the Sick rite followed the same textual and doctrinal development. It did enjoin the priest to engage in the pastoral ministries of godly counsel and prayer and permitted private absolution in the limited circumstance of the penitent being unable to participate in the public confession.

Where is all this headed? This brief excursion through Anglican history does not seek to convince those who practice auricular private confession that they have erred. I have no interest in re-fighting the battles of the past, or of trying to place someone outside of the fellowship of the church by proclaiming what is the “right way” to do things. Rather this paper seeks to provide context to understand why Anglicans in Australia, such as the Archbishop of Melbourne, can say the Anglican way has a different view of confession than the Catholic Church by reference to history and the liturgy. The charges of ignorance levelled against those who do not hold to a Catholic view of confession is unfounded. 

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