Controversy is hardly a rarity in the Church of England. Yet not every controversy among Anglicans has possible implications for Roman Catholics. The most recent kerfuffle does.
On Tuesday, May 29th, the Rev. Canon Robin Ward SSC, Principal of St. Stephen’s House, Oxford, posted the following status on Facebook.
Anglo-Catholics have an amusing tendency to apply the Roman Code of Canon Law to their own ecclesial life, if only to frustrate the machinations of Evangelical bishops. It’s one of the oldest AC tricks in the book. A venerable tradition of principled disobedience, if you will.
But that is not what Fr. Ward is doing here. He is referring to the Anglican Code of Canon Law, which does indeed affirm the seal of the confessional as a sacramental norm (See Canon 113). Since Fr. Ward’s post, there has been an enormous to-do in the press. It seems that, although these guidelines came out in 2015, no one has noticed until last week. Forward in Faith, the pressure group advocating for traditionalist Anglo-Catholicism in the Church of England, released a concise yet substantive denunciation of the Canterbury guidelines. Indeed, this is not the first time they have addressed the issue. The predictably tedious Church Times report on the matter has come out. Religious sites like Christian Today have written about the controversy. This attention was, perhaps, to be expected. But even secular newspapers are starting to notice. Both The Times and The Telegraph have picked up the story.
Some context may be useful for those who don’t hold their ear to the ground of internal Anglican politics. The Bishop of Dover, who actually governs the See of Canterbury in place of the Archbishop, issued these guidelines. He is not generally known for accepting Catholic doctrine on this or any sacramental point.
No doubt some of my Catholic readers will interject at this point, “Of course he wouldn’t. He’s a Protestant!” Fair enough. But Anglo-Catholics in the United Kingdom do tend to accept lots of Roman doctrine. There are even pockets where Anglo-Papalism – that heady brew of Baroque ceremonial, English sacral vernacular, devotional maximalism, attachment to a male-only priesthood, and slavish Ultramontane sympathies – still exists. And most of those Anglo-Catholics accept the Roman teaching that the wilful withholding of sins by a penitent in confession is itself a mortal sin, thus invalidating any absolution. I will leave aside the dubious question of sacramental validity for now. The point is that Anglo-Catholics really do believe all this, and they treat confession in much the same way that devout Roman Catholics do. Anglo-Catholics with the cure of souls live by that rule. It is only logical that the head of an Anglo-Catholic seminary would thus take serious umbrage with a move in the Primate’s own diocese that was manifestly a) uncanonical, and b) mortally sinful.
But here is another reason for concern, even for us Romans. The diocese responded to Fr. Ward with the risible if disturbing claim that “[The mandated disclaimer] is intended to advise the penitent not to divulge in confession something which would legally compromise the position of the priest.” This is an extremely telling phrase; it constitutes the tacit admission that a diocese in the Church of England is surrendering the legal viability of the seal of the confessional, period. Mandatory reporting is the order of the day, and the sacrament must be deformed to fit it. I hope Catholics prick up their ears.
This guideline was promulgated against the backdrop of the Clerical Sex Abuse scandal. The C of E has been grappling with the same deep evils that have plagued the Roman Catholic Church in recent history. While the bishops have taken some good and appropriate steps in safeguarding, nevertheless, mistakes have also been made. Take the case of Bishop George Bell, accused of abuse posthumously and subsequently subjected to a multi-year botched inquiry and, arguably, public character assassination. Yet the Archbishop of Canterbury has dug in his heels on the guilt of George Bell in spite of the evidence that the Church’s investigatory body was irresponsible and hasty in its conclusions.
Do I know whether the confession guidelines for the Archbishop’s own diocese have been crafted with an eye to that particular scandal? No. It’s impossible to say. But we can safely say that the Bishop of Dover’s dissolution of the seal of the confessional is a similar misstep in the Church’s ongoing attempt to come to terms with the legacy of child abuse.
Of course, the same problem has existed, in a much more flagrant and public way, in the Roman Catholic Church. And it is this connection that should make the Bishop of Dover’s move so troubling to Catholics. His guidelines didn’t materialize out of the air. Similar suggestions have been made to National Inquiries about clerical sex abuse in Britain. Even more serious developments in Australia have seen wider discussions about legally abolishing the seal of confession.
But to return to the United Kingdom – let’s not forget that the Church of England is a motley crew of clerics who think their coreligionists are, at best, mistaken, and at worst, heretics. Evangelicals, Liberals, and Anglo-Catholics of every stripe take deeply divergent views of the sacraments. If the Bishop of Dover’s guidelines are allowed to stand under the current Code of Canon Law, what’s to stop other bishops from adopting them in their own sees? Evangelicals generally don’t have the same hang-ups about confession as Catholics, and liberals may see the change as a progressive step. If enough bishops do adopt the guidelines, they can start to change the culture of the church. Once ordinary Anglicans become used to this exception in the confessional seal (among those who practice confession at all, which is probably a fairly low number anyway), what kind of pressure will the clergy start to exert on the Roman Catholics of England? What if Parliament takes up the cause, following the precedent of the Australians? What if mandatory reporting is extended by law to all clergy without exception? What then?
A slippery slope, you say? Maybe. But there are liberal Anglicans who have already attacked traditionalist Anglo-Catholics – the most Roman people in the Church – on precisely these terms. The Rev. Martyn Percy, Dean of Christ Church, Oxford, argued (in Holy Week!) that sex abuse is tied to traditionalism among Anglo-Catholics and Evangelicals. Without a hint of irony, he writes,
There are common denominators between these two ecclesial cultures. They deny women equality. They are squeamish about sexuality. They sacralise ambiguity. They put their leaders on unimpeachable pedestals. The worst abuses flourish in the cultures that are self-righteous.
(emphasis mine – RY)
Other liberal Anglicans have suggested that “angry, conservative religion…in the Church of Rome” will have to undergo various changes to accommodate modernity. One could reach for examples. I will merely say that there is no shortage of criticism directed towards the Church of Rome by Anglicans who don’t identify as either traditionalist or Anglo-Catholic. And let us not forget the long and terrible history of English anti-Catholicism, a staple of British culture from the Reformation on. It has cropped up even in our own times.
What happens in the Church of England matters in no small part because it is the Established Church. It is thus something of a thermostat (or at least a thermometer) of public religious opinion in Great Britain. The prospect of the Anglicans ceding the seal of confession to the investigatory apparatus of the state, and thus normalizing the violation of the seal, is a dangerous prelude for the Catholics of this country.
And of course, there’s the very practical point that mandatory reporting even for confessions will not produce more results. Abusers will simply stop confessing those sins, even as the abused will no longer be able to confide in their priests. Who does it hurt? The most vulnerable. Who does it help? No one.
Catholics believe that the seal of the confessional is absolute. It is the guarantee that when a penitent sincerely asks forgiveness for his sins, he can be sure that he is receiving absolution from someone who will never reveal his past. It is Christ who hears and forgives, not the priest in himself. And Christ is the “Lamb of God, who takes away all sins.” The seal of the confessional expresses this mystical reality. The saints have always known that “neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, neither what is present nor what is to come, no force whatever, neither the height above us nor the depth beneath us, nor any other created thing” could justify, force, or provoke the violation of the seal of the confessional (Rom 8:38-39). Some were martyred for keeping holy silence.
I hope and pray that we will never see martyrs of the confessional in our time. But if worst comes to worst, will our priests be willing to shed their blood for the trust they have been given?
Perhaps this controversy, like so many, will turn out to be nothing more than a tempest in the teapot. I would happily look back on this piece in many years’ time and say that my fears were all ill-founded and misbegotten. Let me be accused of hysteria! I would rather be worried over nothing than prove a Cassandra. But as things develop, it may not be a bad idea to pray for the intercession of St. John Nepomuk.