Circle of Carlo Maratta 1625 – 1713. The faithful receiving the sacraments. Provenance: my dining room.
During my time as a prison chaplain, I learnt quite quickly to speak in very vague terms about my work ‘inside’. For most people prisons are an unknown world and they are interested to know more. I am embarrassed to admit that on a few occasions in the past when I’ve been invited out to dinner by friends, who have invited other friends, my work as a prison chaplain has dominated the conversation for almost the entire evening.
One of the areas people are most interested in, concerns the sort of conversations that go on between prisoners and prison chaplains, and what the boundaries are in such conversations. If for example a person confessed to a murder would I be duty bound to report it?
After seven and a half years ministry in various prisons, I would struggle to recall many times when a prisoner told me something of such grave significance during a pastoral conversation, that I would need to report it. On a few occasions in the exercise of general pastoral counselling (not confession), I did establish the ground rules of the conversation, Namely, that if a disclosure was made that suggested that either the prisoner, or another person was in danger, or that the security of the prison was going to be compromised in some way, I would be duty bound to report. Sacramental confession is something which is practiced in prisons, and during my ministry ‘inside’, nobody ever told me anything in confession which would have caused me to withhold absolution.
The forthcoming debate in general synod concerning the possibility of repealing the seal of the confessional is alarming. The practice of the seal of confession was enshrined in church law in 1603;
‘Provided always, that if any man confess his secret and hidden sins to the minister, for the unburdening of his conscience, and to receive spiritual consolation and ease of mind from him; we do not in any way bind the said minister by this our Constitution, but do straitly charge and admonish him, that he do not at any time reveal and make known to any person whatsoever any crime or offence so committed to his trust and secrecy (except they be such crimes as by the laws of this realm his own life may be called into question for concealing the same), under pain of irregularity.’
Of course the legislation merely gives recognition to the fact that the seal is intrinsic to the sacrament, it doesn’t create it.
The current concern about the absolute confidentiality of the confessional is of course related to the reporting of crimes against children and vulnerable adults. I understand that in one part of Australia church law has already been amended to allow clergy to pass on disclosures which give rise to a safeguarding concern.
A couple of observations from my experience. In common with other people who have worked with the complexity of sexual offenders, I quickly discovered that many are in denial about their offending. An experienced prison officer once told me when I first started working in prison, that it would be unlikely I would ever meet a guilty sex offender. Many people who have committed sexual offences, if not in denial, minimise or trivialise the impact of their behaviour on their victims and society in general. Sexual offenders are often by their nature extremely manipulative, deploying smoke screens and other defences in order to distract others from their deviant thought patterns and behaviour. I would suggest therefore that the majority of sexual offenders would not perceive the sacrament of reconciliation as particularly helpful or reassuring if it came to a focus on their offending behaviour. In short it is unlikely to be something they would seek out.
My second observation is that properly trained and experienced clergy will stop a confession if a crime against another person is disclosed, and tell, not ask the person concerned to go to the Police without delay. Absolution is withheld until this has taken place.
It is a source of regret that over the last thirty plus years, the sacrament of reconciliation has become less and less a part of church life. I have lost count of the number of times I have sat in various churches over the last ten years on Good Friday, ready to hear confessions when there were no penitents. Interestingly at Walsingham people do seize the opportunity to go to confession, in good number. It is often offered as a part of a spiritual direction. But to think that members of the public are lining up in Anglican churches up and down the land every week for confession is in my experience at least, not a reality, and probably never has been. Today, confession seems to be the preserve of the regular church attendee, who wishes to take their spiritual journey a little further than attending a service once a week.
It is a wonderful gift from God to his church, and only those who have experienced it can know the stunning grace it can bestow.
For me there is a very clear distinction between a pastoral conversation and confession. It is entirely possible that a pastoral conversation will lead to the sacrament of reconciliation, but they should be distinct, and I wonder how distinct they are in general pastoral practice in the Church of England. In my mind, the rules governing these two distinct but related areas of pastoral practice are very different.
That leads me on to public perception. Should the seal be repealed, I think that the general public, those who turn up at the at back of the church, or at the clergy house door seeking solace, might well assume that they cannot talk to a priest in confidence, because without doubt that is how such a scenario would be portrayed in the mainstream media. There is no doubt assumptions would be made without reference to fact.
So what should clergy do if the seal is repealed? There are probably a range of possibilities. Some may choose not to offer the sacrament of reconciliation at all, but then the purpose of ordination is surely to make available the seven sacraments as we have received them.
If the duty to report was enforced I feel confident that friends and colleagues of mine, would rather accept a penalty or imprisonment rather than breaking the seal.
I do think better training in the art of being a good confessor should be developed in our theological colleges, and in clergy professional development.
The greatest question of all however is how we respond to sexual offenders in our churches, those who are in many ways the modern day leper, whilst always ensuring the absolute safety and wellbeing of children and vulnerable adults.
Forward in Faith have put forward a response to the debate which is well worth reading. Its available on their website.