You Can Confess to an Anglican Priest – But Don’t Take My Word For It

622px-Исповедь_берн_соборFr. George Conger has stirred up a hornet’s nest today with his latest article for Get Religion. As with all Get Religion articles, Conger’s central purpose is not to write theology but to take stock of the way that journalists cover religion. He attempts to criticize an article in the Adelaide Advertiser about a recent move in the Anglican Church of Australia to change the rules regarding priests hearing confessions. His criticism is that the journalist in question confuses Roman Catholic doctrine about Sacramental Confession with Anglican doctrine about Sacramental Confession. Yet, in the process, Fr. Conger articulates a theological position that is very different that the one that many Anglicans would recognize as their own:

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 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… 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.

The number of assumptions that Fr. Conger makes here is staggering, and many of his assertions are just plain inaccurate. He says that Confession is not a Sacrament, though he does not offer a defense for that position. Many Anglicans do consider it a Sacrament, albeit not on the same level as the Sacraments of Holy Baptism and Holy Communion. He also says that it was dropped after the Reformation as an abuse that is somehow related to the notion of the priest acting in persona Christi. In fact, private Confession was retained in the prayer book in the liturgy of the Visitation of the Sick. The prayer book and the articles tell us nothing explicitly about the priest standing in the place of Christ or in the place of the Church. But the prayer book is explicit that the authority to absolve penitents is held by bishops and priests alone by virtue of their office. This comes not only in the language of the absolution (“By [Our Lord's] authority committed to me, I absolve thee from all thy sins…”) but also in the ordination rite where John 20:22-23 is invoked (“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…”). While Conger may be right that there are differences in how Anglicans and Roman Catholics understand Sacramental Confession, he is wrong in what he articulates those differences to be.

Says Who?

Of course, I can say that until I am blue in the face, and many people will never be convinced. After all, why take my word for it over that of Fr. Conger? We are both priests in the American Episcopal Church. Neither of us has been granted any special role as the Grand Poobah of All Things Anglican. So who is to say which one of us is right and which one is wrong? Isn’t it just my word and my interpretation against his?

This is, in a nutshell, the crisis in world Anglicanism today. Whether the topic under discussion is something that draws lots of media attention like gay marriage and the ordination of women, or something that is less interesting to the wider world but no less divisive in the Church like prayer book revision or lay presidency at the Eucharist, the questions that we always come back to are these: Who has the authority to speak for the Anglican Church? Where is our official doctrine to be found? When competing voices speak for the Anglican tradition, is there any way to sort them out besides simply picking the one we like best and going with it?

Anglicanism is not static. It is a rich tradition that includes a great deal of evolution and growth over the last five hundred years. It is extremely helpful, when discussing these matters, to turn to the voices of the past and hear what they have to say. But doing that is not enough. Fr. Conger offers quotations from the past to bolster his case. I could do the same. It would get tedious. And we would still be left at square one, trying to determine who has the authority to speak definitively.

Truth, Justice, and the Anglican Way

However they differed in their opinions on various topics, what united the early Anglican reformers and divines was the notion that our ultimate authority is God’s Word in the Holy Scriptures, as it has been received by the Church through the Fathers and the Councils. It is this conviction, vigorously and sometimes violently defended, that led to the crafting of our Anglican formularies. They are living documents that work together to give us the mind of the Church. Though they are open to amendment, they are nevertheless meant to serve as an authority over us, rather than we over them. Among them, the Book of Common Prayer is primary, containing within it not only the structure of our liturgies but the enactment and embodiment of our faith as it has been handed down to us. Following closely behind are the Catechism and the Thirty-Nine Articles, each serving a separate but invaluable catechetical purpose in interpreting for us the teaching of the Prayer Book and the way that such teaching differs from that of other bodies. Lastly, the Books of Homilies “contain a godly and wholesome Doctrine,” from which we can learn to apply our faith, bearing in mind that their insights are meant to be received as homilies and not as dogmatic texts.

The Formularies are not meant to answer every question. They are purposely limited in how much they settle for us. But they do place a fence around the yard of our theological wanderings. It is a wide playing field, but there are walls. And that means that competing claims actually can be tested when they touch upon foundational issues.

Fr. Conger is wrong about Anglican doctrine regarding Sacramental Confession, but not because I say so or because I represent a competing camp within the panoply of Anglican parties. He is wrong because the prayer book plainly shows him to be wrong. There is no sense in complaining about the way the secular press covers us as Anglicans until we get this ourselves. There may be multiple emphases and approaches in Anglican theology, but there are not multiple Anglicanisms. There is the religion of the prayer book, which is the religion of the Scriptures and the Fathers, and then there is everything else.

(Photo above from Wikimedia Commons here.)

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About Fr. Jonathan

Your average traditional crunchy Christ follower with a penchant for pop culture, politics, and puns.
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14 Responses to You Can Confess to an Anglican Priest – But Don’t Take My Word For It

  1. Pingback: You Can Confess to an Anglican Priest | Covenant

  2. We’ll written and reasoned on lines that that should bind all Anglicans. For me Fr. Martin Thornton’s chapter on sacramental confession in his book English Spirituality is both definitive and modern for many of the same reasons your critique is spot on

    • Fr. Jonathan says:

      I don’t know that book. Is it something modern or older?

      • Jay M. says:

        It was published in 1963 and is one doozy of a gem. (just about anything by Thornton and then is) Starting in the early British churh and moving through various revivals and movements in the medieval English church (notably the Cistercian and 14th century mystics), Thornton traces the streams which came together to form the distinctively Anglican spiritual ethos as finalized in the prayer book. He calls this distinctively English spirituality “the speculative-affective synthesis” and sees its four pillars as Augustine, Benedict, Bernard of Clairvaux, and Anselm of Canterbury. Tolle lege, my brother!

  3. Ian Wetmore says:

    (I’m pasting here the reply I entered on the Covenant blog)

    There is also the Exhortation (BCP ’79, 316-317), which advises the faithful to go to a priest, in case they’re particularly troubled, “and confess your sins, that you may receive the benefit of absolution…” (6th paragraph). In older BCPs, the 2nd Exhortation says, “And because it is requisite, 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… let him come to me, or to some other discreet Minister of God’s Word, and open his grief; that by the ministry of God’s holy Word [by the application of God's Word through the ministry devolved by Jesus through his Apostles], he may receive the benefit of absolution…” (BCP Canada, 1962: p.91).
    I regard Fr Conger very highly. But every now and then each of us drops the ball. Blessings on him and you, Fr J. (btw: Fr John Stott was very opposed to Christians making confessions altogether. I forget which book of his I read that in while doing research for a paper in a course on the Sacrament of Reconciliation)

    • Fr. Jonathan says:

      Thank you for this. A friend of mine reminded me of the same thing earlier from the Exhortation. I had thought of it, but figured the article was too long already and that I’d sufficiently made my case. But you’re right, examples do abound.

  4. tobiashaller says:

    Thank you, Fr. J., for this. I much prefer the principle of argument on the basis of evidence rather than on mere assertion. I have a healthy distrust of “experts” (whether authorized or self-appointed) based on early experiences of finding out how mistaken they can be. You have here marshaled a good bit of evidence, and as Hooker would say, that settles it! — Tobias

  5. Fr. Jonathan, thank you for your wonderful blog, which I have been reading for some time though I have never commented before. It helped me make, as an ordinary (if over-educated and over-analytical) lay Anglican, the decision to remain within the Anglican fold and take a stand for orthodoxy at a time when I was considering the siren song of Rome.

    I have never, personally, found much benefit in private confession. I take great comfort in the pithy doctrine “All may; none must; some should” (as with many other pithy Anglican formulations, like Donne on the Eucharist).

    That said, it strikes me as a betrayal of the faith for a church to agree voluntarily to lift the seal of the confessional.

  6. Erik says:

    I agree with you that it is usually unproductive to engage in a back and forth about what divine said this and which one said that, it is not unlike trying to play gotcha with the Eastern Orthodox concerning Church Fathers that might contradict what has become Holy Tradition. The Orthodox will concede that there was not universal consensus on every debatable topic amongst the Fathers; instead they look to what has become the majority consensus through ecumenical council, synod, and preserved Episcopal tradition. Likewise, as you mention, I prefer to search what represents a consensus for Anglicanism, specifically the Articles of Religion, the First and Second Book of Homilies (which represent a detailed exposition of the Articles), and the Book of Common Prayer, as well as the ecumenical councils and traditions of the undivided Church.

    With that said, this is what I have found in homilies in regards to auricular confession:
    Homily Of Repentance and of True Reconciliation unto God
    “Answer to the adversaries which maintain auricular confession. And whereas the adversaries go about to wrest this place, for to maintain their auricular confession withal, that are greatly deceived themselves, and do shamefully deceive others…Moreover, these are St. Augustine’s words, What have I to do with men, that they should hear my confession, as though they were able to heal diseases…it is against the true Christian liberty, that any man should be bound to the numbering of his sins, as it hath been used heretofore in the time of blindness and ignorance.”
    However, it also adds that:
    “I do not say, but that if any do find themselves troubled in conscience, they may repair to their learned Curate or Pastor, or to some other godly learned man, and show the trouble and doubt of their conscience to them, that they may receive at their hand the comfortable salve of GODS word: but it is against the true Christian liberty, that any man should be bound to the numbering of his sins, as it has been used heretofore in the time of blindness and ignorance.”

    So what I think we can learn from this homily, and the Exhortation mentioned above, is that while private confession can be profitable and edifying, it is just not mandatory for salvation or necessarily required before taking Holy Communion. Or as Article 74 of the Irish Articles of Religion succinctly state:
    “God hath given power to his ministers, not simply to forgive sins (which prerogative he hath reserved only to himself), but in his name to declare and pronounce unto such as truly repent and unfeignedly believe his holy Gospel the absolution and forgiveness of sins. Neither is it God’s pleasure that his people should be tied to make a particular confession of all their known sins unto any mortal man: howsoever, any person grieved in his conscience upon any special cause may well resort unto any godly and learned minister to receive advice and comfort at his hands.”

    On as side not, I actually love how one Eastern Orthodox source describes private confession. I think it really sheds a more informative light on what it can represent to a believer:
    “In fact, very few Church Fathers refer even to absolution as a formal procedure…In the Orthodox Church, the priest is seen as a witness of repentance, not a recipient of secrets…He is not a dispenser…an “authority.” Such a conception exteriorizes the function of the confessor and of confession which is an act of re-integration of the penitent and priest alike into the Body of Christ…Forgiveness, absolution is the culmination of repentance, in response to sincerely felt compunction. It is not “administered” by the priest, or anybody else. It is a freely given grace of Christ and the Holy Spirit within the Church as the Body of Christ.”

  7. Seraphim Warren says:

    Coming from a tradition where priestly confession is highly emphasized (Russian Orthodoxy), I highly suggest all reluctant Anglicans at least give it a try. It’s amazing what difference it can make when you have someone present to give spiritual advice, not to mention the satisfaction of having fulfilled Christ’s commandment to confess your sins to one another.

    It is for this reason that I think the phrase “all may, none must, some should” should be abolished. When confession has the stigma of being a thing only for the most heinous of sinners in the minds of ordinary Anglicans, many people will be driven away from it, either due to believing their sin isn’t grave enough, or to avoid arousing suspicion from anyone who finds out they went.

  8. As I understand it, and indeed as I was taught in the not even Anglo-Catholic “old” Episcopal Church, the issue at hand, the seal of the confessional, is the same as in the Catholic Church.

    As for the rest, “sacramental rite”/”lesser sacrament” vs. “sacrament” was “Anglican fudge” to try to persuade Catholics to come on board the new church, considered more merciful than killing them, while not upsetting the Protestants. Still, no form for auricular confession and absolution in the old Prayer Book.

    I think the Anglican understanding, “all can, some should, none must,” means they believe auricular confession isn’t necessary for serious sins; the General Confession and absolution in the service suffice. (Because Cranmer wanted to get rid of auricular confession? I’ve been told the Prayer of Humble Access was really meant to do that too.) So, surprise, surprise, most Anglicans DON’T go to confession. “That’s Catholic!” Interestingly, Martin Luther believed in auricular confession so it IS part of the Lutheran tradition. (American Lutherans tone it down to blend in with other Protestants.)

    As you know, the English people, dragged from Catholicism by force, STILL wouldn’t go to Communion more than four times a year, even without confession, so the Anglicans gave up and only had Communion four times a year, non-communicating Communion services (only the priest receiving) being considered a Romish abuse.

    • “Still, no form for auricular confession and absolution in the old Prayer Book.” Except for in the Visitation of the Sick. Duly noted.

      • It has always been a puzzle to me that so many assume that inclusion in the Prayer Book implies the the upper limit rather than the bare minimum – check Dr Dearmer for the full consideration of this idea. Wm+

      • “Inclusion in the Prayer Book implies the the upper limit rather than the bare minimum.”

        In other words, the most popery the Evangelicals (more an English than American thing, like Anglo-Papalism) will put up with. Anglo-Catholics were the opposite: the Prayer Book has a bare minimum but it’s not the ideal; rather a starting point. Like how I view the “reformed” Catholic Mass.

        Liberals have switched sides ceremonially. Before they were like Evangelicals, who thought high liturgy was popish mumbo-jumbo. Then aestheticism from Romanticism, Sixties ecumenism (Catholic was considered cool, briefly: Vatican II), and Sixties exoticism (anti-WASP backlash) made high churchifying *outside of* Anglo-Catholicism fashionable: all those weekly Communions, aumbries, chasubles, and liberal priests going by Father. When I was a young teenager I took all that high churchmanship at face value, thinking it was A-C, then I learned the truth.

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