Fr. 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.
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.)