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As members of the Anglican Communion know, for better or worse, we are a broad church.
In light of a recent exchange on this site, it seems useful to clarify the Anglican position on private confession and how it arose again in our denomination’s history.
With regard to our broad church, we have Reformed Anglicans (Calvinists), Evangelical Anglicans, Anglo-Catholics — as well as the majority who find themselves somewhere in the middle. When I worshipped in the Episcopal Church in the United States, we referred to High (Anglo-Catholic) and Low (mainstream) Church. I belonged to a Low Church but occasionally visited a High Church with friends.
Whilst my experience is limited in the grand scheme of things, I did not and do not know anyone in the Anglican Communion — clergy or layperson — in the offline world who recommends private confession outside of a case of serious sin. It is not a spiritual discipline to be practised regularly, even among my Anglo-Catholic friends. This isn’t saying there are not Anglo-Catholics who recommend it, but I have not encountered it among those with whom I have worshipped over the past 30 years.
Australia and private confession
Private confession — called ‘auricular confession’ — in the Anglican Church in Australia made the news in July 2014. Church leaders have voted to ‘lift the seal’ of the private confession, enabling Anglican priests to go to the police if they hear of a crime revealed or contemplated. Child abuse and molestation are the primary motivators for a priest’s going to the authorities.
It should be noted that, where private confession is used in the Anglican Church, it differs from the Roman Catholic practice. Writing about the Australian developments for Patheos, the Revd George Conger explains (emphases mine, except where indicated otherwise):
Private confession in the Catholic Church takes place in the context of the sacrament of reconciliation followed by absolution.
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.
Conger then cites the Anglican Book of Homilies, which forms part of our doctrine.
Those who are interested can read Church of England denouncements of auricular confession in the Church Association’s Tract 27. Not one of our early Church leaders supported it. All said it was — and is — unbiblical.
One of them, John Jewel, Bishop of Salisbury in the 16th century, wrote that priests were to preach the Gospel, not hear confessions:
Christ’s disciples did receive this authority, not that they should hear private confessions of the people, and listen to their whisperings, as the common massing priests do everywhere now-a-days, and do it so as though in that one point lay all the virtue and use of the keys, but to the end they should go, they should teach, they should publish abroad the Gospel, and be unto the believing the sweet savour of life unto life, and unto the unbelieving and unfaithful a savour of death unto death.”
— Apology, vol. iii. pp. 60, 61. Parker Soc. Edition
Conger said that in extreme cases, auricular confession was heard, however:
it was never a mandatory part of the practice of the faith.
Furthermore, by contrast with the Catholic Church:
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.
He adds (emphasis his):
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.
Conger concludes by alluding to the broad church of Anglicanism:
What we are seeing is a swing of the Anglican pendulum away from Anglo-Catholicism towards the Low Church or Evangelical wing. As the quotes from The Advertiser show, the Catholic wing of the Church (Archbishop Driver) is backing away from the hard line position on the sanctity of the confessional due to the clergy abuse scandals. The push has come from modernists who like the symbolism but are appalled by the abuses that have been protected by the seal of confession. The growing Evangelical wing never believed in auricular confession in the first place and is happy to see it go.
History of auricular confession in Anglicanism
Anglican Ink picks up on the Australian story and subsequent analysis both by churchmen and the media.
The author explains the history of private confession, stating that it was not even part of pre-Reformation religious practice until the Middle Ages. Henry VIII upheld this view in his Ten Articles of 1536.
In 1549, however, private confession was made optional in the Church of England. By 1552, the Second Edwardian Prayer Book
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 ...
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.
It was only in the 19th century that private confession became a topic for discussion again:
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.) …
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.
Those who point to the Anglican rite of the Visitation of the Sick use this as support for regular private confession. However, as Anglican Ink explains, as the person receiving this rite is unable to participate in corporate worship and the public confession of sin, it is only logical that he receive the opportunity to do it privately from his sickbed.
Why public — ‘general’ — confession suffices
An AMIA (Anglican Mission in the Americas) church, Anglican Church of the Word in Florida, explains why we have the General Confession in our liturgy:
A general confession of sin by the whole congregation was an innovation of the 16th century. Earlier, the Lord’s Prayer, which concluded the Prayer of Consecration and contained the phrase “forgive us as we forgive” sufficed. No absolution was included for one of the benefits of Communion was understood to be the forgiveness of sins.
Today’s liturgies, whether traditional or modern, include a form of absolution. The suggested prayers of General Confession are varied. The Reformed Anglican Church page includes a prayer of absolution. This link has the full Book of Common Prayer (1662) liturgy for Holy Communion; the confession and absolution prayers are halfway down the page.
Faithful Anglicans should feel free to avail themselves of absolution at home, too. As John Welsh — a seminarian at the time he wrote the following — posits:
On the whole, unless an Anglican is of the Catholic tradition in the Anglican Church (ie, they are catholic to all intents and purposes except they reject the authority of the pope), then Anglicans do not go to confession.That does not mean that they do not confess their sins! At almost every Anglican service there is an act of confession and absolution, and Anglicans take sin just as seriously as Catholics. However, the vast majority of Anglicans do not see the need to confess to a priest as an intermediary, but confess directly to God, as per the early Church practices and reject entirely the Catholic tradition of ‘having’ to go to confession on, say, a weekly basis. Instead they confess their sins when they need to, directly to God, whether as part of a service or not.
Conclusion: Regular private confession is an unorthodox Anglican practice and should be used sparingly, if at all.
The broader Protestant perspective on confession
The Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC) answers the question regarding the Reformers’ scriptural objection to private confession. This is well worth reading. Excerpts follow:
… to summarize the biblical evidence, private confession to an individual, specifically a priest, is simply not supported. There is confession of sin to God alone, there is a place for public and corporate confession of sin, and from James 5:16 a place for confessing sin to another believer (is this tied into Matt. 5:23-24?) But the Roman Catholic idea of auricular confession (confession into the ear of a priest) does not have biblical support or warrant and seems to have originated during the Middle Ages.
What the Reformed churches did was to take the public confession of sin that had been in the Roman Catholic mass and removed all references to the intercession of the saints and focused the attention of people on sin’s offensiveness to God. Here is the way one scholar described it:
“There followed at once [in the Reformed order of worship] the prayer of confession as a congregational act. This replaced the private confession of the priest before the Mass, for here was a congregational priesthood.” [James Hastings Nichols, Corporate Worship in the Reformed Tradition, p.41]
The worship we are talking about is corporate or covenantal worship. It is the worship of the people of covenant as the people of God. We are together a sinful and guilty people; how can we come, as a covenant people, before a holy God if we do not confess our sins? While it is certainly true and biblical to confess our sins directly to God, the act of corporately confessing our sins has a covenantal character to it that is missing in the Roman Catholic practice of private or auricular confession, for behind that practice is the mistaken idea that the priest needs to stand between us and God. The Bible teaches that there is one mediator between God and man, Jesus Christ the righteous (I Tim. 2:5). A priest has not power to absolve us of sin, only the blood of Jesus Christ can cleanse and for that we can go directly to God (I John 1:9; 2:1).
As for other Protestant denominations, the OPC says:
the practices in the Anglican or Lutheran churches would mirror this Reformed understanding rather than what the Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox churches practice, for all Protestants have rejected the notion of auricular confession to a priest.
Any time we read or hear something notionally doctrinal from clergy or laypeople, we would do well to check it against a) our denomination’s tenets of faith and b) Holy Scripture.
If b) disagrees with a), then a) is in error.
If what we read or hear is contrary to both a) and b), we should disregard it. Often, research reveals background agendas to erroneous pronouncements preached or written with authority and charm.
The Internet offers endless resources enabling us to investigate such matters in the privacy of our own homes as and when necessary. Let’s use them!
Those who are anxious for their own souls — for whatever reason — really should book an appointment with a local clergyman who can discuss their concerns with them. Clergy will be more than happy to do this; it is part of their ministry.
Speaking personally, Confession as received in my Catholic days made me more not less anxious because the ‘state of grace’ was so ephemeral before the next sin was committed! It was only when I started reading intensively about Christianity a few years ago that I learned about forgiveness, assurance and sanctification.
This is why I so often recommend regular prayer, faithful reading of the Bible and studying doctrine which reflects Scripture. Those who are baptised should ensure they also receive Holy Communion.
That’s my recipe for assurance and sanctification. If this proves insufficient, then discussions with a clergyperson are in order.
What follows is a summary of that post.
First, there is the matter of how the victory was engineered. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, said that he’d received pressure from the government for the Synod to approve women bishops. Welby was ready to dissolve the Synod and reconvene it for another vote on the matter had it been defeated on July 14, 2014. In other words, keep voting until you get the ‘right’ result.
Second, no scriptural arguments were used, or at least these were not made public. Persuasion revolved around cultural norms and bringing the CofE into line with the 21st century.
Third, a number of Synod members who had voted against women bishops in 2012 changed their minds this year because they feared being deselected from the next Synod or were tired of the grief they received from people in their diocese.
It is clear that the CofE is increasingly moving away from scriptural tenets. The co-founder of Orphans of Liberty — and one of my readers — James Higham has written an excellent essay exploring why and how England’s established (state) church is failing.
Women bishops won’t fix a thing. (Women priests didn’t.) Nor will allowing single-sex church wedding ceremonies, which may well be a topic at the next Synod. Nor will support of euthanasia.
The CofE has become merely another social club which goes along with popular culture — the world — at every turn.
Who wants to get out of bed on a Sunday when one can get the same talking points from the media?
As I said at Orphans of Liberty, a small number of people will continue to go to other denominations or to independent churches which are faithful to the Bible.
Sadly, many more will choose to leave the Church altogether.
The CofE’s USP is its frequent Communion services. However, it is difficult to receive the Sacrament from a priest who embraces the world so fully, as many of our clergy do.
Yet, even there, Article XXVI of the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion states:
… Neither is the effect of Christ’s ordinance taken away by their wickedness, nor the grace of God’s gifts diminished from such as by faith and rightly do receive the sacraments ministered unto them, which be effectual because of Christ’s institution and promise, although they be ministered by evil men.
That said, the Anglican Church is expected to depose such clergy. Article XXVI concludes:
Nevertheless it appertaineth to the discipline of the Church that inquiry be made of evil ministers, and that they be accused by those that have knowledge of their offences; and finally, being found guilty by just judgement, be deposed.
It should come as no surprise that the CofE considers the Thirty-nine Articles as ancient history to be disregarded.
Much the same way they consider Holy Scripture: old-fashioned and out-of-date.
One of the drawbacks of being a church member is putting up with busybodies.
We all sin and churchgoers are no exception. Few things are as irritating or dispiriting as the church member who enjoys butting in to others’ business and pointing out their weaknesses.
Yes, they cite Scripture. Yes, they’re probably right.
But what if the person they are criticising is already aware of their own particular shortcomings?
We can become impatient with others’ sins, mainly because we sin differently.
I often wonder, however, if church busybodies criticise others they see as less gifted in the faith in order to make themselves look better.
The Revd Matt Kennedy is an Anglican priest and rector of Good Shepherd Church in Binghamton, New York. He is a regular columnist at Stand Firm.
His recent article ‘Speaking into Someone’s Life’ has seven excellent questions we should consider before interfering in someone else’s affairs.
His article has something for all of us, even if we do not fall into the category of busybody or troublemaker.
What follows are his seven questions someone should answer before interfering. Notional ‘love’ may come across as spite or one-upmanship, both of which hurt:
1. Is what I am planning to say true in an objective sense or just reflective of my own feelings? (expressing your feelings and speaking the truth are not synonymous. Scripture is the guide here, not your heart)
2. Is the person caught up in a sin or is he/she merely getting on my nerves? (a personality clash is not a reason to “confront” someone)
3. Do I have a past history of strife, jealousy, enmity or anger with this person? (If so, you probably aren’t the person to “restore gently”)
4. Do I genuinely want to help the person…am I willing to invest the time to meet, discuss, share my own struggles, and help this person escape from the sin I’ve observed? (if not, you’re not qualified to speak)
5. Is it something that the person knows about already and is trying to work on? If so, how would it be helpful for you to point out again what he/she already knows?
6. Do I have the ability to speak with gentleness and kindness or am I a battle axe? (if you don’t know, ask your wife, husband or closest friends. If you’re not kind, leave it for someone else)
7. Have I been praying for this person in private regularly? (If not, chances are that your heart is not in the right place)
How many church busybodies have examined their consciences in this area before opening their mouths?
That said, St Paul counsels the Galatians (Galatians 6:1):
But watch yourselves, or you also may be tempted.
No doubt, the time will come when most of us will feel the need to criticise or interfere unprofitably. This is why Mr Kennedy’s questions — and our answers — are so important.
Members of the Anglican Church in North America — ACNA — are delighted at the appointment of the Rt Revd Foley Beach as their new archbishop.
Bishop Beach was previously the first bishop of the Anglican Diocese of the South, a post he held from 2010 to the present. From the comments on Stand Firm it would appear that Beach will continue as Bishop of the Diocese of the South.
By all accounts, it would appear that he is a godly, humble man who enjoys teaching and preaching the Gospel to others. He does not compromise on liturgy, either.
Prior to his new appointment, he wrote an article summarising a bishop’s duties. Here are the first four — three more follow, so be sure to drop by his website to read more:
1. Teaching the Word of God, the Bible.
2. Defending the Christian Faith. We have a faith which has been handed down since the days of the Bible. The bishop is supposed to guard that Faith.
3. Evangelist. The bishop leads in proclaiming the Gospel and leading others in to a relationship with Jesus Christ.
4. Apostolic Leadership. Like the apostles of the New Testament, the bishop is called to expand the Kingdom of God to places where the Gospel is not present on a local basis, but also through missions to other parts of the world.
Too many bishops — Anglicans, in particular — forget these first four or politicise them to an extent that far removes them from Scripture.
May God continue to grant Archbishop Beach all grace that he may make ACNA — and the Diocese of the South — a beacon of Christianity to many people around the world.
Two years ago, one of my readers, Underground Pewster, posted on a sermon given by a supply priest at his Episcopal church.
The priest spoke of abundant life in light of 1 Corinthians 9:24-27. The sermon exhorted the congregation to live one’s life large for Christ. A bit ‘radical’.
Underground Pewster writes (emphases mine):
One point gave me a little trouble was when he talked about the goal of the Christian race we run. As he described, “salvation” has been misinterpreted by other denominations to mean “eternal life” whereas he would prefer to consider it to mean “healing” and “abundant life” to be the goal of the race …
His hypothetical Episcopal Church of the Abundant Life sounds a little fishy to me, and I am left with the following questions:
1) Is abundant life the goal?
2) What is the definition of abundant life?
3) Do you need the promise of eternal life as long as you have abundant life?
4) Can you truly live life abundantly if you do not have eternal life?
Unfortunately, I fear that the answer to #1 is all too often “Yes”, and when abundance is the goal in life, we will easily find it in things that please us but might displease God. Life seems even more abundant when we do not have to worry about upsetting God. In our Episcopal church tradition, we have been able to successfully eliminate God’s displeasure by writing it out of our language (see the numerous posts here on the missing verses in the Sunday Lectionary) or by re-defining things that once were “considered” sinful to now be “blessed” (abortion as a blessing pronounced by the Dean of the Episcopal Divinity School, and same-sex blessings for example).
When asked for a definition of abundant life (#2), I suspect that the leader of the hypothetical Episcopal Church of the Abundant Life would say that abundant life is that which promotes and furthers “justice.” Justice has to be defined next as the liberal social cause du jour.
In his conclusion, Underground Pewster says:
I contend that abundant life as a solitary construct, absent of the promise of eternal life, is the way of death.
He is spot on in his analysis.
This is what I mean when I say that, whether they realise it or not, clergymen with wonky theology are leading innocent souls to hell.
To find out more about Trinity Sunday, these posts might be of interest:
It appears that, thanks to disaffected Anglicans turning toward the Catholic Church, their greatest hymns are now being incorporated into the liturgy of the Mass.
One of these is For All the Saints, by William Walsham How, an Anglican bishop. He wrote his reflections in 1864 and Ralph Vaughan Williams composed the stirring music to accompany them in 1906.
Monsignor Charles Pope of the Diocese of Washington wrote a beautiful post on the hymn, analysing the theology and Scripture behind each verse. I commend it to all my readers, even those who have been singing this magnificent hymn all their lives.
This is what he says about the first verse (emphases in the original):
First we cast our eyes heavenward to the Church Triumphant:
For all the saints, who from their labours rest,
Who Thee by faith before the world confessed,
Thy Name, O Jesus, be forever blessed.
Here then in the first verses is stated the purpose of the hymn. Namely, that we sing to and praise God for all those saints who have finished their course here and entered into the rest of the Lord. Like the the Lord they can say, “It is finished.” Like St. Paul they can say, I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day (2 Tim 4:7-8). These saints declared to world the holy and blessed name of Jesus by their words and deeds. They confessed and did not deny him. To them and us Jesus made a promise: Whoever acknowledges me before men, I will also acknowledge him before my Father in heaven (Matt 10:32). And we too are summoned to take up the cry: “Blessed be the Name of the Lord!”
Readers who have not heard the hymn before can do so via YouTube and the St Edmundsbury Cathedral Choir:
This Friday, May 23, 2014, is the day of France’s annual Good Neighbours festival.
This event is normally preceded by media discussions on how the French can be better neighbours.
A couple of years ago one elderly neighbour fatally assaulted another of similar age — at their local Good Neighbours street party!
The Episcopalian / Anglican site Stand Firm took up neighbourliness in December 2012. Their suggestions didn’t resonate with me particularly, although they might with you.
However, the last line of the final comment of the thread, by Frances S Scott, offered the soundest advice, particularly in today’s busybody society when it seems everyone is minding each other’s business but never their own dysfunctional household:
Your brother does not need a keeper; he needs a brother.
I noticed in the Telegraph jobs section that their job of the week (May 12, 2014) is for the Rector of St Bride’s in the City of London.
The current incumbent, the Venerable David Meara formally retired as rector on Easter Day 2014 but will stay on in a pastoral capacity until the end of July, at which time he and his wife Rosemary will return to Oxford.
Most Englishmen know that St Bride‘s is the church of those who work in some capacity with the written word — most recently in its history, journalists and photographers, even if newspapers moved out of the Fleet Street vicinity further east to Canary Wharf over 20 years ago. Their memorial services page includes the names of several journalists.
Historically, prior to the Reformation, communities of monks, such as the Blackfriars, lived near St Paul’s Cathedral, which looked much different before the Fire of London in 1666. As was true throughout Europe, these monks were responsible for creating manuscripts, some of which are in museums around the world, especially the British Museum.
When the printing press was invented during the Renaissance — also the time of the Reformation — William Caxton established his printing business in this same part of London because the cathedral and clergy would require books. By the 17th century, authors and poets lived in the area. They included John Milton, John Dryden and Samuel Richardson, among others. Richardson, incidentally, was a publisher prior to writing the first modern English novel, Pamela.
Today, St Bride’s is not only the church for those involved in media generally but is also affiliated with several of the ancient City and Livery Companies which grew out of the mediaeval guilds, specialising in nearly anything and everything to do with craftsmanship, from glovers to shipwrights.
Therefore, the future rector of St Bride’s needs to be able to communicate effectively not only with the great and good from the City, London’s oldest borough north of the River Thames, but also with a broad congregation of Londoners who worship there.
The new rector also needs to respect the church’s history, structure and worship traditions.
He must also be a strong, godly leader.
Of course, his primary responsibility is to preach the Gospel to all who enter St Bride’s and to pursue outreach work in Christ’s name.
To give you an idea of how Mr Meara carried out these responsibilities, an article on their website says:
He has greatly enjoyed his ministry at St Bride’s, during which the church has maintained and grown its links with the newspaper and wider media industry, completed a successful £3.5 million re-endowment appeal, expanded its involvement with the City and Livery Companies, grown its volunteer base, and maintained and enhanced the Sunday worshipping congregations served by their splendid professional choir. The fabric has been conserved and improved, and the first phase of an ambitious £2.5 million restoration project successfully completed.
As Archdeacon of London, David has overseen the development of thematic and pioneering ministries in a number of City churches, modernising their governance structures and raising the amount raised by City churches towards the Common Fund to nearly 100%.
A long-standing worshipper at St Bride’s, journalist and PR man Ernest Bevin, wrote an open letter of thanks to Mr Meara, who is also Archdeacon of London. It says, in part (emphasis in the original):
You will leave our famous Wren church, surely a gift from God, in even better shape than when you inherited it. Since your arrival, you must hold the world record for presiding at memorial services for the great and the good of the media world and beyond, not to mention the almost weekly baptisms, numerous weddings, other special services and the daily Eucharist. And then there were your many connections with the Livery companies in the City of London. During all of this time, you demonstrated, without wanting to, what a gifted priest you are, with not a glimmer of faux grandiloquence either in meeting parishioners, or delivering your fascinating and often inspiring sermons. I always felt, and many others agree, that your mission in life is admirably suited to your calling.
I was terribly impressed when you led the team to organise the Queen’s visit to St Bride’s in 2007 – which was almost 50 years to the day after she was in the church for its rededication. During the run up to that historical and wonderful event, it was almost as if you swapped your dog collar for a white shirt and a Guild tie, becoming Mr Unflappable without the slightest hint of panic in your voice or body language, riding us over problems as if they didn’t exist!
It came as no surprise when the Bishop of London appointed you to be his right hand man, which promoted you from Canon to Archdeacon. Now historically in the Church of England, Archdeacons have a bit of a reputation for being pompous, aloof or sometimes, bon viveurs. But not you, David, you carried on preaching the Gospel as if nothing had happened, although we all knew that so much was happening in your ecclesiastical workload, but your beloved St Bride’s went from strength to strength.
The Bishop of London, the Right Revd Richard Chartres, sums up the type of person who would serve St Bride’s well:
What is required in my judgement is someone who is first and foremost a priest and pastor of character and commitment. The opportunities for ministering to those who operate in the stressful sphere of journalism are very great and the post requires someone of considerable talent.
I pray that St Bride’s finds a suitable new rector soon. The post will require an extraordinary person!
You can read more about the job here.
Depicting Christianity, Bible stories and Jesus’s life in film is never without controversy.
A relatively recent example is the television series The Book of Daniel (2006), which aired on NBC all too briefly.
SpouseMouse and I are the only people we know of who saw it when it aired that summer on one of the ITV channels in the UK. We were so disappointed to have been left hanging with the sixth episode. I then found out it had been cancelled in the US and that was all we were going to get. The DVD box set has eight episodes.
The Book of Daniel was a superb series. As I was also wrestling with two major problems in my life at the time, I found it comforting and inspiring. SpouseMouse, not a fan of religious-themed programmes or films, also found the show worthwhile.
St. Barnabas’s Episcopalian vicar Daniel Webster has a wealthy parish. Yet his family life constantly complicates everything. Peter is Daniel’s model son and med student, but struggles with being a semi-closet gay. His adopted brother, ethnic Asian Adam, is an incorrigible rascal. Daniel’s father in law is also a bishop, and the ‘discre[et] best friend’ of Daniel’s bishop. In-laws and parish benefactors attract further trouble on top of the regular pastoral work. A hippie Jesus Christ inspires Daniel in cheeky visions.
One has the impression that Mr Webster’s life was going well until he and his congregation took the decision to build a school. Webster’s optimism quickly turns sour as the school’s construction unfolds, bringing to light some dodgy deals of which he was unaware. It is at this point that all manner of family problems come to light, including his mother’s Alzheimer’s. (On that subject, I liked that she was a retired professor of English literature. So often, we have the false impression from medical ‘experts’ that only uneducated people get this disease. I can tell you from personal experience that many Alzheimer’s sufferers were high achievers and continued to be mentally and physically active even in retirement.)
Webster (Aidan Quinn) begins seeking refuge in Vicodin. One scene shows him in a controlled WASP panic over the building project. He reaches for his pills and finds they are not in the usual place. Jesus suddenly appears and tells him they are in his desk drawer. Jesus then asks him why Daniel places so much faith in the tablets rather than in Him. If I remember rightly, Daniel puts the pills back, embarrassed.
Overall, Jesus (Garret Dillahunt) is biblically portrayed. He is calm yet forthright. He attempts to get Daniel to examine himself and resume walking in faith. All the Webster family’s sins and struggles are borne of some aspect of unbelief. The show does not spell this out as many fundamentalists probably hoped it would, which is probably why they brayed for its cancellation before it was even aired! The show leaves it to the viewer to discover. Anyone with half an ounce of spiritual intelligence can figure it out.
The other aspect I liked was that, although we had the impression that Jesus was always watching over Daniel, Daniel found His presence and absence frustrating. When Jesus does appear, it is always at the most fraught moments. Webster never appreciates it, although those are the times when he needs Him most. Then there are other times when Daniel is exasperated when Jesus doesn’t appear. It is such a human response. We want Jesus on our terms. Jesus wants us on His!
It is surprising that the show’s many fans didn’t mention the housekeeper’s role with Mrs Webster. I do not even know the name of the actress who played the housekeeper, but she is full of wisdom and guidance. Judith Webster (Susanna Thompson) has a drinking problem which, in High WASP fashion, she keeps under wraps. Only the housekeeper is aware of it.
Her relationship with Judith is akin to Jesus’s with Daniel. Each has their own minder and counsellor. It is natural that, as a man of the cloth, Daniel has Jesus.
Anyway, in one episode Judith is about to pour herself a lunchtime martini in the kitchen. The housekeeper quietly takes the bottle of gin from her hand and pours it down the drain. The two look at each other. Judith goes on to confront her problems and herself.
Some viewers objected to the presence of the housekeeper, but any Episcopalian could figure out that both Daniel and Judith came from money, as most rectors and their wives do. I have often heard it said in the US that Episcopal clergy often have inheritances they can tap into because they certainly cannot depend on their salaries. I do not intend that to be a mean comment, but the expectation of their parents is that they will continue to live in the manner in which they were raised. I had the impression that the housekeeper had worked for Judith’s family and knew her well.
I had a few objections to some of Webster’s counsel to his congregation. Two examples are his condoning premarital sex when he interviews a young couple about to get married and his sermon about temptation which seemed rather left-field to me. Yet, these things go on in a number of Episcopalian and Anglican parishes every day.
In researching this post, many fans of the show aired their views on Imdb.com’s forum. Here are a few snippets (emphases mine below):
akcampbell (Ohio [Episcopalian], 6 January 2006):
Daniel — fully priest and also fully regular-guy. Why is it offensive that a priest isn’t perfect? …
To the people who are concerned that this sort of material is detrimental, I must respectfully disagree. I find it hard to believe that someone would be condemned for considering Jesus a good friend he turns to when he has troubles. Isn’t putting Jesus into the context of our lives and having a close relationship what we are supposed to do? I think that is the most basic tenet of this show.
Based on all the savage reviews I had heard, I was all set to drum up a letter writing campaign to the network (which I see as voicing an opinion, not promoting censorship, and something people in the majority don’t do nearly often enough because they feel guilty about being in the majority in the first place).
But then I watched the premiere, and I really enjoyed it. If “The Book of Daniel” brings anyone to church, if it shows them that maybe it’s a place where they will be accepted in spite of their flaws, if it encourages them to keep trying to be better in spite of their weaknesses — then I’m all for it.
We don’t watch a lot of TV, but this show is entertaining and real, and it had earned a place in our viewing pantheon.
Clemens Reinke (New Jersey, 28 January 2006):
We were looking forward to the debut of “The Book of Daniel” before it even came out. As a Lutheran pastor, I thought the idea to portray the everyday life of an Episcopal priest’s family sounded very interesting. After seeing the first episode our family (a daughter  and and son ) made Friday evening the time to watch “The Book of Daniel” together. Even though there were some overdrawn plots, and maybe too much going on at the same time, we greatly enjoyed watching the show because to a pastor’s family so much of it rang true. It was even refreshing to see Jesus enter the life of Fr. Daniel Webster. It showed how Jesus is present in everyday life, sometimes supportive and understanding, sometimes uncovering the vices. I was absolutely stunned when we turned on the television last night expecting to see the show when we found out that NBC abruptly pulled it off the air after only four episodes. I wish that there will be a place to see the rest of the show. I am upset that the opinion of the religious right has the power to take away a show greatly enjoyed by other Christian people of faith that happen to not be as closed as they are. It is interesting that the larger political debate and divide has now even effected a television show like this one.
buzzarb (United States, 9 January 2006):
… The show really app[eal]ed to me because my grandfather is a bishop under The Church of God in Christ, my mother a choir director, father a deacon, and my uncle’s and aunts are ministers. We have one of the largest churches in Philadelphia and we as the first family of the church are always being watched. I recall on the show … his daughter being arrested was all over the church and community within in hours. This was so funny to me because that stuff happens all the time; church people are always waiting to spread some kind of gossip …
cordrone (United States, 9 November 2007):
… I felt Dillahunt actually did a good job in the role and the talks between the two characters really played rather well and helped, I felt, show the bond between this man and his God. It showed me how very personal the connection between man and God could be and it also worked well as a device because it allowed the viewer to better understand the thoughts and motivations behind the title character of Daniel. To draw a quick Shakespearian analogy the character of Jesus in TDoD is used in much the same way the character of Horatio is used in Hamlet.) In short TBoD was an excellent show that was crucified by the very people who really should have embraced it, never to rise again, which is a real shame …
sartboy (United States, 23 April 2007):
… I am a Jewish man and always at least a little interested in the mass media entertainment industry’s portrayal of people of the Christian faiths, but am often bored with the story lines and degree of cheese factor most often prominently worn by shows of this genre. Somewhat reluctantly, I decided to watch the pilot and was more than impressed– not because of the so-called blasphemy or anti-Christian-Right sentiment projected by this program (there truly was none of this to be seen), but because of the thoughtful nature of the show’s voice and genuinely hip air that the entire show had. The stories’ characters were actually interesting; the plot lines, although a little haggard, were fabulously entertaining when presented on this stage; the timing, overall writing and staging, casting, etc. were far more engaging than anything else airing on prime time “Big Three” (CBS, NBC & ABC) television … the show was just THAT GOOD– as far as mainstream TV programming goes. To hell with uptight Christian right-wing groups … What, really, is the threat that these people face, anyway? If they are so scared that someone may look at Christianity for all or any of its flaws/ inconsistencies, then, perhaps, more time and energy should be invested in correcting these troubles than attempting to levy censorship to just try and cover it all up. Wake up, people and join the real world.
And, so, another intelligent series bites the dust. The Book of Daniel is not a flat or a hokey film about Christianity where everything is great all the time. It is a realistic representation of daily life for many believers who struggle with sin emanating from an imperfect faith. As the series shows, our Lord is there to help — if we would only listen, then act accordingly!