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.

Furthermore:

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 casesnot 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 centuryEarlier, 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.

Suggestions

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.