THE P RTAL July 2018 Page 11 The seal in the Anglican Confessional? News The Rev’d Paul Benfield explains it in the light of historic laws. W hen the Church of England separated from Rome the pre-existing ecclesiastical law remained in force. The Submission of the Clergy Act 1533 provided that, until a Commission appointed to review the canon law and provincial constitutions had completed its work all canons, constitutions, Ordinances, and Synodals already made, ‘which were not contrariant or repugnant to the law, statutes and customs of this realm, nor to the damage or hurt of the King’s prerogative’ were to remain in force. To these matters the Canon Law Act of 1543 added ‘other ecclesiastical laws or jurisdictions spiritual as be yet accustomed and used here in the Church of England.’ It was not until 1603 that a definitive collection of canons was produced and approved by the Convocation of Canterbury, with an identical collection being approved by the Convocation of York in 1605. These remained in force (though largely ignored) until an entirely new set of canons came into force between 1964 and 1969. and York in 2015, where it is stated ‘If a penitent makes a confession with the intention of receiving absolution the priest is forbidden (by the unrepealed Proviso to Canon 113 of the Code of 1603) to reveal or make known to any person what has been confessed. This requirement of absolute confidentiality applies even after the death of the penitent.’ However, the Bishop of Dover has issued an Canon B29 deals with the ministry of absolution and instruction to clergy in the Diocese of Canterbury paragraph 2 provides: which says: If there be any who by these means [public ‘Any priest hearing a confession, regularly confession and absolution] cannot quiet his or otherwise, must say prior to hearing own conscience, but requires further comfort or that confession the following statement of counsel, let him come to some discreet and learned confidentiality and safeguarding: minister of God’s Word; that by the ministry of “If you touch on any matter in your confession God’s holy Word he may receive the benefit of that raises a concern about the wellbeing or absolution, together with ghostly counsel and safeguarding of another person or yourself, I am advice, to the quieting of his conscience and duty bound to pass that information on to the avoiding of all scruple and doubtfulness. relevant agencies, which means that I am unable to In addition, the proviso to Canon 113 of the 1603 keep such information confidential.’ canons state: Provided always, that if any man confess his In response to many enquiries, the Diocese of secret and hidden sins to the minister, for the Canterbury issued a statement saying that it had not unburdening of his conscience, and to receive effectively abolished the seal of the confessional. spiritual consolation and ease of mind from him; we do not in any way bind the said minister by This has caused much concern with letters in the this our Constitution, but do straitly charge and Church press. Questions on the matter are to be asked admonish him, that he do not at any time reveal and at the General Synod at York in July. make known to any person whatsoever any crime or offence so committed to his trust and secrecy Whilst the canon law of the Church of England is (except they be such crimes as by the laws of this part of the law of the land, the preservation of the realm his own life may be called into question for seal of the confessional should be a matter of concern concealing the same), under pain of irregularity. for the Roman Catholic Church and others which practise sacramental confession. In many jurisdictions This statement of the law has always been the the civil law of evidence grants a privileged status to understanding of the Church of England and is reflected all communications with priests (and counsellors in the Guidelines for the Professional Conduct of the and therapists), whether or not as part of auricular Clergy, approved by the Convocations of Canterbury confession.