Submission to the Working Party on the Seal of the Confessional
1. I am grateful for the invitation from the Bishop of Durham to members of the General Synod to contribute to the Working Group on the Seal of the Confessional.
2. As well as being a member of the Synod, I am the Continuing Ministerial Development Officer for the Diocese of Derby and a member of the Diocesan Safeguarding Management Committee. I also serve as Canon Chancellor of Derby Cathedral where I am Lead Supervisor for offenders managed by the Cathedral and sit on the Safeguarding Committee as the member of Clergy with Safeguarding responsibilities. These contexts also inform my contribution.
The legal code
3. I hope that the Working Group will recommend that the law surrounding the ministry of reconciliation be brought into the body of current canon law, whether it chooses to make changes to that law or not. To be constantly referring to “the unrepealed Proviso to Canon 113 of the Code of 1603” is confusing to many. The title ‘proviso’ is confusing, and the nature of the penalty of ‘irregularity’ is unclear. That it is the only remaining part of the 1603 Code is in danger of bringing the Church of England into disrepute if it is ever forced to rely on this hangover from an ancient canonical structure in the context of a current safeguarding issue.
4. This might best be done by incorporating all canonical matters relating to the ministry of absolution into Canon 29.
Pastoral Conversations and Confession
5. The Guidelines for the Professional Conduct of the Clergy (2015) (GPCC) distinguish between ‘pastoral conversations’ and ‘a confession’ (3.5). This is a helpful distinction, but one which is less clear in pastoral practice, especially amongst those whose church tradition is less familiar with the practice of confession.
6. Clarity could be offered by defining ‘confession’ (and the attendant seal) as applying only to conversations occurring by appointment and following a written liturgy.
7. There would need to be an exception for those in danger of death similar to that found in Canon B29.
8. Training for this ministry is referred to in the GPCC (3.4). In my capacity as a CMD Officer with responsibility for IME, I am not aware that such training is easily available, other than in informal contexts.
9. As a CMD Officer, I would love to arrange such training, but would not do so whilst the confusion around safeguarding and the legal context remains. Until the situation is clarified, I would expect to spend most of the training discussing legal/safeguarding issues rather than pastoral and ministerial matters.
10. I hope the Working Group will encourage training to be offered for this ministry. This could be through external groups, e.g. Praxis or Affirming Catholicism; or through Theological Education Institutes; by diocesan officers; or in other ways. Guidance as to the content of this training would be welcome. It would also be good not to leave training to any one tradition within the Church of England.
11. The GPCC also speak of ‘guidelines published by the House of Bishops’ (3.4). I am not aware of any such guidance being available. I hope that the working group will suggest that the House of Bishops produce some guidelines for all priests involved in this ministry.
12. These guidelines should cover how to offer clarity in distinguishing ‘pastoral conversations’ and confession; how to use the time of discussion with the penitent to encourage them to speak to the police; when to withhold or delay absolution; when it is not appropriate for a priest to hear a particular confession; and other matters that will support good practice in the ministry of reconciliation.
13. Supervision for those practicing the ministry of absolution in this way should be required, in the same manner that a counsellor must receive supervision. This should not undermine the confidentiality of the confession. This should be part of the House of Bishop’s Guidelines and any future revision of the GPCC.
The Seal of the Confessional
14. The seal of the confessional, according to the 1603 Proviso, is not absolute. This lack of an absolute seal indicates that stating conditions relating to safeguarding are not a complete innovation in the Church of England’s approach to this matter.
15. An absolute seal of the confessional undermines the commitments that the Church of England has made in relation to safeguarding.
16. If, as suggested in GSMisc 1085 (paragraph 7), Parliament legislates to make it an offence not to report evidence of child abuse then the church by law established should be able to comply with this legislation. Indeed, the Working Group should recommend to the House of Bishops and the Archbishops’ Council that they support and advocate such legislation.
17. With or without such legislation, the Working Group should recommend that the canonical basis of the ministry of absolution state that evidence of child abuse cannot be hidden by the seal of the confessional.
18. This should be clearly written on service books, and be part of the conversation between priest and penitent before a confession is heard.
19. In summary, I am asking the Working Group to:
· bring the canonical framework for the ministry of absolution within the current canons of the Church of England;
· offer a clear distinction between a ‘pastoral conversation’ and confession;
· encourage training for this ministry and provide guidelines for the content of this training;
· ask the House of Bishops to provide guidance to clergy exercising this ministry;
· require any clergy exercising this ministry to receive regular supervision; and to
· revise the canonical basis of this ministry so that evidence of child abuse cannot be concealed behind the seal of the confessional.
20. My thanks again for the opportunity to contribute in this way.