Project Canterbury

The Freedom of Confession in the Church of England
A Letter to His Grace the Lord Archbishop of Canterbury
by the Rev. T. T. Carter

Rector of Clewer, Hon. Canon of Christ Church, Oxford.
Oxford and Cambridge: Rivingtons, 1877. 35 pp.


THE question of confession has been brought under the judgment of your Grace and other members of the Episcopate, and especially whether it is so far free as to become habitual, to be measured only by the sense of need and spiritual benefit. May I submit the results of an experience of many years, and of what I believe to be the mind of our chief divines at the best periods of our post-Reformation history on this important point?

It is nearly thirty years ago that, in the providence of God, I was led to enter upon penitentiary work, and I did so with the prejudices against confession at that time far more common than at present, though widely prevalent still. I found that the work thus carried on was most ineffectual and superficial. Practical necessity constrained me to lay aside views in which, in common with the generality of priests of that day, I had been brought up. I was in constant intercourse with my bishop, the late Bishop Wilberforce, who took the keenest interest in our work, and it was carried on on our changed system with his approval. Penitents of all classes, of the lowest, and in some cases of a high, class, have been dealt with alike; nor could we now conceive such work being carried on without such aid as confession supplies. But penitents who have been brought to God with the aid of confession, look to it ever afterwards as the means of sustaining them. In innumerable cases it becomes habitual from the same sense of need that dictated its original use.

Once commenced, it was inevitable that confession should be sought by those who, having led pure lives, yet desired the like aid, because sins of lighter kind press on pure consciences, it may be, even more keenly than darker guilt on polluted consciences. And confession acts for the deepening and advancing of spiritual life, as well as for its cleansing.

I was as open with my bishop on these cases also, equally as with the former. What was found helpful by such persons was sought again and again, and tended to become from the same cause more or less habitual. I am not saying that those who have thus used confession have been necessarily holier and better than many who have not used it. I have never liked to draw comparisons. It would seem to me too much to speculate, and intrude into the Holy Spirit's secret work in the souls of the elect. I have happily known so many good persons who have never heard of confession, or have heard only to disapprove, that comparisons would continually stand rebuked. I only affirm indisputable facts of personal experience which I cannot question, as to cases where confession, and that habitual, has been blessed by Almighty God. As time went on, panics arose, and threats of attack; and anxious thoughts, whether such use of confession were loyal and true to the Church of England, led me, about eighteen years ago, to inquire as carefully as I could into the view taken by our leading divines who have treated of the spiritual life.

Permit me, my Lord, to place before you a few of the testimonies that may be adduced on this question, and the advice given by those to whom we have all been led to look as among the most devout and learned teachers whom a traditionary reverence has enshrined in the grateful memories of English Churchmen.

George Herbert advises a degree of pressure which would be open to popular condemnation now. When describing the ideal priest, he says, "In his visiting the sick, or otherwise afflicted, he followeth the Church's counsel, namely, in persuading them to particular confession, labouring to make them understand the great good use of this ancient and pious ordinance, and how necessary it is in some cases." [The Country Pastor, cxv.] Herbert evidently had no idea that the Church, by recommending confession in sickness, meant to limit it to that time of need.

Hooker also contemplated confession as advisable for persons leading watchful lives, and in cases of need which must have occurred not infrequently. " Because the knowledge how to handle our own sores is no vulgar or common art, but we either carry towards ourselves for the most part an over-soft and gentle hand, fearful of touching too near the quick; or else, endeavouring not to be partial, we fall into timorous scrupulosities and sometimes into those extreme discomforts of mind from which we hardly do ever lift up our heads again; men thought it the safest way to disclose their secret faults, and to crave imposition of penance from them whom our Lord Jesus Christ hath left in His Church to be spiritual and ghostly physicians, the guides and pastors of redeemed souls, whose office doth not only consist in general persuasions to amendment of life, but also in the private particular cure of diseased minds." [Eccles. Pol, bk. vi. c. iv.]

Bishop Jeremy Taylor clearly showed that confession might be a habit. He says, in his Holy Living, "Because we may very much be helped, if we take in the assistance of a spiritual guide, therefore the Church of God in all ages hath commended, and in most ages enjoined, that we confess our sins, and discover the state and condition of our souls to such a person whom we or our superiors judge fit to help us in such a need." And then, in his Holy Dying, he urges, "Whether they be many or few that are sent to the sick person, let the curate of his parish or his own confessor, be among them ... he that is the ordinary judge cannot safely be passed by in his extraordinary necessity, which in so great portions depends upon his whole life past."2 " His own confessor," "the ordinary judge," who knows "his whole life past," unmistakably imply a habit of confession.

The Whole Duty of Man, the most popular manual of past days, urges confession as "an advice not to be neglected, neither at the time of coming to the Sacrament, nor any other when we are under any fear or reasons of doubt concerning the state of our souls." This is clearly contrary to the idea that the Church's advice about confession before Communion is to be viewed as implying a limitation to that particular occasion. And the needs specified are such as might frequently be felt. Neither had Archbishop Wake any such limited view: "We exhort men, if they have any the least doubt or scruple, nay, sometimes though they have none, but especially before they receive the Holy Sacrament, to confess their sins." [GIBSON'S Preservative from Popery, vol. iii. p. 31.]

Wheatley, commenting on the service for the "Visitation of the Sick," clearly views confession as a means of grace to be used in health, though more especially needed in sickness. "We may still, I presume, wish very consistently with the determination of our Church, that our people would apply themselves oftener than they do to their spiritual physicians, even in the time of their health, since it is much to be feared they are wounded oftener than they complain, and yet through aversion to disclosing their sore, suffer it to gangrene for want of their help who should work the cure. But present ease is not the only benefit the penitent may expect from his confessor's aid; he will be better prepared to guide and conduct it through all difficulties that may oppose." Confession, with a view to be guided to a higher life, is here contemplated.

The expressions, "ordinary judge," "spiritual guide," "physician," "confessor," "private guide and judge," and "ghostly father," which commonly occur in such writers, evidently point to the same conclusion, describing a relation between the priest and those to whom he thus ministers, which implies confession, either more or less habitual, or of free and not infrequent use.

It is worthy of note that, among the eminent men whom I have quoted as witnesses to these views upon confession, there are some, such as Hooker and Jeremy Taylor (and others with like belief might have been added), who were in their day the most earnest and powerful advocates of our position in the controversy with Rome. It seems inconceivable that, using the language they did, they could have regarded any use of confession untrue to our Church, so long as it is considered dependent on the amount of need and real desire.

Such evidences, my Lord, might readily be multiplied. I could add that nowhere in the writings of those past times is there anything that I am aware of, said in any way against habitual confession, nor any warnings against its frequent use when desired, though there is abundant testimony against a compulsory use. The fact that the Prayer Book specifies confession on two occasions--preparation for Holy Communion and for death--occasions on which its benefits may, of course, be specially valuable, and which are connected with specially appointed services, cannot, I think, reasonably be supposed to be exclusive. Nay, the very occasions themselves point to needs beyond themselves. If "in the midst of life we are in death," and to live in peace with God is equally necessary as to die in peace with God, it follows that what would be advisable in sickness can scarcely have less claim in health. And Holy Communion being frequently offered, the invitation to confession is appointed to be made with equal frequency.

The Prayer Book evidently rests the question of use on the amount of need; and as freedom tells equally for user or non-user, confession would by this rule be free to use frequently or infrequently, regularly or irregularly. Certainly the passages quoted above show that the writers did not regard the Prayer Book directions as constituting limitations.

The term, habitual, to which most exception has been taken, must, I suppose, be understood to mean something independent of the amount of use. It may be argued that one main object of the Church of England at the Reformation, in making confession voluntary, was to give a freer action to the conscience, increasing the sense of self-responsibility, and thus rendering the soul less dependent on outward aid; that, in fact, the freedom secured as to the use of confession was intended to counteract the Roman practice of direction, and that habitual confession involves such a practice. This fear of a director's sway over the conscience is, I suppose, one real ground of disapproval of habitual confession. If, indeed, any such interference with the healthful action of the conscience were the necessary consequence of frequent or habitual confession, it would be justly reprehensible, and contrary to what I conceive to be the genius of the Church of England. A morbid dependence on outward aid could not but be highly prejudicial to the soul's highest interests. On this subject let me quote, my Lord, words written many years ago, in an earlier crisis of the confession controversy. "Direction, if viewed simply in its first principles, is implied in 1 ghostly counsel and advice.' The extent or duration of such ' counsel and advice' is of necessity dependent on the circumstances of each individual case; but direction, rightly understood, is only ' ghostly counsel and advice' become habitual. The evils popularly associated with the idea of direction, and ordinarily intended to be condemned under the term, viz. the substitution of the priest's judgment for the true action of the conscience of the person under his influence, and the consequent loss of all sense or obligation of personal responsibility, are but the abuse of a most sacred trust. The true object of direction is not to preserve a hold on the mind of the penitent, and habituate it to lean on authority overruling its own powers of action by minute details of rule, but rather to develop true principles, and awaken dormant energies within the soul, so as to enable it to judge and act more healthfully for itself. Direction in its true sense means such help as may strengthen and assist the soul in the use of its renewed powers, not destroy them; quicken its sense of responsibility, not paralyse it." [Doctrine of Confession in the Church of England, by the Rev. T. T. Carter. Masters. Second edition, 1869, p. 226.]

I myself greatly prefer the term spiritual guide to that of director. The latter term at least seems to imply an authority over the conscience that might interfere with its free action, while the former can only imply what we understand to be the true aim of a confessor, that of giving assistance and support, so as to co-operate with the renewed action of the soul. Conducted on such a principle, confession cannot but conduce to peace, to strength, and progress in the spiritual life.

Perhaps the objection to frequent or habitual confession is grounded on the belief, often urged, that confession is not food, but medicine. Certainly Holy Communion is the food of the soul, and confession only that which removes hindrances and heals disorders. Were there no liability to sin, no hindrance to peaceful communion, no disorders, or defects, or irregularities in the soul's life, there could be no need of confession. But the analogy drawn from bodily requirements has always seemed to me to prove more than can be intended. For none pass through life without the use of medicine; and the greater number of persons need it not infrequently.

It is urged, however, not uncommonly, that confession increases spiritual sickness, by fostering an over-scrupulous introspective habit of mind. If such be the case, it can only be through the fault of a confessor. The true effect of confession is to remove doubts and scruples; and thus to free the soul from vain apprehensions, is to strengthen, not to debilitate. To urge, as against confession, that some persons are disposed to hang helplessly on spiritual guidance with the slightest sense of personal responsibility, is but to take exceptional cases to disparage a great principle; it is but to say that there are weak and morbid characters in the world, instinctively drawn to seek any external aid. Such persons are among the greatest trials and difficulties of a confessor, arid no one of ordinary prudence could fail to endeavour at least to remedy the hurtful tendency. It has been said, however, that the very Prayer Book regards the resort to confession as an allowance to an undue desire for spiritual consolation, because it speaks of it as a "requiring further comfort" by those who cannot otherwise "quiet their own consciences." But surely this is to strain the language of the Prayer Book, and might be used to tell similarly against Holy Communion, because the Church's invitation is to "take this Holy Sacrament to our comfort," or even give a handle to an unbeliever to blaspheme the doctrine of the Holy Ghost, because of our chosen title of the "Comforter." It is for theorists to show how an ordinance which, if habitually used, involves constant self-discipline, tends to secure the soul against needless fears, and relieves it from the oppressive sense of guilt, can of itself be debilitating.

It is probable, however, that the objection to habitual confession is urged against its use, as a mere rule, without any sense of immediate need, so as to make it form a matter of routine, under external authority, and not as an aid to meet a real want. If this were ever the only ground for coming to confession, it could hardly possibly continue; it would become intolerable both to priest and penitent. One can understand confession being kept up only on the supposition of the continued desire for real relief and real discipline.

But surely our security against compulsion in the case of confession is the sufficient safeguard against such a risk. Where confession is periodically compulsory, it may very possibly tend to formality in indevout and careless persons. Among us, with our free system, to come to confession is of itself almost a certain proof of reality. Its voluntariness is at least a security against its being continued in a merely formal spirit. Or were it conceivable that some hypocrite would seek thus to come, a confessor with any experience or common sense would forbid it. Nor let it be supposed that any real confession can be a superficial act. No one who has ever been to confession can doubt that it acts, sooner or later, on the innermost secret depths of the soul. It is only because the argument against confession is always conducted by those who have never used it, that objections as to its formal or superficial character are urged.

Or, again, if it were supposed that periodical confession hindered the soul's apprehension of the love and merits of Christ, as the sole ground of the forgiveness of sins, such a result would constitute matter for gravest reprobation. But this is clearly a case for personal experience, and those who are not accustomed to confession cannot be competent witnesses for the interior consciousness of those who are. And such a charge would be utterly repudiated by them. Indeed, how can the means of applying the merits of our Blessed Lord but deepen such a consciousness? Or if there were such danger where confession is absolutely compulsory, because of any liability to identify the outward form with the inward grace so as to lose the thought of the one in that of the other, its voluntary character is again our safeguard; for as amongst us confession is represented as a help and an assurance for those only who need and desire it, the very terms of the invitation are a continual witness against such misconception. It is not, of course, meant that there may not be a misuse of this ordinance, that there may not be a tendency to morbid habits, and an undue leaning on the outward means in this as in other cases, but only that such liabilities are not necessarily connected with confession, and would be discouraged. After all, the main prejudice against confession arises from an apprehension of its interference with the confidence and relative duties of family life, and the feeling is that on this account it is contrary to the genius of the Church of England, which has always very specially loved to cherish the sacred-ness of home. If there were ground for such an apprehension, no graver charge could be laid against confession. But what proof is there of such an evil arising, though confession has been continually spreading among us in all classes of society for many years? And it is certain, from innumerable instances, that parents of themselves bring their children to confession, and that husbands and wives desire for each other the aid which the one or the other has learnt to value. As the very object of confession is to promote peace, and an increased conscientiousness in the fulfilment of duty, the effect of confession, if rightly administered, would be to remove hindrances to domestic concord, and strengthen the bonds that knit the members of a family together. If evil had ever resulted, it would be, no doubt, one of the gravest character; but even then, a possible abuse could not militate against the use. If it be urged that the parent is at all events the proper depository of the secret temptations and struggles of a child,--it may be asked, up to what age? Even supposing the case of wise and earnest parents, it is matter of common experience that one can least easily speak out one's deepest secrets to those nearest to oneself. On the part of the young especially there is an instinctive shrinking of the strongest kind from revealing to those who are in authority over them the darker features of their life, which yet may be the very turning points of their whole future history, and the determining conditions of a course of vice or virtue.

One would suppose it not difficult to understand that facts in one's spiritual history, wholly secret, which would be most difficult if not impossible to speak of in conversation, face to face with another, it were a relief to utter, kneeling, in the conscious sense of God's presence, in apprehension of the last judgment, with the solemnities and safeguards of the seal of confession. But it must also be borne in mind that the question of absolution comes in to make confession to a priest a wholly different thing from confession to any other. Confessions have increased with the growing belief in absolution. Nor can we disconnect the increasing desire for confession from the greater frequency of Holy Communion. More frequent Communions necessarily produce a growing tendency to use all available means to enable one the more surely to "come holy and clean to such a heavenly feast."

I am, thus, led to submit to your Grace some further remarks as to the question of "sacramental confession." It is not clear what is meant in condemning this term. If confession alone, taken by itself, be understood, the term is open to objection, as was shown by Hooker, when commenting on the Roman definition of confession. But if such objection to the term include the absolution which follows, and is the object sought in, confession, then authoritative statements of the Church of England are clear in staying judgment. Sacramental confession may be an objectionable term because of its uncertain application, but its rejection ought to be accompanied with an assertion of the sacramental character of absolution, or a vital truth would be sacrificed. Bishop Cosin uses the term, sacramental, both as to confession and absolution, when taken together. Commenting on the office for the Visitation of the Sick, he says: "The Church of England, howsoever it holdeth not confession and absolution sacramental, (that is, made unto and received from a priest,) to be absolutely necessary, so as without it there can be no remission of sins, yet by this place it is manifest, what she teacheth concerning the intent and force of this sacred action." The Homilies also expressly declare, that " absolution hath the promise of forgiveness of sins," and only says that it is "no such sacrament as Baptism and the Communion are," implying that it is a sacrament of a lesser kind. Again, in like manner the twenty-fifth Article classes "Penance" together with "Confirmation" and "Orders," placing them on a par, and not denying that they are in some sort sacraments, only that they are not of "like nature of sacraments with Baptism and the Lord's Supper; "and giving as the reason," for that they have not any visible sign or ceremony ordained by God." In like manner the twenty-third Article affirms that an excommunicated person is "to be reconciled by penance," a doctrine held manifestly to be of great importance by Parker, from whose hands the Thirty-nine Articles took their last shape, because in his Visitation Articles of 1567, he reckons as one among "unwholesome, erroneous, and seditious doctrines," the position "that mortal or voluntary sins, committed after Baptism, be not remissible by penance."

[Hooker's object was to refute the Roman view of the absolute necessity of confession, grounded on texts which, as he shows, relate simply to repentance. He also disputes the Roman definition of "sacramental repentance composed," as represented, "of three parts--contrition, confession, and satisfaction." "Besides," as he adds, "which is more absurd, they leave out absolution." Afterwards he says: "Forasmuch as a sacrament is complete, having the matter and form which it ought, what should lead them to set down any other part of sacramental repentance, than confession and absolution, as Durandus hath done?. . . Will they draw in contrition with satisfaction, which are no parts, and exclude absolution (a principal part,) yea, the very complement, form, and perfection of the rest, as themselves account it?"--Eccles. Pol., bk. vi. c. iv. 4. Hooker's judgment was that penance is a sacramental ministry, because of absolution, which forms part of it.

Our Commination Service speaks of "open penance," thus implying that there is a secret penance, and showing in common with the Thirty-nine Articles as to the use of the term, that not repentance, that is to say, a penitent state of mind, is meant, but a definite act, a ministry in which repentance is carried out in some definite form within the sphere of the sacramental system of the Church. The terms under which it may be expressed are comparatively indifferent, but the meaning or value of the ministry in question is of vital moment. It is true that our Blessed Lord's commission, "Receive ye the Holy Ghost; whosesoever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them; and whosesoever sins ye retain, they are retained," enters into all ministries through which the remission of sins is conveyed--into Baptism more especially, with its plenary gift of remission, even into preaching indirectly, because of its power of moving the conscience, and subordinately into the Holy Eucharist, containing as it does all gifts of grace; yet it is equally certain, and might be proved by innumerable affirmations of our best divines, that the Church of England, in unison with the Catholic Church of all ages and of all nations, teaches that this commission has its special fulfilment, as in the earliest ages in the exomologesis or public ministry of penance, so in later periods in the ministry of private penance.

Surely your Grace must admit that it is needful to keep in view the distinction above indicated. For otherwise a material link in the chain of the sacramental system instituted by our Lord would be lost to us. As our Lord instituted Holy Baptism for our regeneration, and the Holy Eucharist for the perfecting of life, so he instituted Absolution to repair the losses of the one, and to prepare the more certainly for the reception of the other. This healing and restorative ordinance is to such as we are an indispensable part of that wonderful order of grace which, compassionating our infirmities, leads us onward ever more and more closely to a perfected union with God. At the same time, to be true to what we have received, we must distinguish between modern Roman teaching and our own on the vexed question of confession. The Roman doctrine is that confession is of divine obligation for all persons, and that the Church's rule of confessing at least once in the year, is but fixing the limit beyond which the duty, already obligatory, ought not to be deferred. The Church of England, following the early Church, regards confession as matter of discipline, to be regulated according to discretion, and while accepting the later use of private confession, considers it best, under the circumstances of the times, and judging from the experience of the past, that it should be free, that is to say, dependent on the needs and desires of her people. Such eventful consequences, touching upon the soul's innermost life, depend on this distinction, that it is a clear duty to guard against over-statement, while equally it is necessary not to understate, lest there be a surrender to popular clamour of an essential ministry of the Gospel of Peace.

One would have trusted, my Lord, that the revival of confession would be a cause of rejoicing and thankfulness to your Grace and the rest of our chief pastors; for certainly its rise and progress have been coincident with the more active ministry, the growing conviction of sin, the deepening and advancing of spiritual life, which have been the blessing of our later years. It was in former days a cause of regret to some of our most distinguished bishops that confession had died out. Bishop Cosin, in a funeral sermon preached in 1623, speaks of confession as "a thing the world looks not after now, as if confession and absolution were some strange superstitious things amongst us; which yet the Church has taken such care to preserve, and especially to be preparative to death." And Dr. Sparrow, in a sermon preached at Cambridge before the University, A.D. 1637, says: "Confess, as the Church directs us, confess to God; confess also to the priest, if not in private, in the ear, since that is out of use, (male aboletur, saith a devout bishop, it is almost quite lost, the more's the pity,) &c." Cosin and Sparrow were both members of the Royal Commission to which the last revision of the Prayer Book was entrusted. Just before the Church revival of the last few years, my old college tutor, afterwards Bishop Short, in his History of the Church of England, expressed a like regret: " In the Church of England the confession of particular sins is recommended in the Exhortation to the Sacrament, and the Visitation of the Sick; but so little are we accustomed to this most scriptural duty, that their recommendations are frequently unknown, and generally neglected." It is strange that now, when confession is revived, in answer, I cannot doubt, to many prayers, and through the mercy of the Holy Ghost, quickening the consciences of many, and more powerfully reproving souls " of sin, of righteousness, and of judgment," it has become a ground of suspicion, an occasion of popular reviling, and condemnation. It is, moreover, strange, though evident, that the more we seek to be instructed in this private cure of souls, so as the better to meet the varied needs of troubled consciences, we are exposed to the greater suspicion. I have no desire to allude to the Priest in Absolution further than this, that the disapproval of that book was chiefly grounded on the fact that, as a general principle, it dealt scientifically with the work of the confessor; that in definite and detailed order it advised how best to assist the penitent in his repentance and his recovery. Yet none but those who have had to deal closely with the infinitely diversified forms of sin in all classes under our complicated and artificial conditions of society, can possibly imagine what needs have to be met, what sores to be probed, what unsought questionings to be solved, what self-deceits to be unveiled. In the censures which of late have been cast on the very idea of any system of dealing in confession, much has been said in derogation of the principle of asking questions at such a time. Under the excitement of the present panic, the absurd notion has been propagated that to go to confession implies, as a matter of course, the being put through a catechetical scrutiny as to all kinds of sin, especially the most shameful ones, and as if the one most distressing form of sin coloured the whole atmosphere of the ministry of penance. Nothing could be more utterly false; nothing more maliciously derogatory to the character of priests, though far more an outrage upon the character of those who seek them for confession, especially of women, to suppose they could endure what would expose them to such a risk.

Let me add a few remarks as to what is meant by questioning in confession. It is a very axiom that no evil should be suggested, or any approach to it, or even a suspicion breathed as to any unknown evil. It is only the manifest and obvious advantage and desire of one making a confession, that occasions any questions at all. Very commonly such help is sought, and the desire expressed that questions may be put, that the relief and assistance looked for may not be lost.

Even then it is reckoned a sin in a confessor, to question more closely than needful. The whole action is indeed grounded on the one principle, that confession is a help, not a hurt,--a means of close and holy contact with things unseen, fraught with the Blessed Spirit's promises of peace, and of renewed hope in Christ.

It cannot to anyone who realises the sacred character of absolution seem unreasonable that special knowledge is required for the exercise of such a ministry. Jeremy Taylor, in his instructions to the priest, bids him beware lest his "discourses, like Jonathan's arrows, shoot short or shoot over, but not wound where they should, nor open those humours that need a lancet or a cautery." Nor are the objections which have been made to questions being put at the discretion of the confessor to help the penitent or ascertain the truth of his repentance, at all in harmony with Bishop Taylor's injunctions, where, in the quaint style of his age, he says: "If the sick man be backward and without apprehension of the good-natured and civil way, let the minister take care that by some way or other the work of God be secured; and if he will not understand, when he is secretly prompted, he must be hallooed to, and asked in plain interrogatives, concerning the crime of his life." And surely, my Lord, a superficial and imperfect way of dealing with troubled or unsifted consciences, yet asking relief, is the more serious when it is considered that we are called to "remit" or "retain sin," that is to say, to decide between the two alternatives, of judging whether the person who seeks our ministry may be loosed or still bound, may be set free, as Lazarus, from the bonds of death, or warned, like Simon, of being yet "in the gall of bitterness and in the bond of iniquity." The very fact of our commission being exercised between such alternatives involves a judgment, and a judgment must imply consideration and probably inquiry, and inquiry may test the experience and discretion of the confessor to the utmost.

But as a physician is trusted to deal with the disorder for which his aid is sought, without imagining that the patient is suffering from other ills of which nothing is said, so, when this present panic has subsided, and soberer councils prevail, it will be understood that the minister of God seeks only to remedy, as the Spirit of God may enable him, the diseases of the soul committed to his care, according to its need, without imputing imaginary guilt, or occupying himself with needless suspicions.

Permit me also, my Lord, to add that it seems strange that such a desire is felt on the part of your Grace and other bishops, to repress all approach to publicity in receiving confessions, when yet, in this as in other things, publicity is the truest safeguard. Driven as confession has been into so much privacy, the wonder is that no scandal has arisen. That there has been nothing of the kind, as far as I am aware, is surely the strongest evidence possible that the suspicions and excited fears of confession are groundless. It is hard for men to be charged with secrecy in their proceedings, while publicity, when desired, is forbidden. If confession be a recognised ministry in the Church of England, (and it seems impossible to overthrow the proofs on which it rests, or to deny the blessings which innumerable souls ascribe to it,) it could only lead to order and to safety to give to it a locus standi, however retired, within public cognisance in our Churches. Nor is it less strange that there should be any feeling, which yet exists amongst some, against confession being ministered with the formal accompaniments of the priest's appointed vesture, when everything that can add solemnity and sacredness to this ministry is the truest protection against abuse.

I trust I have said nothing to disparage or pain those who are living faithfully and happily in communion with their Lord, through other means, while upholding the rights of those who have found in confession deepening peace, a clearer faith, and growing strength. I have no doubt that the Church of England is express in teaching that contrition, with pure love and faith in the merits of our Blessed Lord, through the public means of grace, is sufficient to ensure the salvation and the peace of those who can thus quiet their own consciences, while equally having no doubt that she encourages the use of private confession in all cases of need, and according to the need, without laying down any fixed rule or formal theory. Nor can anyone be a measure for another amid the infinite varieties of individual characteristics.

What I have thus ventured to urge, my Lord, I have urged in the interests of defence; that the freedom secured to us may act fairly both ways; that there may be no narrowing of our liberty through popular prejudice, or crude theories, or undue pressure of authority; that there be no hindrance or disparagement laid in the way of those who use their liberty whether in maintaining themselves in their state of deliverance from grievous sin, or in the assurance that they can by this means live more closely with God, following Jeremy Taylor's advice, "He is careful of his eternal interest that will not lose the advantage of using a private guide and judge."

The truest wisdom and the most generous charity, as I firmly hold, breathes in the charge given in the Exhortation before Holy Communion in the first Prayer Book, intended, as I believe, to determine the mind of the Church of England in this matter, and with this authoritative declaration I would close the remarks that I have ventured, my Lord, at a very grave and anxious crisis, to address to your Grace. The Exhortation alluded to, after giving the advice still found in our present Prayer Book as to confession, adds: "Requiring such as shall be satisfied with a general confession not to be offended with them that do use to their further satisfying the auricular and secret confession to the priest; nor those also which think needful or convenient, for the quietness of their own consciences, particularly to open their sins to the priest, to be offended with them that are satisfied with their humble confession to God, and the general confession to the Church; but in all things to follow and keep the rule of charity, and everyone to be satisfied with his own conscience, not judging other men's minds or consciences; whereas he hath no warrant of God's Word to the same."

I beg to remain, my Lord Archbishop,

Your Grace's faithful and obedient servant,



The following Declaration was issued in 1873, on occasion of much public discussion on the subject, and may be of interest at the present time, as well as help to confirm the positions advanced in the Letter.

"Declaration on Confession and Absolution, as set forth by the Church of England.

"WE, the undersigned, Priests of the Church of England, considering that serious misapprehensions as to the teaching of the Church of England, on the subject of Confession and Absolution, are widely prevalent, and that these misapprehensions lead to serious evils, hereby declare, for the truth's sake, and in the fear of God, what we hold and teach on the subject with special reference to the points which have been brought under discussion.

"1. We believe and profess, that Almighty God has promised forgiveness of sins, through the Precious Blood of Jesus Christ, to all who turn to Him, with true sorrow for sin, out of unfeigned and sincere love to Him, with lively faith in Jesus Christ, and with full purpose of amendment of life.

"2. We also believe and profess, that our Lord Jesus Christ has instituted in His Church a special means for the remission of sin after Baptism, and for the relief of consciences, which special means the Church of England retains and administers as part of her Catholic heritage.

"3. We affirm that--to use the language of the Homily--'Absolution hath the promise of forgiveness of sin,' although, the Homily adds, 'by the express word of the New Testament it hath not this promise annexed and tied to the visible sign, which is imposition of hands,' and 'therefore,' it says, 'Absolution is no such Sacrament as Baptism and the Communion are.'2 We hold it to be clearly impossible that the Church of England in Art. xxv. can have meant to disparage the ministry of Absolution any more than she can have meant to disparage the Rites of Confirmation and Ordination, which she solemnly administers. We believe that God through Absolution confers an inward spiritual grace and the authoritative assurance of His forgiveness on those who receive it with faith and repentance, as in Confirmation and Ordination He confers grace on those who rightly receive the same.

"4. In our Ordination, as Priests of the Church of England, the words of our Lord to His Apostles--'Receive ye the Holy Ghost; whosesoever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them, and whosesoever sins ye retain, they are retained,'--were applied to us individually. Thus it appears that the Church of England considers this Commission to be not a temporary endowment of the Apostles, but a gift lasting to the end of time. It was said to each of us, '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;' and then followed the words, 'Whose sins thou dost forgive, they are forgiven, and whose sins thou dost retain, they are retained.'

"5. We are not here concerned with the two forms of Absolution which the Priest is directed to pronounce after the general confession of sins in the Morning and Evening Prayer, and in the Communion Service. The only form of words provided for us in the Book of Common Prayer for applying the absolving power to individual souls, runs thus:--'Our Lord Jesus Christ, Who hath left power to His Church to absolve all sinners who 'truly repent and believe in Him, of His great Mercy forgive thee thine offences: And by his authority committed to me I absolve thee from all thy sins, in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.' Upon this we remark, first, that in these words forgiveness of sins is ascribed to our Lord Jesus Christ; yet that the Priest, acting by a delegated authority, and as an instrument, does through these words convey the absolving grace: and, secondly, that the absolution from sins cannot be understood to be the removal of any censures of the Church, because (a) the sins from which the penitent is absolved are presupposed to be sins known previously to himself and God only; (b) the words of the Latin form relating to those censures are omitted in our English form; and (c) the release from excommunication is in Art. xxxiii. reserved to 'a Judge that hath authority thereunto.'

"6. This provision, moreover, shows that the Church of England, when speaking of 'the benefit of absolution,' and empowering her Priests to absolve, means them to use a definite form of absolution, and does not merely contemplate a general reference to the promises of the Gospel.

"7. In the Service for 'the Visitation of the Sick' the Church of England orders that the sick man shall even 'be moved to make a special Confession of his sins, if he feels his conscience troubled with any weighty matter.' When the Church requires that the sick man should, in such case, be moved to make a special Confession of his sins, we cannot suppose her thereby to rule that her members are bound to defer to a death-bed (which they may never see) what they know to be good for their souls. We observe that the words, 'be moved to,' were added in 1661, and that therefore at the last revision of the Book of Common Prayer the Church of England affirmed the duty of exhorting to Confession in certain cases more strongly than at the date of the Reformation, probably because the practice had fallen into abeyance during the Great Rebellion.

"8. The Church of England also, holding it ' requisite that no man should come to the Holy Communion, but with a full trust in God's mercy, and with a quiet conscience' commands the Minister to bid 'any' one who 'cannot quiet his own conscience herein,' to come to him, or 'to some other discreet and learned Minister of God's Word, and open his grief; that by the ministry of God's Holy Word he may receive the benefit of absolution, together with,' and therefore as distinct from, 'ghostly counsel and advice;' and since she directs that this invitation should be repeated in giving warning of Holy Communion, and Holy Communion is constantly offered to all, it follows that the use of Confession may be, at least in some cases, of not unfrequent occurrence.

"9. We believe that the Church left it to the consciences of individuals, according to their sense of their needs, to decide whether they would confess or not, as expressed in that charitable exhortation of the First English Prayer Book, 'requiring such as shall be satisfied with a general Confession, not to be offended with them that do use, to their further satisfying, the auricular and secret Confession to the Priest; nor those also, which think needful or convenient, for the quietness of their own consciences, particularly to open their sins to the Priest, to be offended with them that are satisfied with their humble confession to God, and the general Confession to the Church; but in all things to follow and keep the rule of charity; and every man to be satisfied with his own conscience, not judging other men's minds or consciences; whereas he hath no warrant of God's Word to the same.' And although this passage was omitted in the Second Prayer Book, yet that its principle was not repudiated, may be gathered from the 'Act for the Uniformity of Service' (1552), which, while authorising the Second Prayer Book, asserts the former book to be 'agreeable to the Word of God and the primitive Church.'

"10. We would further observe, that the Church of England has nowhere limited the occasions upon which her Priests should exercise the office which she commits to them at their ordination; and that to command her Priests in two of her Offices to hear confessions if made, cannot be construed negatively into a command not to receive confessions on any other occasions. But, in fact (see above, Nos. 7, 8), the two occasions specified do practically comprise the whole of the adult life. A succession of Divines of great repute in the Church of England, from the very time when the English Prayer Book was framed, speak highly of Confession, without limiting the occasions upon which, or the frequency with which, it should be used; and the 113th Canon, framed in the Convocation of 1603, recognised Confession as a then existing practice, in that it decreed under the severest penalties, that 'if any man confess his secret and hidden sins to the Minister for the unburdening of his conscience, and to receive spiritual consolation and ease of mind from him;. . . . the said Minister .... do not at any time reveal and make known to any person whatsoever any crime or offence so committed to his trust and secrecy (except they be such crimes as by the laws of this realm his own life may be called into question for concealing the same).'

"11. While then we hold that the formularies of the Church of England do not authorise any Priest to teach that private Confession is a condition indispensable to the forgiveness of sin after Baptism, and that the Church of England does not justify any Parish Priest in requiring private Confession as a condition of receiving Holy Communion, we also hold that all who, under the circumstances above stated, claim the privilege of private Confession, are entitled to it, and that the Clergy are directed under certain circumstances to 'move' persons to such confession. In insisting on this, as the plain meaning of the authorised language of the Church of England, we believe ourselves to be discharging our duty as her faithful Ministers."

"ASHWELL, A. R., Canon of Chichester.
"BAKER, HENRY W., Vicar of Monkland.
"BARTHOLOMEW, CH. CH., Vicar of Cornwood, and Rural Dean of Plympton.
"BENSON, R. M., Incumbent of Cowley S. John, Oxford.
"BUTLER, WILLIAM J., Vicar of Wantage, and Rural Dean.
"CARTER, T. T., Rector of Clewer.
"CHAMBERS, J. C., Vicar of S. Mary's, Soho.
"CHUBTON, EDW., Rector of Crayke, and Archdeacon of Cleveland.
"DENISON, GEORGE A., Vicar of East Brent, and Archdeacon of Taunton.
"GALTON, J. L., Rector of S. Sidwell's, Exeter.
"GILBERTSON, LEWIS, Rector of Braunston.
"GREY, FRANCIS R., Rector of Morpeth.
"GRUEBER, C. L., Vicar of S. James's, Hambridge.
"KEBLE, THOS., jun., Bisley.
"KING, EDWARD, D.D., Canon of Christ Church, Oxford.
"LIDDELL, ROBERT, Incumbent of S. Paul's, Knightsbridge.
"LIDDON, H. P., D.D., Canon of S. Paul's, London.
"MACCOLL, M., Rector of S. Botolph, Billingsgate, London.
"MACHONOCHIE, A. H., Perpetual Curate of S. Alban's, Holborn.
"MAYOW, M. W., Rector of Southam, and Rural Dean.
"MEDD, P. G., Senior Fellow of University College, Oxford.
"MURRAY, F. H., Rector of Chislehurst.
"PUSEY, E. B., D.D., Canon of Christ Church, Oxford.
"RANDALL, R. W., Incumbent of All Saints, Clifton.
"SHARP, JOHN, Vicar of Horbury.
"SKINNER, JAMES, Vicar of Newlande, Great Malvern.
"WHITE, G. C., Vicar of S. Barnabas, Pimlico.
"WILLIAMS, G., Vicar of Ringwood.
"WILSON, R. F., Vicar of Rownhams, Southampton."

Project Canterbury