Project Canterbury

Life of Edward Bouverie Pusey
by Henry Parry Liddon, D.D.

London: Longmans, 1894
volume four

Transcribed by The Revd R D Hacking
AD 2002







WHILE the public mind was frill of the discussions about Ritual and the Athanasian Creed, another violent storm arose on the subject of Confession. It was caused by a lengthy Petition to Convocation signed by 483 Clergy, which was presented on May 9, 1873. The Petition was intended apparently as a counterblast to the persistent and destructive assaults which had been delivered on the side of extreme Puritanism and Latitudinarianism against the Church, and advocated sundry ecclesiastical changes in somewhat startling terms. In a state of atmosphere less charged with electricity it would probably have passed unnoticed; as it was the public suspicion fastened upon one phrase,  'licensing of duly qualified confessors,'  and under the leadership of the Archbishop of Canterbury an attack on Confession was delivered in force. The petition had prayed that  'in view of the widespread and increasing use of Sacramental Confession, your venerable house may consider the advisability of providing for the education, selection, and licensing of duly qualified Confessors in accordance with the provisions of canon law' ; and in reply, the Upper House of Convocation had resolved itself into Committee to consider the teaching of the Church of England on Confession.

But it was very evident that the question would not be confined to Convocation. The  'Church Association'  was stirring up public feeling in the matter, and urging on public men to some action; and the two Archbishops were readily playing into its hands. In reply to a memorial which the  'Church Association'  had presented to them, the Archbishops sent a lengthy letter on June 16, 1873, in which, specially alluding to the petition of the four hundred and eighty-three Clergy, they said:--

 'We believe that through the system of the Confessional great evil has been wrought in the Church of Rome, and that our Reformers acted wisely in allowing it no place in our reformed Church, and we take this opportunity of expressing our entire disapproval of any such innovation, and our firm determination to do all in our power to discourage it' .

Pusey and the old High Churchmen felt themselves in a difficult position. On the one hand, the assertion of the Archbishops, besides being historically baseless, was another declaration of active hostility against the Prayer-book: and on the other, they themselves were identified in the popular mind with the demands or suggestions of the 483, whereas as a matter of fact they would have gladly repudiated, in many particulars, both the language and intentions of their memorial. The Bishop of Brechin strongly urged that they should put out a Declaration embodying the teaching of the Prayer-book on this subject, which without mentioning the Archbishops would be an answer to them. Dr. Bright and Pusey were not averse to doing so: but Liddon doubted the wisdom of such a course. It would, he thought, only continue the controversy, and no one could seriously suppose that the wild utterances of the  'Church Association'  on this subject represented the teaching of the Prayer-book. Pusey, however, still thought that some simple statement would be valuable:--

 'People would be very much surprised,'  he wrote to the Hon. C. L. Wood (now Viscount Halifax) on July 4, 1873,  'if they knew how early the authority for private Con–fession after the Reformation is. . . . It would startle people to find Latimer and Cranmer advocating Confession, be–sides Bishop Jewell who does not object to it.'  But as opinions were thus divided, no declaration was at that moment put forth.

The report of the Committee of the Upper House of Convocation was presented on July 23, four days after the death of Bishop Wilberforce. It ran as follows:--

 'In the matter of Confession the Church of England holds fast those principles which are set forth in Holy Scripture, which were professed by the Primitive Church, and which were reaffirmed at the English Reformation.

 'The Church of England in the twenty-fifth Article affirms that Penance is not to be counted for a sacrament of the Gospel, and as judged by her formularies, knows no such words as  " sacramental confessions.”

Grounding her doctrine on Holy Scripture, she distinctly declares the full and entire forgiveness of sins through the Blood, of Jesus Christ to those who bewail their own sinfulness, confess themselves to Almighty God, with full purpose of amendment of life, and turn with true faith unto Him. It is the desire of the Church that by this way and means all her children should find peace.

 'In this spirit the forms of Confession and Absolution are set forth in her public services. Yet, for the relief of troubled consciences, she has made special provision in two exceptional cases.

 '1. In the case of those who cannot quiet their own consciences previous to receiving the Holy Communion, but require further comfort or counsel, the minister is directed to say,  " Let him come to me, 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 ghostly counsel and advice." Nevertheless it is to be noted that for such a case no form of Absolu–tion has been prescribed in the Book of Common Prayer, and further, that the rubric in the First Prayer Book of 1549, which sanctions a particular form of Absolution, has been withdrawn from all subsequent editions of the said book.

 '2. In the Order of the Visitation of the Sick it is directed that the sick man be moved to make a special Confession of his sins if his conscience is troubled with any weighty matter; but in such case Absolution is only to be given when the sick man shall humbly and heartily desire it. The special provision, however, does not authorize the ministers of the Church to require from any one who may repair to them to open their grief in a particular or detailed examination of all their sins, or to require private Confession as a condition previous to receiving the Holy Communion, or to enjoin or even encourage any practice of habitual Confession to a priest, or to teach that such practice or habitual Confession, or the being subject to what has been termed the direction of a priest, is a condition of attaining to the highest spiritual life.'

Pusey had left Oxford for Malvern on July 14 when he heard rumours of what had happened, he wrote at once to Dr. Bright, on whose affection and help he relied so greatly during the later years of his life:--


Malvern, July 26, 1873.

I have not seen the details of Convocation or the language of the Archbishops. I should imagine it simply impossible that they meant to deny the power,  'Whose sins ye do remit, &c.,'  which they or their predecessors gave us. As you keep such documents, would you send me any? you shall have them back. I wrote to the Bishop of W[inchester] before I left Oxford, and heard from him that he agreed with me as to Confession in the English Church, that he knew the authorities, of which I reminded him, that he had lately used them to stop some ultra-Protestant (churchwarden, I think), but that which he grieves and differs from me in was--I have not his note here, and might not do him justice, but they were points in which my own practice had not been what he dissented from.

When he had seen the Report of the Bishops, he felt strongly that the Bishop of Brechin' s proposed action was right; some Declaration ought to be made in order to prevent any restriction on the liberty of Confession within the English Church. And as Mr. Carter, of Clewer, also had written very strongly urging the same course, Pusey writes again to Dr. Bright about it.


Sidmouth House, Malvern, July 30, 1873.

... I should think that the Bishop of Winchester had chiefly the drawing up of that Report. I think that he bona fide believed of Absolution as we do, but that he was timid as to its systematic use. I think that our Declaration ought to have no reference to the Bishops. We ought to assume that they meant right. As to habitual Con–fession, where there was deadly sin to strive with, the Bishop of Winchester thought as we do. I thought that a subject which he asked us to take for a Lenten sermon would involve my preaching on Confession, an~ told him so. (This was years ago.) He asked me to come out and speak with him. I said to him, inter alia,  'You know, my Lord, that there are some sins of young men for which habitual Confession is the remedy'  (emphasizing the the). He said at once,  'Yes, ills;'  and went on to instance a case which had been delivered from it by Confession. But what he and Lord Salisbury and, I suppose, the mass of Englishmen are thinking of are not these cases, but those to whom the Bishop of Winchester alludes in the last clauses,--souls which never did commit a deadly sin probably, certainly do not now, and yet who, I suppose, are the greatest number of those who use confession--Christian women. These come under the clause of the Communion Exhortation, for (you will remember the saying accurately)  'Delicate souls feel more the slightest offence against a law of God than others do whole cartloads of sin.'

Popular excitement on the subject of Confession grew, instead of diminishing, as the summer went on: and Pusey was reminded of the old troubles of the Maskell and Allies controversy in 1850.


Malvern, Aug. 21, 1873.

It is a tremendous storm, but not greater than 1850, with the institution of the R. C. Episcopate, the attack of Dodsworth, Maskell, and Allies, and the prevailing suspicion. As, for instance, I know not whether you know, that I was wished not to preach in the Diocese of Oxford till I should publish my letter to the Bishop of London. At St. Saviour' s, Leeds, C. Marriott went over to Bishop Longley about my preaching. I suspected the result, so as he came, just as the service was to commence, like Nelson, I shut my eyes and put the note in my pocket. Fortes, pejoroque passi. But what with the ultra-Ritualists, Lord Shaftesbury, and the Church Association, the Declaration of the two Archbishops and the utterances of some others, the ambition of the Wesleyans taking occasion of it all, no small storm lies upon us. Will the vessel bear it, which so many wish to break to pieces?  'O Lord, Thou knowest.'

Letters continued between Pusey, Liddon, and Dr. Bright throughout the whole of that summer and autumn, first as to the advisability of a Declaration and then as to its terms. Pusey was clear on both points:--

 'We have to regain the confidence of plain English people,'  he writes, having in view, no  'doubt, his own experience in 1843, with regard to the condemned Sermon,  'and so, I think, we ought to support our proposition out of English authorities--the Prayer-book or (secondarily) the Homilies, and also from common sense. English people will under–stand that if a thing is good for the soul, it ought not to be put off to a possible sick-bed: if a grievous matter ought to be confessed then, it ought to be confessed before.'

Pusey spent more thought over this Declaration than over any other work of the kind in which he had been engaged: it was not until November that he, Dr. Bright, Canon Carter, and Liddon had completed their work. In writing to ask for Copeland' s signature to it he explains that it was purposely issued with only a few selected names.


Nov. 17, 1877.

 'I send you in great haste our Declaration and the names attached. They are names of some age and standing. We have excluded mostly those of the advanced school. Mackonochie is the only Ritualist. It is, in fact, a rallying of the old school for whom the young ones have been speaking and whom they profess to represent. They mostly maintain Confession to be necessary for the forgiveness of sin. This Declaration certainly has not been hastily got up. For as we are scattered, Carter, Liddon and I have had the forms before us corrected and recorrected for four months. It was planned originally to prevent all the ignorant statements about Confession being contrary to the Church of England, &c., and unadvised speeches of Bishops. It is now too late for this; but as a document it may, I hope, be of lasting use, and may prevent some perhaps lasting mischief.'

At last, on December 6, 1873, the Declaration appeared in the columns of the Times with a short note from Pusey, who only described it as dealing with a subject which had of late engaged a large share of the public attention.


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 pre–valent, 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 forgive–ness 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.'  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 dis–parage 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 forgive–ness on those who receive it with faith and repentance, as in Con–firmation 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 com–mitted 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 pre–supposed 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 excom–munication 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 1662, 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 indi–viduals, 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 con–sciences; whereas he hath no warrant of God' s Word to the same.'  And although this passage was omitted in the second prayer-books yet that its principle was not repudiated may be gathered from the  'Act for the Uniformity of Service'  (1552), which, while authorizing 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 Confes–sions 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, recognized 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 unbur–dening 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 authorize 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 Com–munion, 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 authorized language of the Church of England, we believe our–selves 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 St. John, Oxford.

BUTLER, WILLIAM J., Vicar of Wantage, and Rural Dean.

CARTER, T. T., Rector of Clewer.

CHAMBERS, J. C., Vicar of St. Mary' s, Soho.

CHURTON, EDW., Rector of Crayke, and Archdeacon of Cleveland.

DENISON, GEORGE A., Vicar of East Brent, and Archdeacon of Taunton.

GALTON, J. L., Rector of St. Sidwell' s, Exeter.

GILBERTSON, LEWIS, Rector of Braunston.

GREY, FRANCIS R., Rector of Morpeth.

GRUEBER, C. L., Vicar of St. James' s, Hambridge.

KEBLE, THOS., jun., Bisley.

KING, EDWARD, D.D., Canon of Christ Church, Oxford.

LIDDELL, ROBERT, Incumbent of St. Paul' s, Knightsbridge.

LIDDON, H. P., D.D., Canon of St. Paul' s, London.

MACCOLL, M., l~ector of St. Botolph, Billingsgate, London.

MACKONOCHIE, A. H., Perpetual Curate of St. 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 Newland, Great Malvern.

WHITE, G. C., Vicar of St. Barnabas, Pimlico.

WILLIAMS, G., Vicar of Ringwood.

WILSON, R. F., Vicar of Rownhams, Southampton.

The hasty and somewhat ill-advised petition of the 483 had been both misunderstood and overrated, and had been a cause of serious distress and perplexity in more quarters than one. But its publication and the storm which ensued cannot be regarded as all loss if it resulted in nothing else than eliciting so weighty a document as this, which sets forth in terms so Concise and clear a careful and complete statement of the position of the Church of England on the very important subject of Confession.


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