Australia lifts the seal of the confession


Australia lifts the seal of the confession


George Conger

The General Synod of the Anglican Church of Australia has voted to amend the church’s 1989 canon on confession, no longer requiring its clergy to maintain the seal of the confession.

On 2 July 2014 synod amended the existing rule that states the confession of a crime is to be kept confidential unless the person making the confession consents to a priest disclosing it. The new policy allows priests to report serious crimes if the person making the confession has not reported the offence to police and director of professional standards. A minister is only obliged to keep such an offence secret if he or she is reasonably satisfied that the penitent has already reported the offence to police.

The proposer of the motion, barrister Garth Blake, told synod the church should not act as a cloak for criminals.  “It seemed to me that protecting children and the vulnerable takes precedence over the confidentiality of confessions.”

Adelaide Archbishop Jeffrey Driver told The Advertiser he would encourage his dioceses to adopt the new policy. “I understand the importance of the confessional, but on balance I believe this is a healthy step,” he said.

Melbourne Archbishop Philip Freier offered background on the history of the seal of confession, including the harsh penalties for clergy who broke the seal and the understanding of the Reformers that the seal of confession was not absolute.

Auricular or private confession was harshly criticized by the Reformers as an abuse and was absent from the Church of England until the rise of the Oxford Movement in the Nineteenth Century. While some Anglo-Catholics have adopted a view on confession akin to the Roman Catholic Church’s understanding, private confession is infrequently observed in most Episcopal Churches. The theology behind private confession, that the priest is acting in persona Christi from which arises the notion of the “seal of confession” was rejected by the Reformers and is not part of the Evangelical tradition.

The rubrics of the Episcopal Church’s 1979 Prayer Book reflect these recent party tensions by stating the seal of confession must not be violated, except when circumstances require it to be violated.

The bill received the backing of the full synod, but will only come into practice if ratified by the individual dioceses.