Rediscovering the Anglican treasure of auricular confession with the Oxford Movement
When one hears the phrase “the Tracts,” the mind moves right away to the famous Tracts of the Times written by the men of the Oxford Movement, but Anglican evangelicals penned their own series of tracts. In these evangelical tracts, one of the most common complaints they raise against the Church of their day regards confession. Rev. Joseph Bardsley concludes, “Auricular Confession…has no real foundation, either in the Word of God or in the formularies of the Church of England…it is injurious to the best interests of individual souls…”1 The blame for this reemergence of confession in England was placed on the “ritualists” by Bishop J.C. Ryle in his tract.2 There is a sense of tragedy in reading these tracts because it feels as both sides of the debate have a pastoral concern for salvation and holiness. Though to an outsider the Anglo-Catholic campaign for confession might look like a simple aping of Rome at the expense of Anglican tradition, the Anglo-Catholics’ focus on direction, volition, and guidance in confession shows continuity more with the Book of Common Prayer than the Roman practice of confession.
“Confession” has many meanings, but this paper will solely consider what is called “auricular confession,” meaning private confession to the “ear” of a priest. The Roman Catholic Church holds that confession in its auricular form is one of seven sacraments. This form of Roman confession, where a penitent classically enters a private booth or room to confess to a priest hidden behind by a screen or curtain, dates to the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215. The council called for the faithful to confess at least once per year during Easter, to coincide with their reception of the eucharist at least once per year. The importance of this council for confession is not disputed, but the history of confession before this council is messy. For Roman Catholics, the council only codified the details of the sacramental system that was already in place. Romans would admit that the confession of 1215 certainly had evolved from the confessions of the primitive Church, but that the overall formula remained roughly the same.
For the Anglican Reformers, the sacramental confession that emerged from that council represented a non-Biblical accretion. In the plain words of the Book of Homilies, “It is most evident and plain, that this auricular confession hath not his warrant of GOD’S word.”3 The spirit is captured well in Article XXV of the 39 Articles, which states that there are only two sacraments found in the Gospels, baptism and eucharist.4 The Reformers maintained the importance of non-sacramental confession. While some favored the primitive Church practice of public confession, others, like John Jewel, were even supportive of private confession so long as it did not involve a sacramental priesthood. Jewel wrote, “The other sort of confession, made unto men, I do not condemn…Every Christian may do this help unto another…This is a private exhortation…The use and practice hereof is not only to be allowed, but most needful…if so the superstition, and necessity…be taken away.”5 For these early Anglicans, everything needed for salvation was written in Holy Scripture. They found no record of sacramental confession there, let alone in an auricular form, so they condemned it. It did not really matter if auricular confession started in 1215 or 450 because no matter when it began, it was without scriptural support. They valued Christian fellowship and interpersonal confession, but saw no need to involve a priest.
Later, the great Anglican theologian Richard Hooker investigated confession. Hooker writes, “Doth St. John say, if we confess to the priest, God is righteous to forgive; and if not, that our sins are unpardonable?…I dare boldly affirm, that for many hundred years after Christ the Fathers held no such opinion…public confession they thought necessary by way of discipline, not private confession, as in the nature of a sacrament, necessary.”6 Like others, Hooker traced the origins of auricular confession not to the Bible but to the contentious days of the Novatian heresy, when a group of Christians betrayed the faith. Once the persecution passed, some of them admitted their errors and sought to return to the Church, but the Novatians taught it was an impossibility due to the gravity of their sin. The Church ruled the Novatians heretics and restored the fallen Christians to communion. Church leaders allowed for a “penitentiary priest” to serve in church and hear secret confessions from these prodigal Christians rather than expose them to the hatred of the community.7 This office of the penitentiary priest was eventually outlawed under St. Nectarius of Constantinople.8 Even though penitentiary priests are not called for in Scripture, Hooker seems to understand the expediency of this role for at least the immediate post-Novatian period, not with a priest serving as the sacramental absolver but still as a private confessor. Even if Hooker was more understanding of the circumstances that may have led Rome to think auricular confession was a legitimate evolution of ancient practice, he was no more an advocate for the validity of this sacrament than the early Anglican Reformers.
II. Confession in pastoral practice
It is remarkable that, with the weight of so much Anglican history so firmly against auricular confession, it enjoys any acceptance at all. Yet the U.S. Episcopal prayer book of 1979 includes confession,9 and the ACNA catechism talks of forgiveness or absolution declared to the penitent by the priest on behalf of God.10 In between stand the Oxford Movement and the Anglo-Catholic generations that have followed them; without their influence, the recovery of confession is almost inconceivable. The best way to understand how this “miracle” transpired is to understand what motivated the Oxfords. Owen Chadwick writes that the Oxford Movement:
was primarily concerned with the law of prayer, and only secondarily with the law of belief…But the movement, though dogmatic, was not dogmatic simply because it possessed or shared a particular theory of dogma. It always saw dogma in relation to the worship, to the numinous, to the movement of the heart, to the conscience and the moral need, to the immediate experience of the hidden hand of God.11
The themes established here say much about their approach to confession. Chiefly, they sought to return to auricular confession because they believed it would lead to sanctification and moral elevation, which were among the chief aims of Anglicanism at its best since its first days.
In any consideration of Anglicanism, while the Bible is the most important reference document, the Book of Common Prayer is the most distinctively Anglican one. The prayer book has always aspired to hold the essentials of Anglican theology and practice within it. In looking through the first several versions of the prayer book, there is no section on confession. Not only is there not a major section devoted to confession like the two “sacraments of the Gospel” (eucharist and baptism), but also there is not even a smaller section like those for the rites or “sacraments of the Church” (such as matrimony and unction.)12 Where the Oxford Movement usually located confession was within the order for unction.13 The three main texts of 1549, 1559, and 1662 all call for the minister visiting the sick person to witness a “special confession,” complete with an absolution. This “special confession” of the deathbed at least resembles auricular confession. In all cases, an ordained cleric takes the private confession of a penitent and pronounces an absolution.14 If this deathbed rite offers a form of auricular confession, then it is only a short leap from this point to Edward Pusey’s inevitable question, “And can it be thought that the Church denies that in health, which she also recommends in sickness?”15 What was evident to Pusey and his collaborators was less clear to their opponents, who took issue most of all with the absolution. Opponents felt that the Anglo-Catholics wanted to ascribe a “judicial” character to the absolution that was opposed to the spirit of the Book of Homilies, where true sins are confessed to and absolved by Christ alone.16
The principles of confession do not show up in the rite of unction alone; the principles may be better articulated in the eucharist. Across the several versions, there is a pre-communion plea that anyone unable to settle their own conscience is invited to approach the priest or another minister for counsel, comfort, and absolution. In the 1549 version, the ministers are “of the church,” while in the 1559 and 1662 versions, they are ministers “of God’s Word,” but most of the rest of the formula is the same.17 Pusey refers directly to this formula when he writes, “It is well known that one who has once tasted ‘the benefits of absolution’…and found good…in the special counsels of God’s ministers, longs…to ‘open his griefs’…that he finds it a healthful discipline for his soul…that God gives him thereby lightness…to ‘go on his way’…’rejoicing.’”18 Every phrase Pusey quotes there is from the prayer book. The 1549 book alone makes explicit reference to auricular confession and urges Christians who prefer auricular to respect those who prefer general confession and vice versa. Here again, Pusey writes in the exact same spirit, quoting Hooker, “One thing only (the Church) excludes, when she excludes anything, compulsory confession; ‘that any man should be bound to the numbering of his sins;’ ‘as if,’ adds Hooker, ‘remission of sins otherwise were impossible.’”19 Pusey is self-consciously trying to place himself within the historical practices of the Church and show how good Anglicans can utilize auricular confession as a “sacrament of the Church.”
III. Canterbury and Rome
This last statement is key because much of the Roman argument for auricular and sacramental confession is rooted in two promises Christ makes in the Gospels.20 The Roman Church takes these verses as their support for auricular confession, so for Rome, there is no distinction between a sacrament of the Gospel and a sacrament of the Church needed. All sacraments are of the Gospel and all sacraments are of the Church. The Anglicans of the Reformation and the Anglicans of the Oxford Movement did not interpret these verses the same way as Rome. The spirit of the verses is retained in the Ordinal, which reads, “Whose sins thou dost forgive, they are forgiven; and whose sins thou dost retain, they are retained,”21 but the Anglican mainstream has not derived from Christ’s words the existence of a third sacrament of the Gospel. It has interpreted Christ’s words as ordaining a special role for priests, but it has not argued for the necessity of priestly absolution in auricular confession. To the mainstream who say auricular confession is not a sacrament of the Gospel, the Oxford Movement stands with them.
The question then turns towards the ends. For a Roman Catholic, the ends are clear. Auricular confession is the form of the sacrament of reconciliation by which the priest acts in persona Christi and absolves the penitent sinner of his or her sins, thus allowing a post-baptismal return to the state of grace, which in turn creates the proper disposition to receive the eucharist. Since at least the Fourth Lateran Council, Roman Catholics were bound to engage in this sacrament at least once a year.22 Rome’s confession and Oxford’s confession may share prayers, rituals, and forms, but they do not share ordinances. Oxford’s confession is Hooker’s confession, which admits that sins can be forgiven and repentance pursued directly through Christ, with no need for a priest. Oxford’s confession is also Hooker’s confession in that it is not obligatory–not once a year, not ever.23 Oxford’s confession is the prayer book’s in that it offers counsel and comfort, not a simple act of listening followed by a legalistic penance. Oxford’s confession is a sacrament of the Church, not a sacrament of the Gospel. It is not just Pusey speaking for the Anglo-Catholics on this point, but Newman, too–and not just early Anglican Newman but late Anglican Newman as well. Even in his infamous Tract 90, in his section on sacraments, Newman quotes from his earlier work, delivered while he was still perceived as a faithful son of the English Church: “The Roman Catholic considers that there are seven; we do not strictly determine the number…what we do determine is, that Christ has ordained two Special Sacraments, as generally necessary to salvation…the two Sacraments “of the gospel,” as they may be emphatically styled, are…Baptism…and…the Eucharist.”24
The distinction between a sacrament of the Gospel and a sacrament of the Church lies not just in their definition but their practice. The Church of England has always attested to the existence of two sacraments in the Gospel, baptism and eucharist. Baptism is a one-time event. Communion has no limit; an Anglican can go to communion every day if he or she is properly disposed and can find a parish offering it. That possibility of frequent reception might not sound radical today, but today’s practice does not reflect where Roman doctrine stood in the 16th century. At that time, most Roman Catholics communed only once per year. The Roman liturgy was still focused on the eucharist, but the typical mass’s communion was only partaken by the priests working upon the altar while the people sat in the church, hoping for the grace of seeing the host elevated. If a layperson had confessed and was in a state of grace, he or she could receive communion. The Anglican reformers believed the Romans were not following the warrant of Scripture and moved quickly to make their communion a meal of sacramental grace that did not scare communicants away from the table but instead commanded them to approach. “Draw near with faith, and take this holy Sacrament to your comfort,” the prayer book says.25 The eucharist was meant to be eaten, not just adored from afar. Connecting Cranmer and the early divines with Hooker, William Crockett writes, “Like Cranmer, Hooker’s doctrine can be described as a doctrine of the real partaking of the body and blood of Christ in the Eucharist, rather than a doctrine of the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. This doctrine…is often referred to as ‘receptionism.’”26 This receptionist approach towards the eucharist says much about how Anglicans approach sacraments of the Gospel. They are not just rituals to be rarely enjoyed but encounters with grace to be celebrated as often as possible–even if that is only once for baptism.
The Anglo-Catholics did not approach confession in this same way because they did not defy the wisdom of the Church that had come before them in elevating auricular confession to a salvific sacramental standing it did not hold in Scripture. Since that standing was not there, they did not demand that Christians draw near to the confessional as they did to the eucharistic table. If leaders like Pusey were not suddenly saying that confession was essential to salvation but rather that it was optional, it at first seems strange that they would expend so much capital in fighting ugly battles with their fellow Anglicans over it. Interestingly, though their fiercest opponents within the Church over confession were the evangelicals, it feels as if the evangelicals were also one of the reasons why the Anglo-Catholics ever chose to fight this battle. The Anglo-Catholics might caricature evangelicals as pushing for weepy, “once saved, always saved” altar calls and the evangelicals might in turn caricature Anglo-Catholics as crypto-Romans seeking salvation by esoteric penances, but the reality is that both parties taught their adherents the importance of sanctification and holiness. Newman once wrote, “That, even supposing a man of unholy life were suffered to enter heaven, he would not be happy there; so that it would be no mercy to permit him to enter.”27 This reason is essential to understanding why the Anglo-Catholics fought for confession: they believed the counsel and absolution encountered in auricular confession would help men grow in holiness which would allow them to eventually enjoy a life of eternal joy in heaven.
IV. Balm in Gilead
If the evangelicals and the Anglo-Catholics both believed in sanctification and yet still disagreed over confession, much of that disagreement seems wound up in a difference in outlook. For evangelicals preaching the importance of the born-again moment of conversion, that moment inaugurates a new life of the Holy Spirit abiding with the repentant sinner. The believing evangelical should then live that new life with a rigorous spirit of holiness, and there is an optimism about what life after conversion looks like.28 The Anglo-Catholic, in turn, might look at conversion as only the beginning of the journey. They might acknowledge that some believers could give up serious sin once and for all and lead ever more holy lives, but they might judge that course too difficult for most people. They might be likely to think that a Christian just confessing to him or herself without any outside spiritual counsel would be prone to self-deception around the seriousness of repentance. Pusey writes that such people are false versions of the Biblical prodigal: “Those who would daily take to themselves the parable of the returning prodigal, because they are daily sorry for their sins, and as often return to them again, will find nothing…in this parable. To be like them…the prodigal son must be every day acting over again his return, which would be but a mockery of repentance…”29 To help with amendment of life, Pusey prescribes confession, writing:
Yet herein, if any where, is the advice of a physician of the soul needed, lest, in the first fervour and bitterness of repentance, penitents use unwise means of that “chastening of the body,” which S. Paul commended and practised; or with weaker frames they be unable to bear the austerities of the early Church; or with weaker wills they grow weary of severities which they have not yet obtained grace to bear, and give up altogether repentance and hopes of life.30
The “physician of the soul” is helpful in establishing a course for the sin-sick penitent that is both rigorous enough to encourage sincere repentance and merciful enough to guard against excess. Herbert Kelly writes plainly that “one of the weaknesses of our modern religious fashions [is] that we frame our ideals according to the possibilities of devout people, and that we think hardly at all about quite ordinary people. In very wide circles, the practical loss of the habit of confessing to a priest…has led to an almost complete loss of any sense of sin.”31 The Anglo-Catholics campaigned so vigorously for auricular confession because they knew human nature and the power of sin. They exhorted Anglicans to confess not because of some of the more lurid fantasies of their wildest opponents32 but because they believed all people to be children of God, called to a journey of sanctification.
It is important to state that this essay focuses only on the main thrust of the Oxford Movement and the Anglo-Catholics towards a rediscovery of confession. At the edges of the Anglo-Catholic world, there are people who have gone a bit far. In the rule of the Order of St. Anne, the sisters are called to a practice of “Sacramental confession: at least once a month.”33 This rule is for women in religious life and may be a bit strict, but even for a lay audience, a characteristic example is found in Rev. Orby Shipley. Shipley writes, “And, as the Church has ordered that none of her children…should present themselves at God’s Altar fewer times than thrice in the year, it would seem to be in harmony with her mind…to suggest…Confession should be employed…before the Celebration of the Holy Eucharist, at the three great Festivals, Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost.”34 Shipley seems to have more zeal for confession than the Council of Trent. Just as the low church should not be judged by extreme low church Anglicans who hold to more memorialist views of the eucharist, it is wrong to judge the Oxford Movement and their heirs by the rigorist zealotry of more Rome-adjacent Anglo-Catholics’ statements on confession.
The Oxford Movement and their Anglo-Catholic heirs did not come up with a new theology of confession but instead found additional richness within the Anglican tradition. In the understanding of confession they have largely bequeathed to subsequent Anglican generations, one sees their characteristic appreciation for mystery and reserve. The aphorism often applied to Anglican confession is “All may, none must, some should.” They did not have a need to change the Articles to add another sacrament and mandate its practice. For them, auricular confession was an opportunity that had always been available (and commendable) to Anglicans since the first prayer book–never mandatory, but always revelatory. For pilgrims learning how to speak the language of heaven, the Oxford Movement helped remind Anglicans that the counsel found in confession might be like their first grammar.
1. Rev. Joseph Bardsley, “Confession and Forgiveness of Sins,” Church Association Tract 28, 5-6, accessed September 3, 2020, https://churchsociety.org/docs/church_association_tracts/c_a_tract_028.pdf
2. Bishop J.C. Ryle, “The Teaching of the Ritualists not the Teaching of the Church of England,” Church Association Tract 4, accessed September 3, 2020, https://churchsociety.org/docs/church_association_tracts/c_a_tract_004.pdf
3. “Homily XX,” in The Second Book of Homilies, accessed on August 30, 2020, http://www.anglicanlibrary.org/homilies/
4. Brian Cummings, ed., The Book of Common Prayer (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 680.
5. John Jewel, “A Treatise of the Sacraments,” in Love’s Redeeming Work, eds. Geoffrey Rowell, Kenneth Stevenson, and Rowan Williams (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 73.
6. Richard Hooker, Law of Ecclesiastical Polity, Book VI in The Works of that Learned and Judicious Divine, Mr. Richard Hooker, ed. John Keble, (New York: Appleton, 1844), 77, Princeton Theological Seminary Theological Commons.
7. John Chapman, “Novatian and Novatianism,” in The Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. 11 (New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1911), accessed September 7, 2020, http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/11138a.htm
8. Adrian Fortescue, “Nectarius,” in The Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. 10 (New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1911), accessed September 7, 2020, http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/10737a.htm
9. The Episcopal Church, The Book of Common Prayer, (New York: The Church Hymnal Corporation, 1979), 447-452, accessed September 4, 2020, http://justus.anglican.org/resources/bcp/formatted_1979.htm
10. Anglican Church in North America, To Be a Christian, (Newport Beach: Anglican House Publishers, 2013), 63-64.
11. Owen Chadwick, The Spirit of the Oxford Movement, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), 1-2.
12. Cummings, The Book of Common Prayer.
13. Geoffrey Rowell, The Vision Glorious, (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1983), 90.
14. Cummings, The Book of Common Prayer, 75, 167, 445.
15. Edward Pusey, Entire Absolution of the Penitent, Sermon II, (Oxford: John Henry Parker, 1846), accessed August 30, 2020, http://anglicanhistory.org/pusey/pusey6.html.
16. Ryle, “The Teaching of the Ritualists not the Teaching of the Church of England,” 5.
17. Cummings, The Book of Common Prayer, 19-40, 124-140, 389-407.
18. Pusey, Entire Absolution of a Penitent.
19. Pusey, Entire Absolution of a Penitent.
20. “And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matt 16:19 KJV) and “Whose soever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them; and whose soever sins ye retain, they are retained” (John 20:23 KJV).
21. Cummings, The Book of Common Prayer, 642.
22. Hooker, Law of Ecclesiastical Polity, Book VI, 73.
23. John Henry Newman, “On the Controversy with the Romanists (Tract 71)” in Tracts for the Times (New York: Charles Henry, 1840), accessed August 30, 2020, http://anglicanhistory.org/tracts/tract71.html. One of the chief “practical grievances” found in the Roman Church is “3. The necessity of confession.”
24. John Henry Newman, “Remarks on Certain Passages in the Thirty-Nine Articles (Tract 90)” in Tracts for the Times, accessed August 29, 2020, http://anglicanhistory.org/tracts/tract90/ and “The Gift of Righteousness (Lecture 6)” in Lectures on the Doctrine of Justification, (London: Longmans, 1908), accessed August 29, 2020, http://www.newmanreader.org/works/justification/lecture6.html.
25. Cummings, The Book of Common Prayer, 399.
26. William Crockett, “Holy Communion,” in The Study of Anglicanism, ed. Stephen Sykes, John Booty, and Jonathan Knight (London: SPCK, 1998), 309.
27. John Henry Newman, “Holiness Necessary for Future Blessedness” in Love’s Redeeming Work, 406.
28. “I have seen…many persons changed in a moment from the spirit of fear, horror, despair, to the spirit of love, joy, and peace; and from sinful desire, till then reigning over them, to a pure desire of doing the will of God.” John Wesley, “Sunday, 20,” in The Journal of John Wesley, ed. Percy Livingstone Parker (Chicago: Moody Press, 1951), accessed September 8, 2020, https://ccel.org/ccel/wesley/journal/journal.vi.iii.iii.html
29. Edward Pusey,”Sermon VIII” in A Course of Sermons on Solemn Subjects, (Oxford: John Henry Parker, 1845), accessed September 1, 2020, http://anglicanhistory.org/pusey/leeds/sermon8.html
30. Pusey, Entire Absolution of the Penitent.
31. Herbert Kelly, “Confession,” in Love’s Redeeming Work, 540.
32. Rowell, The Vision Glorious, 135-137. Allegations of sexual abuse and family strife were common.
33. “Article XXIV” in The Statute and Rules of the Order of St. Anne, (No place: No publisher, 1946), accessed September 2, 2020, http://anglicanhistory.org/religious/osa_statutes_rule1946.html
34. Orby Shipley, “Sermon VI: Palm Sunday” in Six Short Sermons on Sin, (London, Oxford and Cambridge: Rivingtons, 1868), accessed September 3, 2020, http://anglicanhistory.org/england/oshipley/sin1867/06.html