Should Anglicans Practice Auricular Confession?

There have been some questions in my parish regarding auricular confession during Lent. “Is it a sacrament?” “Is it not a sacrament?” “What is a sacrament?” and “Are we Catholics?”

First, we must define what a sacrament is and isn’t. The word sacrament comes to us from the Greek word mysterion. From this word, we derive the English word mystery. So then a sacrament is a mystery. There are aspects of the sacraments that we do not quite understand, but that’s not quite all that this word means. The theological definition of mystery refers to something that had at one time been secret, but is now revealed.

We do have clear definitions of what a sacrament is and isn’t. In a sacrament, there is an outward sign (water, bread, or wine) of an inward spiritual grace (regeneration or the body and blood of Christ). The problem with defining confession as a sacrament is, as Article 25 of the 39 Articles points out, that it lacks the visible sign and ceremony that the sacrament of baptism and the Eucharist share. This does not mean, however, that confession as it has been historically practiced by the church is wrong or that it lacks grace.

There is a tendency among reformed Christians to overreact to things because they are perceived to be papist in nature when in fact they do have biblical and historical precedence. In James 5:16 Christians are instructed to confess their sins and to pray for one another. Moreover, in John 20 verse 23 Jesus gives power and authority to the apostles to retain and remit sins as He appears to them after the resurrection.

That passage in John has been a significant part of the ordination of priests from the very beginning. In the ordinal of 1662, which is a formulary of the Reformed church of England, the bishop says to the priest as he lays his hands upon his head, “Recieve the Holy Ghost, for the office, and work of a priest… whose sins thou dost forgive they are forgiven…” The reason for this is a clear reference to the authority given to the apostles in John 20. We Anglicans truly believe that apostolic authority is transferred via the laying on of hands and that a bishop or priest has the same authority to forgive sins that Jesus gives to the apostles in that passage.

So then we come to the question of confession. Is it a sacrament? Not in the same way that baptism and the Eucharist are. It does lack the visible sign and ceremony that the aforementioned Sacraments have. But I am not willing to say that there is no grace present in confession given that Jesus explicitly gives authority and power to his ministers to forgive sins. So then we might say that it is sacramental or that it is a lesser sacrament, but not a sacrament in the same way that Baptism and the Eucharist are.

Confession as practiced within the modern Anglican Church as a rite in and of itself is wholly biblical and consistent with the views of the English reformers per their own reformational documents. It is not immediately clear as to why this is controversial within Anglicanism or why it is associated with papism given that it has been a practice of the church since ancient times and has biblical warrant. Yet the image of a man going into the confessional with his priest does seem to conjure the fears of many.

Frankly, we need to get past those fears. They hinder us from grace in some pretty significant ways. No Anglican Priest worth his salt is leading anyone into the errors of Rome. There are reasons why they do the things they do. Sitting down with your priest and sharing your burdens as though you’re sharing them with Christ Himself is a gift that Christ Himself has given to the church. It’s a gift that He has given to you and to fear that gift because it might lead to some obscure idea of papism is a deeply grievous error that we need to repent of so that we might be able to receive all of the blessings that Christ gives to His people.

You can call confession a sacrament if you choose. Or if you prefer not to that is fine as well. But neglecting it just because it’s misunderstood does all of us a grave spiritual disservice. We must joyfully use all of the things that Christ has given unto us, and if John 20:23 is to be believed then confession is one the greatest gifts we have at our ecclesiastical disposal for fighting sin and temptation. Let’s avail ourselves of it.


Fr Ricky McCarl

Father Ricky has served as Vicar of Good Shepherd since January of 2020. He was ordained to the Diaconate on June 3rd, 2016 and the Priesthood on May 27th, 2018. He holds a Bachelor of Science in Bible from Lancaster Bible College and a Master of Divinity from Biblical Theological Seminary, with additional studies at the Reformed Episcopal Seminary. In addition to his duties at Good Shepherd, Father Ricky also serves as a Hospice Chaplain and works part-time as a mortuary assistant at a funeral home in York. He and his wife, Lynette, reside in Hanover, PA.

'Should Anglicans Practice Auricular Confession?' have 8 comments

  1. March 4, 2024 @ 6:22 pm George

    I would argue the claims about auricular or private confession is overstated. While there are some Anglican clergy who hear private confessions, it was foreign to the English reformers and only resurfaced in the Nineteenth Century with the Oxford movement.

    Those who are interested can read Church of England denouncements of auricular confession in the Church Association’s Tract 27. The Homilies denounce it. Not one of our the Anglican reformers supported it. All of them said it was un-biblical. John Jewell wrote: “Christ’s disciples did receive this authority, not that they should hear private confessions of the people, and listen to their whisperings, as the common massing priests do everywhere now-a-days, and do it so as though in that one point lay all the virtue and use of the keys, but to the end they should go, they should teach, they should publish abroad the Gospel, and be unto the believing the sweet savour of life unto life, and unto the unbelieving and unfaithful a savour of death unto death.”— Apology, vol. iii. pp. 60, 61. Parker Soc. Edition

    In 1549, private confession was made optional in the Church of England. By 1552, the Second Edwardian Prayer Book deleted the practice of auricular confession as well as a rubric in the service for the Visitation of the Sick which authorized a priest to use this form of absolution in all cases of private confession. Furthermore, the Convocation of 1562 the move away from auricular confession. The 39 Articles of Religion declined to number the penitential rite among the sacraments, while the Homilies went so far as to condemn sacramental confession as having “no warrant of God” and had been imposed upon Christians “in the time of blindness and ignorance.”

    This trajectory was continued in the 1662 BCP which offered a doctrine of the ministry incompatible with an ontology of the priesthood that could permit a priest to offer absolution (one of the arguments used against the validity of Anglican orders by Roman Catholics). The BCP also offered no rite for private auricular confession. It was only in the 19th century that private confession became a topic for discussion again.


    • March 4, 2024 @ 9:10 pm Fr. Ricky McCarl

      The ordinal of 1662 is the rite which I mentioned in the article itself. The bishop explicitly gives authority to remit and retain sins. The Roman Catholic argument is completely null and void.


    • March 11, 2024 @ 6:20 am AJ

      The Laudians and their predecessors openly pushed and supported auricular confession in their own dioceses. For example this is clear if you read Bishops John Overall’s, Richard Neile’s and Richard Montagu’s Articles of Visitation for parishes in their dioceses. Also the 1662 BCP affirms private confession and absolution to be used when one’s conscience is troubled (seen in the exhortations before receiving Communion) and also in the rite of visitation of the sick. This was being practised in the Elizabethan/Jacobean church, for example, when Richard Hooker privately received absolution on his deathbed from Hadrian Saravia. Priests having power and ontological authority upon ordination to forgive sins and perform absolution wasn’t ever properly denied by the CoE, and in fact, was affirmed by Richard Hooker, Thomas Bilson, Lancelot Andrewes, John Overall, John Cosin, William Laud, John Davenant, Anthony Sparrow, the Nonjurors etc. and also the BCP’s ordination rites.


  2. March 4, 2024 @ 9:56 pm Lawrence Jones

    Even though it was not practiced by the Reformers, they were also dealing with a context of requirement a la Rome. “Thou shalt not partake until you have confessed to me” sort of thing . That is quite the different animal from say, a parishionere struggling with sin who nees to come and confess in order to be reassured about forgiveness that having confessed to God he has already received. I cannot see the reformers condemning that. It is a legimate pastoral means of comfort and grace.

    That said, I know of at least one Anglican church that was, whether they do today I do not know, using the Roman Vatican II confessional verbatim as their service when a parishioner comes to confess. When they sent it to the parish I was serving in at the time as an example of what to use in our church I was shocked. That kind of mischief just needs to stop.


    • March 6, 2024 @ 11:43 pm Jackson Matthew Waters

      Encouraging confession can be a helpful practice and Fr. McCarl’s exhortation is helpful in his main thrust. If Spirit-wrought holiness was a regular subject in pulpits, I think participation in confession would increase. It would also be easy to do if pastors visited homes regularly for teaching, admonishment, blessings, etc. Tack it onto the regular circuit of visitation (done every few weeks by antebellum 19th century American priests, more frequently by some of their English colleagues). The “tea with the vicar” is a weak remnant of that older practice of regular communication with families in their home.

      That said, three things are worth demurring from. The first, concerning support for auricular confession from the formularies, has been dealt with elsewhere-it is tenuously supported by inference, condemned elsewhere (that doesn’t make the practice bad now). The second, that auricular confession has ancient origins, is unlikely. Chrysostom in his 12 sermons on the Incomprehensibility of God makes clear that the priest can only forgive sins twice: 1) at baptism and 2) at death. He certainly had no concept of sins forgiven by man throughout his spiritual walk. The 1662 Commination suggests that the alternative to confession, public penance, is the apostolic practice that ought to be restored. Whether we agree or conform is no matter, but the Anglican tradition does encourage apostolic piety, but it’s not auricular confession. The third is that “no priest worth his salt” is leading people to Rome. That’s simply not true. I could name five priests I know who have led people to Romanism (sometimes following) through their preaching, apology for Anglicanism, and selective and anachronistic embrace of medievalisms (like auricular confession having apostolic origins), which have deceived congregants into a false apostolic piety.


  3. March 5, 2024 @ 3:33 pm Fr. Seth Williamson

    The word Sacrament comes from the Latin root “sacramentum” referring to a solemn vow or an oath. They are covenant signs. Correlating it with the Greek word for mystery does not make the word clearer but actually confounds its meaning. Sacraments assure us we have the thing signified because they are a sign to us of God’s solemn vow.


  4. March 5, 2024 @ 4:23 pm Drew Samuelsen

    That was a very helpful article and very much appreciated. Thank you, Father Ricky!


  5. March 6, 2024 @ 1:12 pm GR

    I have always contended that the evidence for the efficacy of auricular confession, outside of the Mass, is demonstrated by the popularity of Ash Wednesday, which is oftentimes the busiest and best attended service in any given parish. The modern Church yearns for an outlet to mourn their sins. And that is the key distinction to my mind between the confession on Sunday and the Ash Wednesday service and the 1-1 confession: the mourning of our sin, the opportunity to grieve our faults, to really FEEL the conviction of sin. How often does this happen in the course of a modern Mass?

    What a blessing it is to go through grief with a sympathetic other! What a boon to pastoral care when the wounded sheep come to the shepherd for healing! The argument against the offering of this sacrament, (I hold it to be one as the desire to receive it and the acting upon that conviction demonstrates the willingness to receive by faith the grace conveyed via the vehicle of the priest vocalizing and pronouncing the pardon of sins.) does in fact boil down to “we do not want to appear to be Roman Catholics” or “the people may take to Papacy, Paganism, and Superstition” as if this is still the Late Middle Ages. Give the average parishioner a little more credit.

    We Anglicans who find this a good, wholesome, and useful rite and/or sacrament do not seek to impose or mandate its use upon the whole of the Province or Communion (as the Roman Church does), we simply would like to be allowed to practice it in peace. The general feeling towards auricular confession is “all may, some should, none must”. Our more Reformed and Puritan minded brethren would be right to cry out at the abuse of Church polity in the vexing of their consciences by heavy handed authoritarianism were that the case. Yet, when we ask for the same Christian charity in being allowed to live out our conscience, we would be denied on the very thin argument of “that appears to be Popery so it is bad” .

    Can we not live together in Christian charity in the spirit of Romans 14 “let he who partakes not despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains judge the one who partakes”?


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