On 3 July 2023, the Ecclesiastical Law Society published the Report of its Working Party on the Seal of Confession which was established following the House of Bishops’ invitation for contributions towards the work of its own Working Party. An extract from the Report’s Section 10, Next Steps and Key Recommendations, is reproduced below; the full text of the Working Party’s Report is here.
Next Steps and Key Recommendations.
The House of Bishops needs to determine how the Code required by the Safeguarding and Discipline Measure of 2016 will relate to the seal of confession (as also revision of Guidelines for the Professional Conduct of the Clergy). More urgently the House will need to respond to the Government consultation on mandatory reporting (by 14 August). We are clear the House will need to reach a position on the current state of the seal of confession involving consideration of the 1603/4 Proviso, the 1959 Act of Convocation affirming the Seal and the question of whether not to revisit this.
The scope of the Seal also requires clear delineation: is it as limited to the traditional ministry of reconciliation (as in Common Worship and the Book of Common Prayer) or to a wider category of confidential conversation. Some of us would urge the Church not to make a voluntary exception to the seal of confession, adhering to the 1959 Act of Convocation and the doctrinal principle the Church of England shares with other churches in which the ministry of reconciliation is practised. Those who take this view accept that if the Government impose a statutory duty of reporting this will legally over-ride the 1603/4 Proviso, as in fact the Terrorism Act 2000 already does.
Others of us believe that the new Code of Practice needs to embody a carefully defined exception to the Seal, either permissive or mandatory, without clergy committing canonical disobedience or risking disciplinary action. Either in the case of the maintenance of absolute confidentiality or exceptional disclosure the difficulties of conflict of conscience are noted once again.
We are clear and unanimous that creating a canonical exception to the Seal either by qualifying the Proviso or replacing it with a new Canon would be divisive and time consuming. We recommend the retention of the Proviso, as in 1969, as a general commitment to the doctrine of the Seal, despite it being at least potentially in conflict with the modern law of evidence, noting that statute law (and any Code given statutory force) generally prevails over a canon.
The Rt Rev Christopher Hill was the Chair of the ELS Working Party. The views expressed are those of the Working Party, and not necessarily those of the Society’s Trustees or members, individually or collectively.