The Church of England has published its response to the Government’s consultation on mandatory reporting. On the issue of the seal of confession, it says this:
“Like many other historic churches, the Church of England includes in its practices the ministry of Confession and Reconciliation. In this ministry, someone can come to a priest and disclose anything they feel they may have done wrong. It is the practice of the Church of England, the Roman Catholic Church and Orthodox Churches to guarantee absolute confidentiality of what has been disclosed. This is often known as ‘the Seal of the Confessional’. The Seal is referred to in Canon Law, although the interpretation of the relevant legal provisions is contested.
This is a very restricted and circumscribed practice, also called ‘sacramental confession’. Absolute confidentiality does not apply in Canon Law to any other setting where confessions may be made as part of pastoral ministry, but only in the sacramental ministry of confession. This practice is not very widely spread in the Church of England, however, for those who practice it, it is held very strongly. It offers a safe space for someone to begin to acknowledge what they may have done, and start the journey towards change, including, if appropriate, be guided towards handing themselves in to the police. For those who do practise this ministry in the Church of England, it is a very important aspect of their ministry as priests. They share this view with the priests of the Roman Catholic Church, where this ministry is much more common, if not universal. Clergy in the Church of England who practise this ministry would often follow Roman Catholic teaching on this practice, as well as Church of England Canon law.
It is the view of those who practise this ministry that any breach of the Seal of the Confessional would irretrievably damage the practice, and introduce a ‘chill factor’ that would prevent those who have not committed reportable offences but simply want a safe space to process their own lives from accessing the support and help they may need. This view is not uncontroversial within the Church of England. Others would argue that the protection of children and vulnerable persons is always paramount and that absolute confidentiality should never be offered. Because the Church of England recognises historic abuses of the Seal of the Confessional and is aware of the need to balance out appropriate protection for all and freedom of religion, it has set up a working group on the Seal of the Confessional to enable an integrated conversation and decision-making process on how the practice of sacramental confession and absolution should proceed. The working group will report to the House of Bishops in October 2023 and the House of Bishops will consider whether, and how, the ministry of reconciliation should be framed with regards to reporting.
We would urge the government to consider carefully questions of religious freedom and to take heed to different churches’ response on this matter.”