Sunday, 17 June 2018



When I was Curate at St Mary Abbots Church, Kensington, a parishioner confessed to me something obscene, repugnant. Confessions I had heard till then were mostly banal, run of the mill, but that took the biscuit. Criminality was involved, as well as other things. I reflected, however, that God already knew all about it, the confessor was only a channel. I questioned the person relentlessly, till I was satisfied of his contrition, then I gave absolution. There was a strict penance involved, of which I will be silent.

Should a priest warn a penitent about to confess his sins not to disclose anything criminal? The Anglican Canterbury diocese nervously advises so: ‘Priests, hedge your bets. You don’t want to risk being prosecuted for failing to tell the fuzz, do you?’ Back in parish ministry, it would never have occurred to me to be so pusillanimous. ‘Legal responsibilities’? But what are those when a priest is responsible primarily to the Lord of the Universe, the supreme, awesome Judge?

The seal of the Confessional is a sacrament. As such, it is sacred. St Thomas Aquinas taught that, through the confessing priest, God himself hears the confession and judges accordingly. Guess the secular authorities would not mind dragging the Almighty into the dock and trying him for ‘not disclosing matters he has a legal duty to tell the cops’. I wish they tried, the bastards! I’d love to behold divine thunderbolts pulverising the prosecuting counsel and other juridical stooges…

A correspondence in The Times predictably centres round the hysteria about child sexual abuse. Here is a more political scenario. A far right activist – I’ll call him Jamie - tells a priest – a Father Oliver - of a conspiracy to bump off a Prime Minister who seeks to stop Brexit and so frustrate the democratically expressed will of the people. Arguably, the PM is acting as an enemy of the common good, tyrant-like. Old Aquinas again maintains that opposing a tyrant is morally permitted – maybe even obligatory - hence Jamie, in being part of the conspiracy, is ethically justified. Of course, the PM is still a human being (well, sort of), so terminating her would be murder. A dilemma arises: what is Father Oliver to do? Absolve Jamie? Denounce him to the police or…what?

Now imagine that, thanks to its ubiquitous informers, MI5 gets wind of the plot. Jamie and his accomplices are apprehended. Under interrogation Jamie discloses he had told Fr. Oliver of the conspiracy and the priest too is arrested. In law, it seems, the priest would be found guilty and bundled off to jail but…which law? The law of the land – based on the people’s consent – which the PM was out to flout. Tricky business. Luckily for the confessor a popular uprising spearheaded by, say, Nigel Farage topples the PM and her government. Guess Father Oliver could look forward to a Queen’s Pardon, perhaps? Hope so.

Don’t be fooled: the secret services are really looking for Islamist plotters. Right-wing extremists are a bit of a distraction, thrown in just to look impartial. Muslim radicals are the targets. Islam has no confessional practice but I suppose confidentiality could be invoked by an Imam who refused to inform on Jihadi-minded members of his flock. Like the privilege between lawyer and his client. But even legal professionals have a duty to look out for ‘suspicious transactions’ that could be part of money-laundering schemes linked to terrorism. Huh! Good-bye confidentiality. Imams won’t be faring much better than priests.

A vexed question is whether a Seal of the Confessional principle exists shielding Anglican clergy, as it does for Roman Catholic priests. High Church Anglicans, Anglo-Catholics and their ilk believe so but it is wishful thinking. The Church of England, unlike the Church of Rome, is a state church (‘Erastian’ is the technical term), part of the constitutional framework, and it is subject to the authority of Parliament. Indeed, when it decided to break with hitherto unbroken Christian tradition and ordain priestesses, Parliament had to give its approval. Besides, the C of E is not a doctrinally cohesive or uniform body. Evangelicals, for example, don’t care a hoot for auricular confession, i.e. private confession into the ear of a priest. Evangelical clergy would thus consider the whole debate as frivolous and unnecessary, redolent of ‘Romanism’.

Another personal testimony. Years ago I was visited at home by Scotland Yard top-ranking officer. He wanted to question me about my relations with the late Princess Diana, whom I knew as a Kensington parishioner. It was in connection with the then imminent inquest on Diana’s death. I politely showed the top cop the door. I did not invoke any seal of the confessional – the Princess had not come to me as a penitent, only asking for advice – but straightforward confidentiality. As well as article 10 of the charter of fundamental rights of the European Union (soon to go down the drain). Revealing what I knew would have been…yes, rather unsettling in high places. The Assistant Commissioner issued mild warnings. The coroner was going to call me as witness at the inquest, he warned. I would then be obliged to answer questions. Well, in the end I was not called. As I would have declined to answer the coroner’s specific questioning, I would have ended up in the clink. Providential?

Someone writing to The Times claims that the church is still seeking to protect itself and its priests, to escape their legal obligations. The Church of England is certainly spineless and cowardly enough to do that. But occasionally, just occasionally, the church – the true Church, the universal body of Christ on earth – may be inspired to remember and take seriously St Peter’s words in the Acts of the Apostles: ‘We must obey God rather than men’.

Revd Frank Julian Gelli


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