Confession and Mercy in an Age of Justice

By |2018-08-13T15:45:31+00:00August 6th, 2015|Categories: Anglican Life|Tags: |10 Comments


A few months ago here in Waco, Texas, where I live, a man was given 50 years in prison without parole for stealing a rack of pork ribs.

He was a repeat offender, and he had threatened to pull a knife on the grocers who caught him with the rack of ribs tucked up his shirt. He was lying about having a knife. Like many, I read this story in disbelief. How is it that a man who is poor, likely mentally ill, and on the face of things – a rather sad figure, going to spend five decades in prison? Harsh sentences for repeat offenders have been in vogue for some time now, but there is mixed evidence as to whether or not they actually reduce recidivism. Is it not rather an over-inflated sense of justice which drives judges and juries to such sentences?


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The prosecutor said of the case: ““This verdict shows that the citizens of this county will not tolerate a continued disrespect and disregard for other people and their property.” Note the way he said it. The verdict was not about justice for a criminal. It was about the sensibilities of the public, zero-tolerance, whatever that means. I’m always skeptical of that idiom. It seems to me that we human beings have an innate tolerance for all kinds of disrespects and disregards, that for the sake of goodness and mercy, we let all kinds of things slide. Should this man have been sentenced? Definitely. But, for fifty years? That’s far beyond the laws of lex talionis. It’s a man’s life for a rack of ribs, far more than a pound of flesh. The words of Jesus stand out: “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well.” (Matthew 5:38-40, ESV)

Justice is not the same as vengeance

As a pastor, and one who aspires to the vocation of a public theologian, I must say two things: first, that justice, when it is thrown out of balance, is no longer justice. If I break your nose for tapping me on the shoulder, I have shown that I am not a just man, but a vengeful one. If a nation deploys troops to war because another nation slandered them, they are not after justice. They are warmongers. Proportionality is at the heart of justice.

God’s justice and mercy are the same thing.

Second, at the core of the Gospel, Jesus Christ accepts justice he does not deserve, on behalf of sinners. Forgiveness means precisely this, dropping just debt of transgression committed against us for the sake of mercy. So magnificent is the forgiveness and mercy of God that we can even say that there is no conflict between His justice and His mercy – they are one and the same.

Confession of Our Sins

I’ve been thinking lately about this central understanding when it comes to the priestly ministry of confession, absolution, and reconciliation.

On the day of His Resurrection, the Lord gave His apostles the authority to forgive sins. In the ancient Church, notorious sinners were not only evangelized and baptized, but even when Christians lapsed, they could be restored through a combination of penance (often very harsh) and the declaration of bishops of the remission of sins. The required practice of penance had a downside, however. That was that all too often, sinners kept their sins to themselves, fearing the backlash which would ensue in public confession and the difficulty of penance. Many canons of the first several centuries only allow for penance to be completed once, after which sinners were put out of the Church forever. Worse, those who would have readily embraced the Christian faith and life delayed baptism, often to their deathbeds.

The Fathers are replete with examples of encouraging catechumens to no longer delay baptism. This was a major crisis, and it was not averted by preaching or teaching. It was averted by an enthusiastic revolution in pastoral practice. Some say it was Saint Patrick who introduced it among the Irish. That practice was private, auricular (heard privately) confession. This revolutionized what was a rather rare social practice of penance into a personal experience of grace and reconciliation. It included:

  • Disclosure and Absolution: The ability for those convicted of their own sin to disclose such sins to a priest and receive absolution.
  • Confidentiality: The ability to be assured of absolute confidentiality under the “seal.”
  • Relief, Direction, and Encouragement: The great relief of grace, spiritual direction, and pastoral encouragement in the battle against sin.

This practice was such an encouragement to sinners and a relief to those seeking to be baptized, that it caught on like wildfire, becoming canonically required of all in the Western Church in the 4th Lateran Council (1215) once per year. No longer did Christians need to fear backlash or judgment from their fellow Christians, but they could rest in the canonical “seal.” No longer did catechumens delay baptism or parents delay the baptism of their children.

The Pastoral Approach

The canonical “seal” placed around such confessions has meant that the content of a sacramental confession is under absolute confidence. This seal protects both those who turn to the confessional and the confessional itself. In the Roman Catholic Church, for a priest to disclose the content of a confession is not only a cause for automatic removal from the clerical state, but a mortal sin. We Anglicans have revived the practice of auricular confession in the last 150 years, following the patterns of the Tractarians who sought to restore beneficial parts of the tradition lost in the Reformation. But well before any of this recent history, in the Exhortation of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, the faithful are exhorted:

if there be any of you, who by this means cannot quiet his own conscience herein, but requireth further comfort or counsel, let him come to me, or to some other discreet and learned Minister of God’s Word, and open his grief; that by the ministry of God’s holy Word he may receive the benefit of absolution, together with ghostly counsel and advice, to the quieting of his conscience, and avoiding of all scruple and doubtfulness.

As well in the Ordinal, preserved in today’s ACNA Ordinal, the ordinand is told at the laying on of hands: “Whose sins thou dost forgive, they are forgiven; and whose sins thou dost retain, they are retained.”

Where Catholic practice has tended toward the juridical, Anglican practice in the confessional has tended to be pastoral – aimed at spiritual direction and care of the soul. Pastoral practice tells me and others that if you offer the opportunity to the people of a congregation regularly and encouragingly, they will respond! Whole families make their confessions, and many see it as an integral part of their spiritual lives. In my own life, regular confession has not only been the greatest help in overcoming the most besetting of my sins, but I have seen it do the same for those under my care.

Common Misconceptions

Sacramental confession is often derided as an “easy out” from the consequences of sin. Let me tell you, it is almost never the case that those coming to confession do so without a great deal of sorrow and tears. These are people who deeply desire the love of Jesus to overshadow their sin and reign in their lives. Those who turn to confession do not do so to avoid justice for their actions. Most of the time, they have received more than enough in consequences both natural and relational.

Priests are never given leave to “look down” upon those who make their confessions. In fact, we struggle with the opposite temptation, to think too highly of those who do! In the first ten months that I was ordained, I heard every one of the Ten Commandments confessed, including murder, and in every case, I was left with nothing but deep love and indeed admiration for those who had emptied their burdens upon the Lord in my presence. I am always deeply humbled and challenged in saying: “Go in peace, and pray for me a sinner.”

Next, it is important to note that the priest is merely a witness to the exchange of the confession and a counselor and spiritual director. At no point does the priest act as judge. He does not hand down ecclesial discipline.

Lastly, the seal, being absolute, means that if a person confesses to a crime – even if they tell you where they buried the body – the priest has no ability to act upon what he has heard in any way. He cannot make an anonymous report to the authorities. He cannot demand a confession to the police. And, as shocking as this may be, if one speaks of being abused – emotionally or sexually – he cannot fulfil a state-required duty to report. He can encourage such a report on the part of the penitent, but cannot require it. At times in my life, protecting the seal has been the cause of great anguish to me, and I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. But, I would still gladly offer my hands to the handcuffs and go to prison than reveal anything that a sinner has revealed to me in confession.

Sacramental Seal

In recent months, two dioceses of the Anglican Church in North America (Pittsburgh and San Joaquin) have called for canonical protections for the seal of the confessional, suggesting language from Roman Catholic canons. (Might I say, good for them!) Currently, the College of Bishops has asked for a recommendation from the Governance Task Force on the matter. For reference, the Roman Catholic Code of Canon Law of 1983, from which the parties in Pittsburgh and San Joaquin pull their language proposed for our canons, states:

The sacramental seal is inviolable; therefore it is absolutely forbidden for a confessor to betray in any way a penitent in words or in any manner and for any reason.


A confessor is prohibited completely from using knowledge acquired from confession to the detriment of the penitent even when any danger of revelation is excluded.

Why this concern about the seal?

Well, first, many Anglicans deny the place of the seal. While they accept the role of Anglican clergy in hearing such admissions of sin and offering absolution on behalf of Christ and His Church, they believe in a duty to report and a duty to be held to the law of their state. They would likely stop short of calling Confession a sacrament, and might very well say that it is a different thing altogether. Reading between the lines, it would seem that their consciences are troubled by the implications of knowing of a crime, especially the crime of child abuse or rape, for example, and keeping it under the seal.

It is these I wish to exhort for the sake of the truth and the sake of the Church. For it is the mercy and grace of Jesus Christ for which I offer my life as a priest. I am to lay down my life for the sheep and not seek any kind of civil justice for them. For I am convinced that nothing is more important in ministry than the restoration of sinners to the grace of Our Lord and the fellowship of His Church.

To break the seal, even with the best of intentions and in the worst of scenarios, is to elevate justice above mercy and grace, an action inimical to the Gospel itself. In so doing, the priest becomes an agent of the state in the investigation of a crime and not an agent of the Church, tasked with the ministry of reconciliation. Even worse, he becomes a judge. I might say at this point that it is very rare thing that any priest is ever compelled by a court or prosecutor to break the seal. For one thing, the compelling of testimony concerning such a confession is almost never admissable, nor is it necessary to establishing a case. It may be threatened but, the risk of public outrage is so high that it almost never happens.

Why is this? From experience, I can tell you that it is not mere revulsion of the populace against intrusion upon the prerogatives of the Church. It is rather that when push comes to shove, people are protective of the trust that they place in their pastors. To compel any to break this trust would not only be scandalous, but worse – would discourage repentant sinners from seeking the grace and reconciliation of Jesus in His Church. We have a sacred duty, far above any duty of citizenship or law, to do as the Lord commands, to bind and loose, to forgive sins, and to restore sinners to health by the power of the Gospel, not turn them over to the authorities.

To do otherwise, to allow any priest to break the seal for any reason, would be an abdication of the very ministry to which we have been set. That is a difficult calling, a cross to bear, and it may be that the hammer of the law may come down harder on us in years to come, but it is still our duty and it is still our sacred trust. And if that means handcuffs and a prison cell, then so be it. What a witness to the Gospel that would be! What a testimony to our Lord, who himself “suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison.” (1 Pet. 3:18-19)


The ministry of reconciliation and forgiveness of sins, first given to the apostles, and passed down to us, has been faithfully preserved in our day. The Lord has seen fit to guard and defend this gift by His Holy Spirit. Let us do the same, not merely canonically, but pastorally and personally, to the relief of sinners and to the glory of God in our own day! Let us not bow to pressure from within or without to put justice for sinners before mercy and grace by preserving the seal and laboring for the welfare of the Church in putting this great gift to use!

Photo via GNU Public License


The Rev. Lee Nelson, S.S.C. is a priest, church-planter, and catechist. He is currently planting churches in Waco and College Station, Texas with the aim of making disciples on college campuses through the planting of Anglican churches. For the last several years, he has served on the Catechesis Task Force of the Anglican Church in North America which produced To Be a Christian, an Anglican Catechism. As a part of this work, he is currently developing a catechetical consulting practice, aimed at coaching and training clergy and laypeople for the work of catechesis.


  1. Elizabeth August 6, 2015 at 2:31 pm - Reply

    Father Lee (and dear Greg!), I find it really disappointing that AP would publish an article that promotes keeping the seal in the case of abuse, especially that of minors. It saddens me as an Anglican, and as a children’s ministry director at an Anglican church, and much more so as a Christian. Our Lord Jesus Christ had STRONG words for those who injured the faith of the most vulnerable, the little ones. Although I have not suffered physical or sexual abuse as a child, I am disappointed on behalf of all those who have, and who have found that the Church did not stand up for them but for those who abused them. How sad that in keeping the seal, you would knowingly endanger vulnerable people in order to protect a parishioner. As you mention, the government might start to come down harder on priests who do not report. Frankly, I hope they do. Any man or woman of God, ordained or not, who knowingly protects an abuser FOR ANY REASON deserves punishment from the authorities. My heart is heavy to see Anglican Pastor promote a view of God and His church that harms the most vulnerable. 🙁

    • Lee Nelson August 6, 2015 at 4:46 pm - Reply

      Elizabeth, I too am assured of the Lord’s strong words for those who would abuse children. But I must resist your accusation that the seal protects, in any way, abusers. First, the purpose of the seal, as I wrote, is to protect, not individual sinners, but all sinners who turn to confession. Exceptions would not help this in the least. Do you not agree that even the very worst of child abusers can be forgiven? That is the purpose I gave, and I stand by it. Furthermore, nothing in the seal “harms” children. That is the work of abusers themselves. The seal does not excuse these sins. In fact, it is the opposite, an occasion to confront them.

      • Elizabeth August 8, 2015 at 10:52 am - Reply

        Lee, Thank you for your reply. I vehemently disagree with you. On what grounds do you uphold the seal of confession above Romans 13:1ff? I would truly like to know where in the constitution or canons such grounds can be found. It’s distressing to me that it can be. Forgiveness is found in the work of Jesus Christ alone. It is available for all who would avail themselves of it. At the heart of true confession is repentance, which entails a readiness to accept the consequences of an action. Perhaps if you are unwilling to break the seal, you would be willing to help your parishioner drive to the police station to turn him or herself in. That would be a mark of true confession, not manipulation. Also I strongly disagree that only the work of abusers harms children. ANYONE who protects an abuser and allows them to abuse again has become an accomplice in a crime, and a sin. When a priest hears confession of an abuse against one of the most vulnerable in our society (a child, in this case) and does not follow through with his/her legal responsibility to report to the authorities in place, I can only see that the priest has disobeyed the clear command of Scripture to obey the authorities put in place by God himself. You have been on my mind and in my prayers the last few days. I will continue to pray for you, that the Lord would spare you hearing a confession of abuse so that you needn’t violate your conscience or the law and especially for the children under your spiritual care, that they would be surrounded with a favor as with a shield.

        • Fr. Lee Nelson August 11, 2015 at 2:35 pm - Reply

          Elizabeth, even if I were to be inclined to agree with you (which I am not), I am not at liberty to act as you suggest. I am under authority, and the Bishop under whom I serve is quite clear: to violate the seal for any reason, including the ones you name, is grounds for removal from ordained ministry.

          Your central idea demands engagement, however, and that is that forgiveness can only come from Jesus Christ alone. While this is formally true, how do you wrangle with texts such as John 20:23 “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”? Romans 13 does not require that Christians commit sin or immorality merely because the State requires it. Nor does it ask that clergy violate their ordination vows. To me the matter is quite clear: priests are in the business of mercy. We don’t typically act as agents of the state in bringing people to justice, although that can happen. We are ordained for, and tasked with, the agency of the Gospel, to be ambassadors of reconciliation. God’s grace is a scandalous thing, which is why I am not surprised that you continually advocate for justice over and above the grace of the Gospel. I must repeat as well that at not time have I advocated the obstruction of justice when it comes to prosecuting such crimes. As well, if such things were admitted outside of the seal, I would have no choice but to report to the authorities. My comments merely concern the content of sacramental confession.

          Your suggestions regarding driving the penitent to the police station certainly have great merit, and I can only agree with you. But, alas, such things can never be required. Furthermore, I wonder what you think about that scenario. Say I hear the confession of a man who committed grave abuses, and then he turns himself in. Should I appear at the stand as a witness for the prosecution after absolving him? I should think not. So why would even consider being state’s witness against him in the first place? I must repeat, if justice hangs on the testimony of a confessor, the state has a very shaky case indeed. It is not outside of the realm of possibility that someone could be lying in the confessional. Should that person rot in prison for being a compulsive, and indeed extremely perverse, liar?

          Again, I roundly deny the accusation that anything I have said advocates protection for abusers. I have five children and a parish. I maintain the highest standards of protection for both. I’m not advocating that abusers not receive justice. I am simply saying that confessors must under no circumstance, no matter how vile, reveal the content of a confession. I hope you can understand that.

          • Elizabeth August 18, 2015 at 11:53 am

            Thanks for your reply. I’m working on an article to address some of these thoughts. I am troubled to think that you are not advocating protection for abusers. In one study, molesters reported an average of a dozen victims, with over 70 acts of molestation. In interviews with convicted sexual offenders, Dr. Anna Salter writes that the self-disclosed number of victims is between 10-1250 per offender! Every offender she interviewed had been previously reported by children, and those reports had been ignored. By remaining silent, regardless of your reason, (and let me say, lose your ministry to protect a child! Jesus did it! He lost his life!!!) you DO protect abusers who categorically abuse again. It isn’t for the first victim that I am heartbroken over your unwillingness to defy a man-made tradition (and auricular confession IS only a man-made tradition), but for the second, and third, and fourth, and fifth, and sixth, and seventh, and eighth victims that I grieve. It is because your position is a foundation of creating a culture that does not protect the most vulnerable in the ACNA that I am horrified.

  2. Elizabeth August 6, 2015 at 2:38 pm - Reply

    I wanted to share this, Father Lee, as I can’t tag you on Facebook. Please read it and consider!

  3. Fr. Aaron August 20, 2015 at 2:46 pm - Reply

    Hi. Fr. Lee, thank you for the article. Elizabeth, thank you for the comments–and the link. I appreciate much of what you both have written here.

    Fr. Lee, you wrote: “To break the seal, even with the best of intentions and in the worst of scenarios, is to elevate justice above mercy and grace, an action inimical to the Gospel itself.” While I agree with much of what you’ve said, I wholeheartedly disagree with this statement. It is not a desire for the enforcement of justice against the perpetrator that would motivate a clergyman to report. Rather it is a desire for the protection of the victims that would motivate such an action. And that motivation is *not* inimical to the gospel, not at all.

    I trust that you are a good priest and a family man, as you described yourself. I don’t seek to judge your character or your care for people. I do, however, want to clearly say that as a fellow Anglican priest I am in strong disagreement with your description of “the seal” as a no-consequence zone relative to sin–specifically when it comes to repairing the damage sin causes and taking prudent action against further offenses.

    I believe grace is delightfully scandalous. I also believe true repentance involves an appropriate response to one’s sin. In the case of sexual abuse, which Elizabeth highlights, I would absolutely require appropriate action from a penitent in order to (A) substantiate their genuine repentance and (B) prudently prevent further abuse. And I have found that a truly penitent person is one-step ahead of me in that regard, taking initiative to repair the damage for which they’re responsible. Regardless, I have a responsibility to the victims as well as to the victimizer. Requiring appropriate action of the abuser is the right thing to do for the sake of all those involved–including the abuser. (Regarding the benefit for the abuser, I think of the wisdom of Proverbs 19.19 here: “A hot-tempered person must pay the penalty; for if you deliver him, you will only have to do it again.” Suffering consequences for one’s sin can be the beginning of real change, whereas removing those natural consequences can be an impediment to the person’s reformation.)

    Grace is freely given from God, but God does not call us to imagine that a sin forgiven leaves no trace among the people it touches. The pain and damage sin causes remains, and we have a responsibility to tend to that as well. Again, my assumption is that you know this and agree with this. However, it seems you don’t see your stance on the seal as being contrary to this. I, however, do.

    I hope the blog won’t think me too bold in saying this: I recommend that this article be removed from the Anglican Pastor blog, as I think it represents the (potentially troubling) stance of a small minority of Anglicans but comes across as general Anglican perspective and procedure.

    I’d like to see other contributions by Fr. Lee, but I feel strongly that the good in this post is overshadowed by an interpretation of auricular confession that communicates indemnity for abusers rather than grace for sinners. I doubt that was Fr. Lee’s intention. Nonetheless, I likewise doubt readers will interpret it much differently.

    Fr. Lee, I will leave you with this: While I have taken issue with one facet of your post, much of it is excellent and well-written.

    Lastly, to Elizabeth and anyone else resonating with her concerns: I promise you there are many of us clergy who get what you’re saying, and we are on it, sister. Pray for us too, because it is not an easy line to walk–showing grace to sinners while protecting others from their folly. And pray for us also because we are sinners ourselves. Our prudence is limited in dealing with the sins of others, and our character is limited in dealing with our own sin. God grant us all grace in dealing with sin and vigilance in dealing with its painful effects.


    • Greg Goebel August 20, 2015 at 5:58 pm - Reply

      Thanks for the discussion. As editor, I will let you all discuss the particulars. In terms of this article, we stand by publishing it. Fr Lee’s point of view, more or less, is shared by many Anglicans and also by other Christian traditions. So we believe that it should be presented and we stand by that decision, as a contribution to an important issue. We also welcome opposing or differing perspectives in order to help us all clarify the issue and understand one another. Thanks again.

    • Elizabeth August 22, 2015 at 2:35 pm - Reply

      Fr. Aaron, thanks for taking the time to write. I so appreciate your thoughtful, kind, charitable comments on this issue. Maybe you could write a response article, as it appears from his comments that the editor would be willing to publish one! I’m working on one but can’t speak to the issue as an ordained leader of the church. From some personal correspondence with other Anglican clergy, it appears that one way to deal with such a circumstance would be to require the penance of facing the civil consequences of such action. I find comfort that not every ordained priest in the Anglican church thinks it is appropriate to defy the law of the land; I believe the Anglican Church of Australia has shown great wisdom in their policy about this issue. It is worth taking the time to read their 6 page document about clergy response to CSA confessed in the sacrament of reconciliation.

      • Fr. Aaron August 24, 2015 at 6:19 pm - Reply

        Thank you for the recommended reading, Elizabeth. Please post or send me the link, if you would. As for writing an article, I’d be happy to contribute my voice to one, as these are both important issues to me–the gracious treatment of confession and the prudent protection of victims.

        Fr. Greg, you are a judicious individual, so I trust your judgment. Similarly though, I stand by my request for the post’s removal, not because I think it is so “wrong,” but because it is dangerously imbalanced–at least that is how I believe it will come across to most readers. Then again, part of what I love about Anglicanism is the multiplicity of views and voices. And our challenge is not one of figuring out “who’s right and who’s wrong,” but rather the challenge is achieving Christian charity in the midst of a mixture of wrongs and rights, discernible and otherwise. Thank you for your blog.


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