HL Deb 14 June 1877 vol 234 cc1741-53

rose to call the attention of the House to a book entitled The Priest in Absolution, privately printed by, and at the disposal of, an association of clergymen called the Society of the Holy Cross, for private and limited circulation among the clergy. The noble Earl said: My Lords, the book the subject of my Notice was brought under my observation a short time ago. Upon perusing it, I venture to think that the fact of such a work being in existence is well worthy the consideration of your Lordships' House and of the whole country—or, at any rate, of those who are interested in the Church of England. The Society by which it is printed and circulated is called the Society of the Holy Cross, and has among its members many well-known and in some respects very excellent men; but men who entertain peculiar views on certain subjects. The Rev. A. H. Mackonochie is or was Master of the Society, and on the Council are the Rev. Dr. Littledale, the Rev. A. H. Stanton, the Rev. C. T. Lowder, and the Rev. H. D. Nihill, and the Rev. A. Tooth is one of the Foreign Missions Committee. With regard to the book itself, I am informed that it was compiled by a gentleman now dead, from whose widow the Society of the Holy Cross purchased the copyright. As to the nature of this work, it seems to be regarded with suspicion even by the person who compiled it, and by those who have published and circulated it; because in the Preface we find this passage— To prevent scandal arising from the curious or prurient misuse of a book which treats of spiritual diseases, it has been thought best that the sale should be confined to the clergy who desire to have at hand a sort of vade mecum for easy reference in discharge of their duties as confessors. This statement seems rather remarkable, and would appear to indicate that those who are engaged in circulating the book have some suspicion in respect of its character: and I am informed that by one clergyman, who had requested copies of the work to be forwarded to him, this reply was received— I am unable to comply with your request without reference to some well-known priest of your acquaintance. It would appear, therefore, that the circulation of the book even amongst the clergy is carefully and particularly limited. Bearing in mind the doctrines of the Church of England, the doctrines laid down in this book are rather extraordinary. I will not quote many extracts to your Lordships, but to show the character of the book I feel bound to quote two or three. Here is one— There is no resource for the spiritually sick but private confession and absolution; and to make that effectual it is necessary that the penitent be examined with discretion and expertness. It then proceeds to state the way in which these examinations are to be carried on. It says— Children may receive absolution with much spiritual benefit after seven, or even five or six. The priest must be careful not to be too reserved in questions, lest he risk thereby the loss of a great good for the sake of the less. Children may be asked with whom they sleep; if they have played with their bedfellows; touched each other designedly or unbecomingly. Adults: with whom they had to do; whether more than once with the same person; when it took place; how often the sin was committed; how often interrupted before committed. I do not like to go into these matters, and I think your Lordships will admit that questions of this kind are at least suggestive, and much more likely to bring about than to avoid the evils to which they relate. I will bring one further subject of examination under your Lordships' notice to show how grave is the matter to which I have ventured to direct attention, in the hope of putting a stop to the practices inculcated by the book— In regard to married persons, the priest is bound ordinarily only to inquire, when he finds it necessary, of wives if they have rendered due benevolence, and that only in the most modest way he can, and not inquire further unless he be asked questions himself. Wives should be asked if they have not caused their husbands to blaspheme by not rendering due benevolence. Wives often by refusing the latter are damned, and cause the damnation of their husbands by driving them to thousands of iniquities. The question should be veiled in discreet language: 'Do you obey your husband in what belongs to the marriage state?' I will not go further into these matters—I think I have said enough to show the character of the examinations suggested in this book, for use by the priest when the people come to him for confession. The danger arising from auricular confession is admitted in the book, for in one passage it is stated that the confessor "should abstain from every word which springs from tenderness," and that "though he may say 'My dear son' to a young man, prudence forbids him to say 'My dear child' to one of the other sex." Then there is this testimony in the book as to the result of the system— It is only too easy during long intervals to be exposed to the incursion of impure affections, and to lose more than is gained. Circumspection is the more necessary when the youth or appearance of people, or the subjects of confession, or their great piety or wickedness, might cause more easily bad impressions on his or their hearts. Pity, I say, has been more than once a wreck upon which imprudent confessors have been wrecked, who, by commencing with a simple spiritual esteem, have ended insensibly with a sensual and carnal love. I will now say a few words as to the doctrines set forth in this book. It is a doctrine of the Church of England that there are only two Sacraments. According to this book, Confession and Absolution are a Sacrament. Another doctrine of the Church of England is that there is but one Mediator between God and man. What does this book say?— To think of the Ever Virgin Mary and her purity, and to beseech God to hear her interces- sion on behalf of those who long for likeness to her immaculate example. This is the manner in which the book describes "The Priest"— The Priest as a Judge.—It is in his capacity as Judge, in remitting or retaining sins, that skilful adroitness supplies him with means for bringing the sinner to a right state for receiving absolution. It further states—"The priest is Judge in the place of God." That is, he assumes to himself perfect infallibility of decision in respect of the persons who come to him to receive absolution, and thereby to be relieved from all responsibility on account of their sins, and he is to judge infallibly —perhaps erroneously, in reality—as to the sincerity of the penitents. My Lords, I must say it is high time that the laity should move in this matter. Hitherto it has been treated too much as one exclusively for the clergy. Since I put my Notice on the Paper my attention has been called to another book entitled "The Priest's Prayer Book, designed as an Appendage to the Book of Common Prayer. Fifth edition. Much enlarged: 369 pages. "There is one point to which I would call your Lordships' attention as showing the manner in which the various matters contained in this book are dealt with. In the book are directions under the heading "Communion of the Sick with Reserved Sacrament." Anything more contrary to the doctrine of the Church of England than the "Reserved Sacrament" I cannot conceive. What does the rubric of the Church say in reference to the consecrated elements? It says— If any remain of that which has been consecrated, it shall not be carried out of church, but the priest and such other of the communicants as he shall then call unto him shall, immediately after the blessing, reverently eat and drink the same. And the 28th Article is in these words— The Sacrament of the Lord's Supper was not by Christ's ordinance reserved, carried about, lifted up, or worshipped. But what does the Priest's Prayer Book say— The priest then takes the blessed Sacrament from the pyx, and, holding it before the sick person, says—'Behold the Lamb of God which taketh away the sins of the world.' He kneels down and adds—'Lord, I am not worthy that Thou shouldest come under my roof, but speak only and Thy servant shall be healed. He then rises and communicates, using the proper words. I do not know whether the notice of the right rev. Bench has been directed to this book — I think it most deserving of their attention. In calling your Lordships' attention to the subject, I am actuated by a sense of duty, for I feel that the time has arrived when there should be a decided condemnation of practices such as those indicated in the volumes from which I have quoted these extracts.


My Lords, I think none of your Lordships will doubt that the noble Earl has undertaken a most disagreeable and painful task, and I feel obliged to him for putting aside his private feelings in order to draw the attention of your Lordships to this very serious and important matter. The noble Earl asks whether our attention has already been drawn to this book, published by the Society of the Holy Cross. It is owing to the courtesy of the noble Earl himself that my attention was drawn to it very recently. I trust—and, indeed, feel convinced—that the persons represented by this book are very few indeed. I shall feel very much surprised if it should not turn out on examination that there are only very few of the clergy of the Church among these persons. At the same time, the fact that there should be any is to my mind a matter of very great concern. The noble Earl spared us from many details; but, at the same time, he read from the book quite enough to show that no modest person can read the book without regret, and that it is a disgrace to the community that such a book should be circulated under the authority of clergymen of the Established Church. Most of us have felt pained when details have been brought forward of what in some degree is authorized by another branch of the Church of Christ; but, at all events, we had the satisfaction of knowing that in that other branch of the Church of Christ, where the sanction of that authority is given, very great care is taken in respect of this most dangerous weapon which is put into the hands of its clergy. If, however, I rightly comprehend the matter which the noble Earl has brought before us, the persons who put this book forward have no authority but one which they have arrogated to themselves. They have been in no way invested with authority by their superiors to do what they have done in this matter: and, my Lords, the restraints which in the Church of Rome are imposed in order to prevent those results arising which we might expect to arise from the practices to which I am referring are certainly wanting in this case. Now, I do not know what is the law with respect to books of this nature. I do not know whether the law is broken if a book of this nature is circulated without being publicly sold; but I cannot help thinking that the person who circulates a book of this kind—even though he refuses it to a clergyman who applies for it, unless he refers to some third party, is treading very near the confines of the law. As to the particular question of doctrine to which the noble Earl alludes, I may say that it has engaged the attention of the right rev. Bench on more than one occasion. In the year 1873 the whole body of the Bishops of the Province of Canterbury drew up a formal Declaration of opinion, which they thought might fairly be supposed to represent the doctrine of the Church of England on this subject; and a noble Lord, who, I think, is not now present (Lord Oran-more and Browne), having moved for it, the Declaration was laid on the Table, and has been recently printed for the use of your Lordships. In that document there is this statement— In the matter of confession, the Church of England holds fast those principles which are set forth in Holy Scripture, which were professed by the primitive Church, and which were re-affirmed at the English Reformation. The Church of England, in the 25th Article, affirms that penance is not to be counted for a sacrament of the Gospel, and, as judged by her formularies, knows no such words as 'sacramental confession.' Grounding her doctrine on Holy Scripture, she distinctly declares the full and entire forgiveness of sins through the blood of Jesus Christ to all who bewail their own sinfulness, confess themselves to Almighty God with full purpose of amendment of life, and turn with true faith unto Him. Having enumerated the two cases in which the Church has made special provision for the relief of troubled consciences, the Declaration proceeds— Nevertheless it is to be noted that for such a case no form of absolution has been prescribed in the Book of Common Prayer, and, further, that the Rubric in the first Prayer Book of 1549, which sanctioned a particular form of absolu- tion, has been withdrawn from all subsequent editions of the said book. In the Order for the Visitation of the Sick it is directed that the sick man be moved to make a special confession of his sins if he feel his conscience troubled with any weighty matter, but in such case absolution is only to be given when the sick man shall humbly and heartily desire it. This special provision, however, does not authorize the ministers of the Church to require from any who may resort to them to open their grief a particular or detailed enumeration of all their sins, or to require private confession previous to receiving the Holy Communion, or to enjoin or even encourage any practice of habitual confession to a priest, or to teach that such practice of habitual confession, or the being subject to what has been termed the direction of a priest, is a condition of attaining to the highest spiritual life. I quote this paper to show your Lordships that the Bishops of the Province of Canterbury have given their careful attention to this matter, and have endeavoured to put forward the views of the Church on the subject; and I do hope and trust that right views with respect to it do prevail generally among the clergy, and that the clergy who have recourse to such modes of introducing confession, as the noble Earl has spoken of, or of prying into the secret thoughts or hearts of those who come to them are but the few exceptions. I am bound, however, to say that it is with the profoundest regret I have heard the names of some of those who have been mixed up in this matter. Among the names which have been sent to me is one of a clergyman in my own diocese whom, as a Christian gentleman, I highly respect. The moment I saw his name in the paper which the noble Lord placed in my hands, I felt it my duty to point out to him the position in which he had placed himself, if the allegation were true, in connection with this book or with the society from which it issued. That clergyman is, I believe, at present abroad, and therefore I have not been able to procure a reply from him in time for this occasion. But I trust that more than one of the clergymen connected with this Society will feel that they have fallen into a most grievous mistake. Perhaps their motive may have been a good one: indeed, I should say that certainly it has been, because they have acted with the view—a faulty one, no doubt—of being better able to guide the minds of those entrusted to their spiritual care. But they have made a most grievous mistake in endeavouring to pry into the secret thoughts of the human heart in matters of this delicate character. I am certain that if such a course is persevered in it will have very evil results—first, in the harm it will do their own minds; secondly, in the harm it will do to the minds of those who come to them, and whom they address in the terms pointed out in this book; and, thirdly, in its effects as regards the influence in families of the clergy of that Church whose interests they wish to further. I cannot imagine that any right-minded man could wish to have such questions addressed to any member of his family; and if he had any reason to suppose that any member of his family had been exposed to such an examination, I am sure it would be the duty of any father of a family to remonstrate with the clergyman who had put the questions, and warn him never to approach his house again. I have ventured, my Lords, to express my own feelings on this matter very strongly; but I have no reason to suppose that I am not the mouthpiece of the right rev. Bench on this occasion. Indeed, I have reason to know that one of my right rev. Brothers, who is now present, having seen connected with this book the name of a clergyman whom he was about to institute to a living, took immediate steps in relation to the matter, and had the satisfaction of receiving from the clergyman a disavowal of any connection with either the book or the Society.


said, his attention, a short time ago, was called to the fact that a clergyman whose name appeared connected with the executive of the Society in question was about to enter his diocese. As the clergyman was about to enter it through the resignation of another, it was in the power of the Bishop to decline to accept the resignation. As Bishop of the diocese, he therefore did not hesitate for a moment to state that he would not receive the resignation. This, of course, called forth explanations. In order to bring the matter to a point he required the clergyman to sign a paper drawn up as follows:— I herewith notify to you (the Bishop of the diocese) that I have withdrawn from the Society of the Holy Cross, and that I distinctly repudiate the work entitled, The Priest in Absolution." In the course of two days he received this document, signed by the clergyman, who was now not connected with the Society. There were two facts emerging from the narrative which seemed to demand attention. One was that probably there were many members of the Society who knew very little indeed about the Book. It was, therefore, only reasonable and fair that the whole members of the Society should not be judged by the exceptional cases that stood prominent in connection with it. The second fact—which was of a very grave kind—was this, that a gentleman occupying the position of one officially connected with this Society had felt it his duty, when his attention had been called to the subject, not only to surrender his position in the Society, but distinctly to repudiate the book. The inference from this would certainly seem to be either that the relations of that clergyman to the Society could not be considered wholly satisfactory, or that the book must be considered a singularly bad one. If otherwise, why did he at once so abruptly close his connection with it? However that might be, he should not now hesitate to admit to the rev. gentleman to his diocese; and he might conclude by expressing the hope that his example would be largely followed, and that after this conversation and the attention that had thereby been drawn to the book very many of the members of the Society alluded to would re-consider their position in reference to it.


was understood to say that the subject was no new one, for he had on more than one occasion drawn attention to the subject of auricular confession as practised by some priests in the Church of England. He brought it to the notice of their Lordships last year, and he regretted that the right rev. Bench did not in consequence take decisive action in reference to it. The presence at that moment of only about half-a-dozen of the Prelates of the Church showed that the Episcopal Bench was not much in earnest in condemning this very objectionable practice. He should be glad to hear from his Grace the Archbishop of Canterbury that he had not granted a dispensation in favour of auricular confession. Auricular confession as practised by those priests was part of a system which they were carrying on in their churches. In 1873, and again last year, he had called the attention of their Lordships to books of a nature similar to this; but when he expressed a hope that auricular confession would not become a practice in the Church of England, the fact that it existed at all was ignored by the right rev. Bench. He was anxious that a clause should have been introduced into the Public Worship Regulation Act to prevent the practice of it; but that course was objected to by the right rev. Prelate. He knew that the right rev. Prelate had much to contend against, or he might perhaps have acceded to the proposition. Last year he showed their Lordships that the right rev. Bench had promoted many clergymen whom they must have known practised auricular confession in their churches. There were many cases of curates, whose licences might have been suspended; but the right rev. Bench had declined to exercise their discretion; and he thought that some action on the part of the right rev. Bench was absolutely necessary if the practices of these priests were to be restrained. The practices were not local. They were extending throughout the length and breadth of England. He had recently heard from a gentleman who had come from Devonshire that they were becoming common in that county. In one or more of the churches in the diocese of London there were notices hung up that the church was open during certain hours on certain days of the week for confession and absolution. Objectionable as these practices were in the Church of England, they commenced with instructions to the young, even to children of seven years old, and those instructions were to be found in the book referred to by the noble Earl (the Earl of Redesdale). The contents of that and other books had shocked noble Lords, and if the right rev. Bench intended to assist in stopping the practice of the auricular confession they should let the clergy know that they would not give any preferment in their dioceses to those who carried on the practice.


begged to express his thanks to the noble Lord who had brought this painful subject to the notice of the House. He had, indeed, indicated no remedy, and he (the Earl of Harrowby) did not see what remedy Parliament could apply to this dangerous and widely-spreading disease of the encouragement and practice of auricular Confession in the Church of England. The Bishops had indeed condemned it, but their formal condemnation seemed to be little respected. He (the Earl of Harrowby) was, however, thankful to the most rev. Prelate (the Archbishop of Canterbury) for the suggestion of, perhaps, the best remedy that could be supplied—that social remedy of excluding from admission to their houses and family in succession all those who were known to practise this abominable system. The most rev. Prelate had expressed his belief that the number of the clergy who were thus infected was but small. True, the number whose names were recorded as belonging to this Society was but small—perhaps not more than 400—but they were men of influence—of widely-extended influence—and connected with places of education. Let them look at the names of those who were connected with the management of this Society, and see the importance of their action. He had in his hand an extract from The Horning Post, September 7th, 1876, which he would take the liberty of reading to their Lordships— A New Church Society.—A society has been established under the designation of the Holy Cross, to the membership of which only priests of the Church of England will be entitled. The Rev. A. H. Mackonochie, vicar of St. Albans, Holborn, is the Master, and he is assisted by four vicars, who, with the treasurer and secretary, are elected for the Master's Council. On this Council scats are occupied by the Rev. Dr. Littledale, the Rev. A. H. Stanton, of St. Albans; the Rev. C. F. Lowder, vicar of St. Peter's, London Docks; the Rev. H. D. Nihill, of St. Michael's, Shoreditch; the Rev. F. Murray, rector of Chiselhurst; the Rev. R. R. Bristow, vicar of St. Stephen's, Lewisham; the Revs. Messrs. Courtenay, Parnell, Nicholas, and others. The Master will be assisted by the Rev. W. H. Hutchings, sub-master of the House of Mercy, Clewer, the Rev. Orbey Shipley, and others, as assessors. The Tract Committee consists of Dr. Littledale, Mr. Nihill, and Mr. Bristow. Mr. Murray will direct his especial attention to the subject of "Retreats." The Foreign Mission Committee is composed of the Rev. A. Tooth, vicar of St. James's, Hatcham; the Rev. W. Field, of Lancing College, St. Nicholas; and the Rev. A. Pixell. The theological lectures will be arranged by Mr. Bristow, and there will be committees for the affiliation, for guilds, and other matters of importance. Their Lordships would have observed some well-known and influential names. Let them look at the name of Clewer. His own attention was attracted by that of the Rev. W. Field, one of the masters of the College of Lancing, an institution which was aiming at getting hold of the education, especially of the middle classes, through the influence of Canon Woodward, and had extended its operations successfully over his own county. The laity must do their part; but their Lordships, the Bishops, must do their part also. They must watch over these educational institutions, whether for the clergy or the laity, over which they had control, or where their position gave them influence. It was not enough to denounce these practices in formal declarations; they must practically discountenance them in all their relations with their clergy, in their ecclesiastical patronage, in their theological Colleges, and in the public schools, to which they gave their sanction. This auricular Confession, which was now creeping in, was indeed a pertinent heresy, worse, practically, than many that had received that title. If the expression was strong, it was fully warranted by the expressions employed by a noble Marquess (the Marquess of Salisbury) in a former debate in that House. He had copied the passage from Hansard, and would take the liberty of reading it to their Lordships— Among the English people generally, among thinking men, there is no difference of opinion upon this question of habitual confession. We have seen it tried in other countries. It was tried in olden time in our own. We know, that besides its being unfavourable to that which we believe to be Christian truth, in its results it has been injurious to the moral independence and virility of the nation to an extent to which probably it has been given to no other institution to affect the character of mankind. I believe that if there are men in this country, who think they will ever persuade the English people to adopt the practice of habitual confession, they are proposing the most chimerical and the wildest scheme that ever entered into the heads of any men. No doubt, our Church does not encourage habitual confession, and that practice is opposed to the religious convictions of the English people. But it is not only a religious question. It so happens that this practice is deeply opposed to the peculiarities and idiosyncrasies which have been developed among the English people ever since they became a free people. The English people are specially jealous of putting unrestricted power into the hands of a single man. More than any other system, the practice of habitual confession does put unrestricted and irresponsible power into the hands of a single man. An Englishman values and cherishes the private independence of his family life; he looks with abhorrence upon any system that introduces another power into that family life, that introduces a third person between father and daughter, and husband and wife. I believe that these reasons, apart from religious doctrine, have such powerful influence upon the English people that it would require the very strongest conviction of a positive revelation to induce them to conform to a practice which is so utterly opposed to their habits and feelings. If the noble Marquess's description of the practices in question were correct, no steps could be too strong for stopping this pestilence, which threatened to invade the sanctity of our homes and to destroy the character of our people.

Back to