The twentieth century saw a remarkable flourishing of ecumenical dialogue between Anglicans and Roman Catholics on the international level, and agreement on many matters long held to be disputed. In the midst of agreement, however, differing practices in regard to private confession continued to be described as a "matter of special significance," where the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church had moved in different directions in the sixteenth century.1 This matter was most recently described as one of a number of present "serious disagreements" between Anglicans and Roman Catholics in regard to discipleship and holiness.2
Both communions practice private confession. What is at issue is the nature of the practice. In the Roman Catholic Church, private confession to a priest is part of "the sacrament of penance" and is obligatory "for those conscious of serious sin."3 For their part, the Anglican reformers rejected the obligatory nature of private confession. For Anglicans, private confession is "a wholesome means of grace" that can offer assurance to the troubled conscience, but which is set in the greater context of the believer's direct access to the Word of God for the assurance of forgiveness, and linked as well to the practice of general confession and absolution within the liturgy.4
It is difficult to gauge the weight given in these two documents to the differing practice. Life in Christ speaks of the divergence as one of the differences that "appear in a new light when we consider them in their origin and context."5 This is on a different order of magnitude from the two areas of "official disagreement" that are dealt with elsewhere: "the marriage of a divorced person during the life-time of a former partner; and the permissible methods of controlling conception," and different as well from points where Anglican and Roman Catholic "attitudes and opinions appear to conflict" on abortion and homosexual relations.6 For its part, the later statement Growing Together in Unity and Mission simply lists the differing practice on private confession as one of a series of divergences that includes remarriage after divorce, abortion, contraception, and homosexual relations.7
What these two ecumenical documents do not provide is any account of the origin of private confession in the practice of public penance, a common history that points toward greater understanding and possible theological convergence. For Anglicans, consideration of our own particular history also leads us to reclaim a part of our own tradition that has been eclipsed. In this way a deeper consideration of private confession could function as an example of how ecumenical dialogue can lead to understanding and the reclaiming of gifts that have been forgotten.
Reclaiming a Common History
The story of how the early church's practice of public penance for major sins (adultery, homicide, apostasy, schism, as well as others) became the medieval church's system of private confession of all mortal sins (deliberate, conscious sins) has been recounted before.8 A common thread is the idea of reconciliation with the church. Baptism into the church, celebrated by the community, was a sign of reconciliation with God. Any sin after baptism alienated a person both from God and from the community. Whether any reconciliation was possible in these circumstances was roundly debated in early Christianity, but by the period of the fourth century a public penitential discipline administered by the bishops that led to reconciliation had developed on a widespread basis.9 By its prayer and by Christ's authorization the church reconciled sinners to the community and to God and restored them to communion. The communal dimension of sin and forgiveness, the authoritative role of the church, and the public nature of reconciliation were all emphasized by the practice.
This practice continued to evolve in the period from the fourth to the eighth centuries. …