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 Issues | Doctrine | Private Confession

Private Confession

Also known as Auricular Confession

This article is prompted by at a statement in the 1995 report of the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission entitled “Life in Christ”.

In section 46 of Life in Christ it states:
The Reformers' emphasis on the direct access of the sinner to the forgiving and sustaining Word of God led Anglicans to reject the view that private confession before a priest was obligatory, although they continued to maintain that it was a wholesome means of grace, and made provision for it in the Book of Common Prayer for those with an unquiet and sorely troubled conscience.

This is misleading, and apparently deliberately so.  As anyone with an understanding of the history of the Church of England will know the English Reformers did not simply set out a better way but totally rejected the medieval practice of private or auricular confession believing it to be an abuse.  The reason that the report is misleading is because it fails to point out that the context of this confession is the service for the Visitation of the Sick.  Such a confession would be private only because it takes place in the person’s home (or hospital these days) because that person is unable to be present at the public meeting of the church for public confession.  No provision is made for any other situation.

It is also misleading to describe private confession as a means of grace.  That is part of the medieval sacramentalist teaching of the Roman Church which was all part of its abuses and still persists today.   Private confession is not a sacrament and Anglicans explicitly reject the idea that it is.

Of course if someone has a troubled conscience they may want to seek help and comfort from a fellow believer, but that person does not need to be a minister.

Our authorized book of Homilies state:
It is most evident and plain, that this auricular confession hath not its warrant of God’s word.

Whilst John Sharp a former Archbishop of York wrote:
“Could they produce but one text of the Bible to prove this Auricular Sacramental Confession of Sins to a Priest was recommended by our Lord or his Apostles, or that it was practised by any Christian, either of the clergy or laity, or so much as mentioned by the holy men of that time, something might be said. But this they cannot do, and therefore to impose their doctrine on all the Christian world is most intolerable.”—

And former Archbishop of Canterbury, John Tillotson wrote:
 “… the necessity of confessing our Sins to Men (that is to the priest), in order to the forgiveness of them, is a great point of difference between us and the Church of Rome, it being by them esteemed a necessary Article of Faith, but by us, so far from being necessary to be believed, that we do not believe it to be true.”



  • Homily on Repentance (No 32) Part 2
  • Sharp - Dis. on Prov. xxviii. 13. Rat. Def. Dis. xviii. p. 249.
  • Tillotson - Sermon cvi. Works, vol. ii. p. 8. London, 1712.

The latter two are quoted from Voices of the Church of England on Auricular Confession - Church Association Tract 27

David Phillips, July 2009

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