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Does the Church of England still have a soul or deal in the care of souls?

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It used to be that the most pressing arguments about souls were whether animals had them or not. In a greener more environmentally friendly world this became an issue of note for many.

But with the Church of England’s General Synod meeting in York this weekend, the question comes at us in a new form.

Does the C of  have a soul, or rather better, does it believe in the existence and or priority of the ‘soul’? 

It is not unusual in the history of organisations or political movements for them to lurch one way, and then stagger another as they seek to follow the currents of fashion or the dictates of public opinion.

The Church ought to be above that kind of thing, but it has of late become scared. It looks around it and discovers that the people it lives amongst no longer think that it carries any spiritual authority or expertise.

There is an early stage of psychological development, a period of arrested maturity, when the individual looks around to gauge their own self-worth and judges it by what it perceives other people think of them. It’s a kind of delegated existential authority. None of us is entirely free of it, but we grow freer as we mature and develop our own integrity.

But the Church of England appears to have regressed to a more juvenile stage of development, and has become panic-struck over what it thinks other people think of it. It has entered a stage of life where it seeks be relevant to the secular society it lives within.


From Wonga and public lending to LGBT rights, gay marriage and Brexit, it seeks to please and speak for the concerns of progressive fashion. That these concerns may be non-Christian, sub-Christian or anti-Christian, seems not to be of any importance. It’s as if a kind of panic has blinded the capacity for judgement.

And it does have some reason to panic.

It’s numbers in Church on any given Sunday have sunk to just over 500,000. They are diminishing by over 7% every 5 years. The average age is 68. Its cathedrals are going bankrupt and may have to be sold.

It looks to provide credentials for social and political relevance even if to do so it has to abandon the teaching about gender and judgement, absolution and adoration that take such a priority in the Gospels.

The Churches primary mission is to save people from judgement and hell by introducing them to Jesus. “And be not afraid of them that kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28)

This gets to be something of a problem if you don’t believe in judgement or hell, and the Jesus you have a relationship with is a projective figment of your political and therapeutic imagination; a cross between a Guardian-reading therapist and a social justice warrior.

But if the Church of England practices an authentic Christianity, based on the reality of the Gospels, it might choose different priorities.

Evangelicals in the C of E seem to have slipped over easily into the spirit of the Age; the liberals have never known anything else, so it seems it is left to the Anglo Catholics to fight a last honourable battle for the soul of the Church of England, if it still has one.

As General Synod meets in York this weekend, there is a ritual of challenging those who run the Church with questions at the beginning of the Session. There is a certain art to forming the questions, and usually an equal art in resisting them.


Dr Lindsay Newcombe, vice-chair of Forward in Faith, and a mechanical engineer by profession, has asked a question asking for reassurance that there will be no change in the inviolability of Confession. The printed answer published to her, and two associated questions provided ahead of the meeting, was ambivalent. In ‘Synod-speak’ it tried as usual to have it both ways and said, we haven’t changed it yet, but we might at the meeting of bishops in December.

The question at Synod and the reply might not seem very significant as media events, though the Times did at least have the intuitive instinct to report it.

But they go to the heart of the issue of Christian authenticity and integrity for the C of E.

It has got itself into trouble over safeguarding. At this point one needs to hold several apparently contradictory ideas in tension.

The first is although the issue of abuse is indeed very serious, and the source of some profound personal damage to those who suffered it, the inept, less-than-human, unkind and incompetent way in which the institution has responded to those who suffered, appears to be a safeguarding issue in itself. It’s the old story of the cover-up often being a worse crime than the original event.

But having said that, it should be no surprise that abuse has taken place. Because that’s why the Church exists. It exists because human beings are seriously flawed, overwhelmed by a variety of appetites which when unleashed become destructive, and need saving from themselves and from God’s judgement.

And of course, abuse will be found in the Church, and will need to be confronted in a clear-eyed, brave, humble and penitent way. And quickly, and yes the Church has often failed at that too.

But the problem for the Church of England is that it has mistaken the antidote to the sin for sin itself.

It is a serious mistake for a Church to make. It is a mark of what can only be called spiritual incompetence.

Not everyone understands the sacrament of confession. They can get too hung up on re-hashing a misunderstanding about priesthood that is 500 years old and should have been sorted out in their minds long ago.  It is not that the priest hearing the confession forgives; rather he becomes the agency through which Christ’s absolution comes with the authority of the Apostolic Church infused by the Holy Spirit exercising the ministry Christ gave it.  “Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” Matt 18.18

But as importantly, confession is about placing the quest for repentance at the centre of the Christian’s life. Whatever the arguments about how one experiences absolution, there won’t be any absolution at all if there is no sense accountability for one’s sins and a desire to be penitent.


It seems to have been overlooked that what confession offers is all about safeguarding; but it is about the safeguarding of the soul. Safeguarding of the body, the emotions, and sexual and psychological vulnerability, are all laudable aims. But the highest priority that the Church should have is the care and safeguarding of the soul.

There are few places of safety in a fallen world, and fewer that human ingenuity can devise, but the safety of the soul is a gift of God and paid for and achieved on the cross. It is the safeguarding of the soul, what was once called ‘salvation’, that it the Church’s highest duty and priority.

“What shall it profit a man or a woman if they safeguard all their physical and mental resources, but fail to safeguard their soul”…..

A Church that practices confession of this kind, places the reality of sin, the call to change and repent, the miracle of forgiveness, the freedom from hell, the journey into heaven at the centre of its life and practice.


And if these are missing, then is it even the Church? It risks becoming instead a rather shoddy, second hand religious organisation dispensing shallow spirituality and passing pieties in the inept fashion captured so tragically by Radio 4’ more usual Thought for the Day.

And that was the prospect presented by the Bishop of Dover a few months ago when he instructed his clergy that they should announce that with politically correct self-righteous zeal they stood ready spill the beans to the police if anyone was careless enough to confess their sins to them.

Forward in Faith took the Bishop of Dover to task.

The Guidelines for the Professional Conduct of the Clergy issued in 2015 by the Convocations of Canterbury and York state (in para. 3.5): ‘If a penitent makes a confession with the intention of receiving absolution the priest is forbidden (by the unrepealed Proviso to Canon 113 of the Code of 1603) to reveal or make known to any person what has been confessed. This requirement of absolute confidentiality applies even after the death of the penitent.’

However, the Bishop of Dover has issued the following instruction to clergy in the Diocese of Canterbury and the Deaneries of Guernsey and Jersey: ‘The Bishop emphasises that… Any priest hearing a confession, regularly or otherwise, must say prior to hearing that confession the following statement of confidentiality and safeguarding: “If you touch on any matter in your confession that raises a concern about the wellbeing or safeguarding of another person or yourself, I am duty bound to pass that information on to the relevant agencies, which means that I am unable to keep such information confidential.”’ Incredibly, the Diocese of Canterbury has denied that this instruction – which is cast in very wide terms indeed – has effectively ‘abolished the Seal of the Confessional’.

Forward in Faith’s position remains as set out in 2015 in our submission to the working party on the seal of the confessional: we will resist as strongly as we can any attack on the integrity of sacramental Confession.”


Forward in Faith is right. A proportionate and clear approach to what has unhelpfully become called ‘safeguarding’ (as if there is any safety in this world or we can pretend it can be offered or delivered) is about being responsible in the running of an organisation in which people are held to account. But to abolish, undermine, diminish or smear confession in the so-called interests of such safeguarding is like cutting off your legs to lose weight before a running a marathon.

But if there is any vestige of the Kingdom of Heaven left in the crumbling C of E, it is to be found in the awareness of sin, the priority of penitence, the experience of absolution and the integrity of the Sacrament of Confession.

When the House of Bishops come to consider the questions that Dr Newcombe’s and her synodical colleagues posed to them in their meeting in December (having fobbed it off for now), on their answer will depend whether or not the Church of England can even lay claim to being a Church, let alone one that has the spiritual potential to avoid an imminent and disastrous collapse.

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