"The rack of consciences": Taylor against Pusey on private confession

If other sins come back into your mind afterwards, which you would have confessed had you remembered them, they should be confessed afterwards, because the forgiveness is conditional upon the completeness of the Confession. Completeness implies that there should be care and faithfulness in discovering sins, and that nothing so discovered should be held back - Pusey, Hints for a First Confession (1851).

Pusey's advice highlights how the later Tractarian practice of private confession and absolution radically departed from Caroline and Old High Church practice and teaching.  Taylor exemplifies the Caroline understanding which shaped the Old High Church tradition.  While accepting that private confession and absolution can be "and a good instance, instrument, and ministry of repentance, and may serve many good ends in the church, and to the souls of needing persons", Taylor is robust in his rejection of the Tridentine understanding - taken up by Pusey - that private confession and absolution required extensive examination of conscience ("all that upon strict enquiry we can remember") and the enumeration of all sins to the priest.

The emphasis on the examination of conscience he terms a "very great evil":

There is yet another very great evil that attends upon the Roman way of auricular confession; and that is, an eternal scruple of conscience, which to the timorous and to the melancholy, to the pious and considering and zealous, is almost unavoidable ... there can be no peace (because there can be no certain rule given) concerning the examination of our consciences; for who can say he hath done it sufficiently, or who knows what is sufficient; and yet if it be not sufficient, then the sins which are forgotten by carelessness, and not called to mind by sufficient diligence, are not pardoned, and then the penitent hath had much trouble to no purpose.

He is no less robust in his critique of what Pusey describes as the need for the "completeness" of the confession:

to exact an enumeration of all our sins in all cases, and of all persons; to clog it with so many questions and innumerable inextricable difficulties, and all this, besides the evil manage and conduct of it; is the rack of consciences, the slavery of the church.

Taylor also counsels against the confession of some sins:

let it be considered that there being some things which S. Paul says are not to be so much as named amongst Christians, it must needs look undecently that all men and all women should come and make the priest’s ears a common-shoar [sewer] to empty all their filthiness

This has significance because it goes to the heart of Taylor's rejection of a supposed need for "completeness" in confession:

True it is that a physician must see and handle the impurest ulcers; but it is because the cure does not depend upon the patient but upon the physician, who by general advertisement cannot cure the patient, unless he had an universal medicine: which the priest hath; the medicine of repentance, which can indifferently cure all sins, whether the priest know them or no. And therefore all this filthy communication is therefore intolerable because it is not necessary.

Here, then, is a vital contrast between Taylor and Pusey regarding the practice of and teaching upon private confession and absolution.  For Taylor, the ministry of private confession and absolution as "the Church of England ... practises it" is a means of granting assurance of forgiveness to the penitent who is particularly burdened.  It requires no searching self-examination, for the sin in question means that the individual, in the words of the Prayer Book, "cannot quieten his conscience".  It requires no enumeration of all sins, because this infringes Christian liberty and disorders the doctrine of repentance as it offers no "truer judgment of the penitent's repentance and disposition to amendment" than can be expressed by a "general profession of his true and deep contrition".  And its use must be governed by "a prudential consideration" which avoids and guards against "its evil appendages". 

(All Taylor quotes are from The Second Part of a Dissuasive from Popery, Book I, Section XI 'Auricular Confession Imposed Without Authority from God'.)


  1. Dear BC --

    Thanks for continuing to look into this. Certainly Taylor and Pusey had differences when it came to Confession, but the fullness of both seems to be omitted in this presentation.

    On the one hand, the quote from Pusey was taken from a tract written for a child, and Pusey is merely encouraging the child to be brave and not hold back, which is standard advice for confession. Pusey's much more careful formulations can be found in his sermons 'Absolution: A comfort to the penitent' which he delivered immediately upon being banned from Oxford's pulpit for three years, and these words were subjected to the highest scrutiny, and no fault was found with them, by any Anglican authority of this time, despite the very high animus toward the man himself.


    And for Taylor, the presentation you have made here makes it sound like he was content to leave every man's conscience to itself, being guided by the Spirit, and enjoying Christian liberty. But if this were the case, how do you account for his writing the Ductor Dubitantium (which he considered to be his magnum opus) which delves into a thousand thousand scruples of conscience, and gives many many counsels toward more exacting analysis of ourselves.

    Moreover, in Taylor's Golden Grove (which was penned, if not by him, still out of the "Old High Church" mlieu) includes a guide for confession,


    that warmly recommends regularly going to auricular confession, a point echoed in Cosin's deovtions where he encourages the use of it.

    Again -- not to say that Pusey doesn't go further (by borrowing as he does from Counter-Reformation pastoral guidance), but they do not sit on quite such extremes ("...radically departed..."

  2. Ben, thank you for your comment and for continuing the conversation.

    I really do not think I can be accused of suggesting that Taylor can be interpreted as leaving the conscience to itself. Hence I quote Taylor at the outset affirming the value of private confession and absolution.

    However, Pusey's words cannot easily be regarded as merely encouraging a penitent not to hold back. He is quite clear: forgiveness is conditional upon the "completeness" of the confession to the priest. Taylor would have nothing to do with this: it is "the rack of consciences".

    What is more, this was typical of later Tractarian teaching. Nockles quotes an 1867 Tractarian manual urging private confession "each time our conscience is burdened by mortal sin". Again, the contrast with Taylor is stark.

    As for Duppa's 'Guide for the Penitent', it very carefully abides by High Church norms: setting private confession in the context of dangerous illness or burdened by "one particular sin"; there is what appears to be a deliberate echo of Taylor in warning against "unnecessary scruples"; and a warning that one does not use a physician for "every small distemper". In other words, it avoids the Tridentine norms to which later Tractarian practice conformed.

    Regarding Ductor Dubitantium, yes, it is a classic of moral theology and was self-evidently written to aid clergy with pastoral encounters and, indeed, private confessions, as explicitly stated in the Preface. Taylor, however, goes on to state in the Preface that Roman manuals should not be used as they contain "methods of death". Interestingly, there is a significant contrast between Taylor's praise for Lutheran writings on the matter and his critique of Roman manuals. At the heart of this, of course, is the fact that Taylor's understanding of private confession and absolution is very similar to the Lutheran teaching and practice, but far removed from the Roman.

    All this, I think, sets the background for the contemporary Old High Church critique of Tractarian practice and teaching. If the Tractarian practice was similar to historic Old High Church teaching, why did mid-19th century Old High Churchmen react so negatively to the Tractarian practice?


    P.S. I hope you and yours are keeping safe.

  3. Dear Brian --

    The real distinction I am trying to make is between Pusey and "later Tractarians". In your original post you call out Pusey, in your comment (which, btw, thank you for always being gracious to reply!) you cite Nockles' account of "later Tractarianism". I 100% agree that Later Tractarianism is totally an import of Romish nonsense and at odds with the Anglican spirit. What I am trying to convince you of is that Pusey himself in many ways stands closer to the Old High Church than he does to the "Later Tractarians". Indeed, though he was loathe to speak ill of others, at several junctures he expresses horror and dismay at the later tractarians, vide: http://northamanglican.com/novel-teaching/

    Also, e.g. I assume the 1867 manual you/Nockles cite is "the priest in absolution" -- a manual that Pusey disdained, and which his own 187- publication of "the Abbe Gaume's Manual for Confessors, adapted for use in the English Church" was intended to replace.

    As to your question: "why did mid-19th century Old High Churchmen react so negatively to the Tractarian practice?"
    Here's where we get to the rub of the difference between you and me:

    1) I am convinced that the Old H.C. ideals which were genetically carried forward into the 19th century by groups like the Hackney Phalanx were of local and indefinite influence only. I also think that they had imbibed more rationalism than they knew of, and already integrated it into their system (I am thinking, for instance of HJ Rose, c. 1825 -- and the emphases on OT 'evidences', which Pusey rejected at a methodological level).

    2) Pusey's actual views were, in the receiving of them by others, so often mistaken for their Romish caricatures, but over and over again, Pusey presents principled reasons for why his views are definitively NOT romish, a distinction that the CofE only starts to grip after the 1850s and 20 years of Pusey's apologetic. The OHC reacted to what they thought was romishness in Pusey, but which was actually not there. Have you read the University Sermons on Absolution by Pusey? I would bet you a pint of beer that you will find them comporting very comfortably with the Old High Church mindset. Also, if you're REALLY interested, Pusey has a 150pp preface in his adaptation of Gaume, that articulates and defends his view of confession vis-a-vis historic Anglicanism.

    1. Having some time on my hands (!) I will re-read Pusey and get back to you. That said, the fact that Old High Church figures were deeply suspicious of Pusey's teaching - and practice - regarding private confession is difficult to set aside. But, yes, I will re-read him.

    2. I am very eager to hear your thoughts. Being steeped in the OHC tradition as you are, your ears will be best attuned to read Pusey in this way. I'm most curious to hear if my thesis can be borne out... Also, if you'd like to read paperback rather than online, I am trying to work out international shipping right now at a re-print/curating venture I have been developing through my alma mater (note: How Pusey-heavy it is :) https://nashotah-house-press.myshopify.com/

    3. UK + Ireland shipping now set up at Nashotah House Press!

    4. Thanks for the recommendation!

  4. P.S. I hope you and yours are too!!

  5. BTW, I just heard a historical stat. that I wonder if you know / can verify: St. Paul's Cathedral had 6 communicants on Easter Day, 1800... an interesting snapshot to contrast with St. Paul's under Liddon

    1. Yes, that stat is routinely invoked as a critique of 18th century Anglicanism. The problem, however, is that it seems to be a very localized phenomenon. For example, on the very same day - Easter Day 1800 - there were 311 communicants in St Mary's Cathedral, Kilkenny. The previous Christmas it had 520 communicants, and 280 at Whitsun.

    2. Ah, I am behind the curve; I only just heard it. I sounded too polemical to be True... :) Thanks for the counter-data


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