Private confession in the Oxford Group worked a bit differently. Here the hidden hierarchy of the group was made manifest. Members were encouraged to confess to others with longer membership or greater favor from Buchman, to seek out spiritually superior mentors with adherence to Group principles as the metric. Newcomers would confess to longstanding members, who would confess to Buchman’s inner circle, who would confess to him. This left Buchman with only God and himself to hear his private confessions.
One Groupist, Reverend Geoffrey Allen, a Fellow and Chaplain of Lincoln College, Oxford attempted to explain the virtues of this style of informal private confession between laypeople in his book He That Cometh: A Sequel to ‘Tell John,’ being further essays on the Message of Jesus and Present Day Religion.
In a Church which was fully Christian the natural person to whom to take such confession would be the priest. Whether in the actual Church the priest is always the right person is questionable. He might be shocked; and that might be good neither for him nor for us. The person who receives such confession must be someone who has learnt from his own experience, both under the Cross and in the Christian fellowship, that the forgiveness of Christ outreaches the furthest sin of man. He will therefore never be shocked; before the utmost evil he will say without blame, as Christ would say: Thy sins are forgiven; go and sin no more.’
This paragraph contains a lot to discuss. Allen was asserting that priests are ineligible to hear confession because they haven’t sinned enough, and that instead it is better to confess to a sinner without training. He was also saying that God is never shocked by outrageous sin, no matter how extreme. This positions Groupists, expert former sinners, as closer to the unflappable God than priests, because they have sinned more. It’s a strange theological claim to make.
But Groupists were not trained in pastoral care or psychotherapy, simply in converting new members. And they weren’t under any legal requirement to keep the confessions they heard secret. As a result, gossip and revealing of secrets were problems which plagued the Group from the very beginning. It’s almost as if a college student with a few months of cult indoctrination is a poor substitute for a seminary trained priest or a medical school graduate.