Sex v Conscience: Clergy Discipline and Ecclesiastical Law

by Philip Jones

Cases under the Clergy Discipline Measure 2003 are likely to fall into one of two broad categories, which may be conveniently described as sex cases and conscience cases.

In a typical sex case, a lady parishioner may allege that she and the vicar have jointly offended against the Seventh Commandment, or that the vicar has otherwise been guilty of some gross personal misbehaviour.  The vicar denies any wrongdoing.

The outcome of such a case will, of course, depend entirely upon the evidence.  An accused clergyman may therefore be wise to employ an experienced criminal lawyer, skilled in the art of cross-examination, to represent him.  Knowledge of the obscurer points of ecclesiastical law is unlikely to be of much assistance.

Most disciplinary cases are likely to be sex cases, and sex cases are likely to incur the most severe penalties.  However, a conscience case is always possible.

In a conscience case, a clergyman with strong opinions on a particular matter (e.g homosexuality, female ordination) will ostentatiously do some act, or perhaps refuse to do some act, in order to make a point.  If this conduct annoys or alarms the Church authorities, the clergyman may then be disciplined for neglect of duty or disobedience to ecclesiastical law.

In such a case, there is unlikely to be much dispute about the facts.  The difficulty will lie rather in identifying the relevant law.  What was the nature and scope of the ‘duty’ that the clergyman is alleged to have neglected?  If the complaint is disobedience, did the Church authority have the legal power to make the order that the clergyman disobeyed?  A detailed knowledge of ecclesiastical law may therefore be very important in a conscience case.