Church Membership: Religion and Representation

by Philip Jones

Church Representation Rules 1(2) and 54(1) (Synodical Government Measure 1969, schedule 3).

Lay participation in synodical government has always been subject to a religious qualification.  The qualification differs according to the degree of participation.  A distinction is drawn between

(1) a parish elector (a layperson whose name is on the electoral roll of a parish) and

(2) a lay member of a parochial church council (‘PCC’) or synod.

The present religious qualifications are stated in Rules 1(2) (for electors) and 54(1) (for PCC and synod members) of the Church Representation Rules.  The present Rules date from a statutory instrument of 1994 (no 3118(1)).

The original qualifications were first stated in the Rules for the Representation of the Laity 1(1) and 2(1) (Church of England Assembly (Powers) Act 1919, Schedule 1).  They were rather exclusive in character.  An elector had to be

(1) a baptised member of the Church of England or of another Anglican Church and

(2) not a member of any other religious body not in communion with the Church of England.

Thus the religious qualification was based on communion, and communion meant membership of the Anglican Church.  This had the effect of excluding Protestant non-conformists from participation in synodical government.

A PCC or synod member had to be a communicant member of the Church of England / Anglican Church, not just a baptised member, and thus eligible to be admitted to the Anglican Eucharist.

Within the Church of England / Anglican Church, admission to the Eucharist was conditional upon episcopal confirmation.  The rubric of the Book of Common Prayer provided that a communicant had to be either confirmed, or at least ‘ready and desirous’ to be confirmed, as well as baptised. 

Thus the two degrees of participation in synodical government followed the two degrees of communion in the Church.  An elector had to be ‘in communion’ to the extent of being a baptised member of the Church of England, but was not required to be confirmed.  However, a PCC or synod member, who participated in synodical government to a higher degree than a mere elector,  had to be confirmed or at least ‘ready and desirous’, and so eligible for the full communion of the Eucharist.

In the era of post-war ecumenism, the concept of communion was re-examined.  The result was a greater emphasis on baptism as a sacrament common to all Christian communities.  All baptised persons are ‘in communion’ to some extent. 

It was also thought that, if baptism is the basis of communion, then admission to the full communion of the Eucharist should not, or not always, be conditional upon episcopal confirmation.  This view is consistent with Article 25, which specifically denies that confirmation is a sacrament.  Canon 60 of 1603 describes confirmation as a ‘custom’, though also as a ‘holy action’.

The Admission to Holy Communion Measure 1972 empowered the General Synod to permit baptised members of non-episcopal Churches to be admitted to the Eucharist.  Canon B15A, which was promulged under the authority of the 1972 Measure, confers a right to be admitted to Holy Communion on all ‘baptised persons who are communicant members of other Churches which subscribe to the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, and who are in good standing in their own Church’.

The religious qualifications for lay participation in synodical government were revised in accordance with Canon B15A.  The Church Representation Rules were revised by a statutory instrument of 1973 (no.1865).  That instrument noted that ‘The requirement that [an elector] is not a member of any religious body which is not in communion with the Church of England is abolished’.

Rule 54(1) provides that a PCC or synod member must still be a communicant in the Church of England.  However, the definition of a communicant now includes a person who receives Holy Communion in accordance with Canon B15A, as well as a person who has been confirmed.

Rule 1(2) lacks the clarity and simplicity of Rule 54(1).  It provides that an elector must be

‘(a) a [baptised] member of the Church of England or of a Church in communion therewith resident in the parish; or

(b) to be such a member and, not being resident in the parish, to have habitually attended public worship in the parish … or

(c) to be a member in good standing of a Church which subscribes to the doctrine of the Holy Trinity (not being a Church in communion with the Church of England) and also prepared to declare himself to be a member of the Church of England having habitually attended public worship in the parish …’.

A note to the present Church Representation Rules states that ‘The only Churches at present in communion with the Church of England are other Anglican Churches and certain foreign Churches’.  Thus Protestant non-conformist Churches are still not regarded as being in communion with the Church of England, modern ecumenism notwithstanding.

The wording of Rule 1(2) is convoluted, and may also create an unnecessary ecumenical difficulty.  All baptised individuals may be  members of the Church of England, even though also members of non-episcopal Churches.  They may be in full communion with the Church of England by baptism and sharing in the Eucharist.  However, their Churches are still not in communion with the Church of England.

This does not make much sense of the concept of communion.  It may introduce a false distinction between Church membership and communion.  Surely Church membership is communion?

Rule 1(2) also contains a strange distinction between Church of England ‘members’ and members of other Churches.  A member of the Church of England is entitled to enrolment as an elector on the basis of residence alone, whereas a member of another Church must be an habitual attender of worship.

It is hard to see the justification for this distinction.  All baptised and resident persons in the parish are parishioners.  The parish church is the parish church of them all.  A distinction between residents and non-residents of the parish may be justified.  However, if baptised persons from outside the parish choose to worship in the parish church, it is also hard to see why any distinction should be drawn as between them.

The effect of Canon B15A is that Church membership is now relevant only to the question of episcopal confirmation.  Rule 54(1) makes clear that, if one has not been confirmed, one must be a member of another Christian Church in order to qualify for membership of a PCC or synod.

However, references to Church membership have no proper place in Rule 1(2), because parish electors do not (and never did) have to be confirmed or participate in the Eucharist.  It is therefore argued that such references should be removed.  Rule 1(2) should be read in conjunction with Rule 54(1), not in isolation from it.  It will then become clear that the three relevant qualifications for enrolment as a parish elector are

(1) baptism

(2) residence in the parish and / or

(3) regular attendance at worship.