Objecting to an Ordination

by Philip Jones

‘if there be any of you who knoweth any impediment, or notable crime, in any of these persons presented to be [ordained], for the which he ought not to be admitted to that office, let him come forth in the name of God, and shew what the crime or impediment is’ (1662 Ordinal).

This invitation is made by the bishop to the congregation, with slight differences of wording, during the ordination services of both priests and deacons, though not of bishops.

Many years ago the author of this blog was present at an ordination service where an objection was made to one of the candidates.  She was apparently the first woman to be ordained in the Anglican Church in Wales.  This was, of course, the reason for the objection.

The Bishop made the ritual invitation quoted above.  Four clergymen in the congregation stood up in their places, but said nothing.  Then two ladies came forward.  The Bishop said to them, somewhat coldly, ‘Please address yourselves to the Chancellor, who is my legal adviser’.  The Chancellor, in wig and gown, was standing nearby.  The ladies read out a prepared statement of objection, in unison.  The Chancellor then read out his own prepared statement rebutting the objection, citing a recent amendment of the Constitution of the Church in Wales to permit the ordination of women.

The two ladies and the four clergymen, together with about 20 supporters, then walked out of the Cathedral, where representatives of the news media were busily recording the dramatic event.  Someone in the congregation shouted a reproach after them (‘May God forgive you, you know not what you do!’).  The service then proceeded as normal, and the woman candidate was ordained.

The ordination service could continue as normal because the objection to the candidate did not amount to an ‘impediment’, for the reason identified by the Chancellor.  The ordination of women was lawful.  However, the 1662 Ordinal goes on to provide that ‘if any great Crime or Impediment be objected, the Bishop shall surcease from Ordering that person, until such time as the party accused shall be found clear of that Crime’.

As well as the provision of the Ordinal for objection to be made during the service, the ordination of priests and deacons was formerly subject to a procedure known as the si quis, which may have resembled the publication of banns of marriage.  Phillimore’s Ecclesiastical Law relates a requirement that

‘proclamation [of a proposed ordination] be thrice made in the parish church where the person who offers himself to be ordained inhabits, in order to know the impediments if any be: which the minister of such parish is to certify to the bishop or his official’ (2nd edition, 1895, p.99).

Thus the older ecclesiastical law provided for no fewer than four public invitations to object to an ordination candidate.  However, the scope for objection is limited to an ‘impediment or notable crime’.  It does not extend to any allegation or complaint that a candidate is unsuitable.

The limited scope for objection was demonstrated in the case of Kensit v Dean and Chapter of St. Paul’s (1905) 2 King’s Bench 249.  It is interesting to compare the facts of this case with the Church in Wales case described earlier.  Mr Kensit was a well-known and dogged opponent of ritualism (the last great ecclesiastical controversy before women priests).    He suspected that the ordination candidates engaged in ritualistic practices.  He came forward in response to the Bishop’s invitation, and stated that he ‘felt it incumbent on him to make very serious objections’ to some of the candidates (p.250). 

However, before Mr Kensit could get around to making his objections, the Bishop cut him short by reading out a legal opinion from the Dean of the Arches to the effect that involvement in ritualistic practices, even if they were illegal, did not constitute an ‘impediment or notable crime’ within the meaning of the Ordinal.

The Bishop then warned Mr Kensit that, unless his objections satisfied the wording of the Ordinal, as interpreted by the Dean of the Arches, he should desist from reading them out and would be prosecuted if he persisted.  Mr Kensit did persist in reading out his objections.  Like the Church in Wales objectors, he then walked out of the Cathedral.  Unlike them, however, he was later convicted under the Ecclesiastical Courts Jurisdiction Act 1860 of ‘unlawfully disturbing divine service’ when the Dean and Chapter complained.  His appeal against conviction was dismissed.

What was Mr Kensit’s unlawful disturbance?  He had not come forward unbidden, but in response to the Bishop’s invitation which was itself required by the Ordinal.  His objection was not frivolous or vexatious: the ordination candidates probably were involved in ritualistic practices that were then illegal. The offence against the 1860 Act is an offence against public order and freedom of worship.  Yet Mr Kensit was convicted, not because of what he did or intended to do, but only because he had misunderstood the Ordinal provision: the candidates’ conduct, even if illegal, did not amount to an ‘impediment or notable crime’.  Mr Kensit was found guilty of a criminal offence by a secular court because he had made an error of ecclesiastical law. 

If Mr Kensit had not misunderstood the rubric, and his objections had amounted to impediments or notable crimes, he could have continued to ‘disturb’ the service and yet not been guilty of an offence.  Instead, as the magistrates who convicted him pointed out, the Bishop would have been guilty of an ecclesiastical offence by continuing with the ordination in the face of Mr Kensit’s objection. 

It is argued that Mr Kensit should not have been convicted on this basis.  He was not ‘disturbing’ the service merely by making his objection, because the objection procedure was an integral part of the service.  It was not the business of a secular criminal court to decide whether or not the objection was valid in ecclesiastical law.  That was for the Bishop to decide.  The true question for the secular court was whether Mr Kensit’s conduct exceeded the licence that he needed in order to make his objection, so as to constitute an unlawful disturbance.

The si quis procedure was abolished in the Church of England under power conferred by the Miscellaneous Provisions Measure 1976, s.1.  It also seems to have been discontinued in the Church in Wales.  The 1662 Ordinal has not exactly been abolished, but it is no longer used for ordinations.  As Chancellor Bursell noted in St. Thomas, Pennywell (1995) Family 50, modern ordination services omit provision for objecting to a candidate.  Instead they merely invite the congregation to ‘assent’ to the ordinations.  This means that objections of the kind described above would constitute an unlawful disturbance if made during a modern ordination service.

The abolition of the objection procedure may be regarded as an attempt by the Church authorities to suppress dissent to their choice of ordination candidates.  However, it was not the purpose of the older ecclesiastical law to provide a democratic opportunity for public dissent and protest.  On the contrary, the objection procedure was intended to assist the bishop, by enabling him to be informed of impediments and crimes of which he might otherwise be unaware. 

It is arguable that a formal procedure for objecting to an ordination is now unnecessary.  Ordination candidates will be subject to criminal record checks, if only to establish that they are suitable to work with children (though such checks are still not expressly required by ecclesiastical law).  Modern communications should make it possible for any serious allegation against a candidate to be notified to the bishop in advance of ordination, without the need for a dramatic intervention during the ceremony itself.