Ecclesiastical law

Month: September, 2014

Pastoral Reorganisation: Canon Law, Statute Law and Common Law

‘Where a new church … shall … be built … and where the bishop … patron and incumbent … shall certify to the Commissioners … that such new church, being duly consecrated, should be substituted for the … existing church … the Commissioners [may] by instrument … declare [accordingly] and to transfer the endowments … .’  (Church Building Act 1845)

‘A church shall not be consecrated, until necessary provision [i.e endowment] be made for the priest.’  (Council of London 1102, canon 16)

The case of Sedgwick v Bourne (1920) 2 King’s Bench 267 makes a good starting-point from which to study the legal constitution of a parish.

The Commissioners had issued their order under the Church Building Act (quoted above) to substitute a newly built church as the parish church, in place of the dilapidated old church.  The new church had been duly consecrated by the bishop.  By the same order, the Commissioners transferred all the endowments of the benefice from the old church to the new.

Some years later an energetic new incumbent was appointed to the benefice.  He sued Mr Bourne, one of the parishioners, for unpaid tithes. 

Mr Bourne defended the claim by pleading the mediaeval canon quoted above (in the original Latin, of course).  When the bishop consecrated the new church the endowments of the benefice had not been transferred to it.  They were only transferred after the consecration.

On this basis, Mr Bourne argued that the consecration was invalid, because it violated the mediaeval canon which required the endowments to be transferred before consecration.  If the consecration was invalid, this meant that the new church was not really the parish church.  This in turn meant that the incumbent was not really the incumbent, because he had been inducted into a church that was not a church of the benefice (or indeed any church at all).  He therefore had no right to the benefice tithes.

Mr Bourne’s defence failed.  The Court held that he had misinterpreted the mediaeval canon.  The canon did not require a legal transfer of the endowments prior to consecration.  It merely provided ‘that the bishop must satisfy himself that there will be future maintenance secured’ (p.274).  Moreover, the bishop was the sole judge of the sufficiency of the endowments.  Even if he were mistaken, that would not render the consecration invalid.

However, the essential reason for Mr Bourne’s failure was that the mediaeval canon was simply irrelevant.  The substitution of the new parish church was regulated by the Act of 1845, not by the mediaeval canon.  The provisions of the 1845 Act had been complied with.  Moreover the Act specifically provided that the endowments should be transferred to the new church after consecration, not before.

Sedgwick v Bourne is another example of the confusion which results from failing to distinguish between English ecclesiastical law and canon law.  The ecclesiastical law, contained in the Act of Parliament, provided that a new parish church is constituted as such by order of the Commissioners.  Canon law provided that a new parish church is constituted by episcopal consecration.  English parish churches are governed by English law, not by canon law.  The rule of canon law is therefore legally irrelevant, though it may be of historical interest.

Admittedly the 1845 Act (like its successors) contributed to the confusion by retaining the practice of consecration.  If the parish church is constituted as such by statutory scheme or order, and not by consecration, then what is the point of consecration?  It is legally superfluous.  Perhaps the practice is retained out of respect for its antiquity, or to emphasise the Church of England’s continuity with the mediaeval Church.

English ecclesiastical law comprises unwritten common law as well as statute law.  Before the 19th century most ecclesiastical law was common law.  Much of the 19th century legislation, including the 1845 Act, was introduced to enable what is now called pastoral reorganisation, the creation of new parishes, churches and benefices, and eventually new dioceses.

Phillimore relates that the pastoral legislation was needed ‘to meet the grave and increasing deficiencies in the ministration of … religion in all large towns, the population of the country ever growing and … shifting its centres’ (Ecclesiastical Law, 2nd ed 1895, p.1639).  At first, private or local Acts of Parliament were obtained for new churches in particular places.  The first public general Act regulating pastoral reorganisation was the Church Building Act 1818.  The Church Building Commissioners, later the Ecclesiastical Commissioners, and later still the Church Commissioners, were appointed to administer reorganisation.  By the time Phillimore wrote, another 16 public Acts had been passed.  To date there have apparently been about 40 pastoral statutes (Acts of Parliament and Church Measures).

The law regulating pastoral reorganisation is now mostly consolidated in the Mission and Pastoral Measure 2011.  With 112 sections and 9 schedules, the 2011 Measure is the longest ecclesiastical statute.  However, the unrepealed provisions of the Dioceses, Pastoral and Mission Measure 2007 continue to regulate the reorganisation of dioceses.

Pastoral legislation was, and is, required because common law was virtually powerless to effect pastoral reorganisation.  This also indicates the distinction between ecclesiastical law and canon law.  Canon law empowered the bishop to constitute a new church by consecration.  Common law did not grant any such power to the bishop.

The mediaeval canon law concerning consecration and endowment may well explain the bundle of common law rights that attach to parish churches.  Parishioners enjoy rights to attend divine service and get married and be buried in the churchyard because the property was originally donated for their benefit.  The incumbent’s rights are required to enable him to do his job and earn a living.  The bishop’s right of oversight, and the delicate balance of rights between the patron and the bishop, are required to ensure that the church is used in accordance with its proper purpose, the administration of the divine Word and Sacraments.

However, these common law rights are static in nature.  They are concerned only with the regulation of existing parishes.  Mediaeval canon law transmitted no power to common law to constitute new parishes and parish churches.  Hence the need for pastoral legislation.

The canons of 1603 permitted a bishop effectively to group two or more parishes together, by appointing a single incumbent to hold more than one benefice at the same time (canon 41), but the incumbent was required to maintain an assistant curate (canon 47).  No other powers of pastoral reorganisation were conferred by the 1603 canons.  Nor did the 1603 canons even refer to the bishop’s power to consecrate new churches.

Phillimore confirms that ‘The ecclesiastical arrangement of England [as settled in the middle ages] … remained unalterable, even by the highest authorities of the Church, without the consent of Parliament.  For the parish was a division of civil as well as ecclesiastical importance, and, dating from time immemorial, could only be altered by or under … Act of Parliament’ (p.1638).

‘Dating from time immemorial’ meant that the constitution of a parish was sometimes unclear.  If a common law right was disputed the court might have to determine the boundary of a parish, or whether a particular building was or was not the parish church.

Thus in Braithwaite v Hook (1862) 7 Law Times 254, a local vicar prosecuted the Dean of Chichester for officiating without permission in a churchyard that the vicar claimed belonged to his parish.  However, the court held that the churchyard belonged to Chichester Cathedral, not to the parish.  The churchyard was located within the Cathedral precincts.  The court therefore concluded that it was extra-parochial because:

(1) ‘the precincts containing no lay families would require no parish priest’ and

(2) ‘the Bishop [of Chichester] would not hold it consistent with his dignity to place a parish priest over his own head’,

referring to the Cathedral’s foundation in mediaeval times.

In Line v Harris (1752) 161 English Reports 54 the court acknowledged that a parish church was normally, but not invariably, identified by ‘the administration of sacraments and sepulture’ (p.57).  It concluded on the facts that the disputed place of worship in the case was actually a chapel of ease rather than the parish church. 

Pastoral legislation obviates the need for such forensic inquiries.  Statutory parishes, churches and benefices should be identified from the scheme or order by which they are constituted as such, without the need to study ancient historical evidence.

Designated Offices and Common Tenure

Although equal security of tenure for all beneficed and licensed clergy is the general rule under the Ecclesiastical Offices (Terms of Service) Measure 2009, there are exceptions.  S.2(2) of the Measure makes clear that ‘common tenure’ is not incompatible with ‘appointments of limited duration’.

The only such appointment which is specifically referred to in the 2009 Measure concerns that of a priest-in-charge during a vacancy in the benefice.  The licence of a priest-in-charge may be revoked when the vacancy comes to an end (s.3(4)).  However, the Measure also provides that the bishop may revoke a licence granted to a person ‘in connection with employment under a contract of employment’ (e.g a school or hospital chaplain), if the contract is terminated by the employer (s.3(5)).

The Regulations issued under the 2009 Measure provide further categories of appointments of limited duration.  These are stated at Regulation 29.  Such appointments may be either

(1) for a fixed term (which may, however, be extended for a further period or periods indefinitely) or

(2) terminable on the occurrence of a specified event.

Some temporary appointments are fairly obvious.  They include

(1)  a post created to cover a colleague’s authorised absence from work

(2)  a post created as part of a mission initiative (mission initiatives are temporary in nature) and

(3)  a licence granted to an office holder who is above the retirement age of 70.

 However, Regulation 29 also provides for 3 categories of ‘designated office’ that are of limited duration:

(1)  Training posts.  These may arise where the office holder (e.g a recently ordained curate) is required by the bishop to undertake initial ministerial education.

(2)  Posts subject to sponsorship funding.  Such a post may arise where any part of the office holder’s remuneration ‘package’ (i.e stipend, pension, accommodation, expenses) is funded or supplied from outside the official Church (‘defrayed by a person or body other than a diocesan board of finance, parsonages board, parochial church council or the [Church] Commissioners’ (29(4)).  The post might need to be terminated for financial reasons if the sponsor withdrew support.

(3)  Probationary offices.  These may arise

(a)  where the office holder is returning to the Church after a career break (‘has not held any ecclesiastical office in any place during the [preceding] 12 months’ 29(5)) or

(b) where the office holder has a bad disciplinary record under the Ecclesiastical Jurisdiction Measure 1963 or the Clergy Discipline Measure 2003, or was removed from his previous office under the capability procedure introduced by the 2009 Measure (29(6) and (7)).

Training and sponsorship posts (1) and (2) can only be licensed offices, not benefices.  Also, the office of team vicar may not be designated as a sponsorship post.  However, it would be possible, on the wording of Regulation 29, for a benefice to be designated as a probationary office. 

Regulation 29 is silent as to any procedure for the designation of offices.  It does not specify who does the designating, or how, or when.  Moreover, it provides only that offices ‘may’, not must, be designated as such.  This suggests that a particular office need not be designated as a training, sponsored or probationary office, even if it matches the description of one.

Although Regulation 29 is vague, it must be clear from its context that an office can only be designated by the bishop, or at least with his agreement.  The bishop confers title to the office, whether beneficed or licensed.  If an appointment is to be of limited duration, this fact must be recorded on the ‘statement of initial particulars of office’ to which the new office holder is entitled (reg 3(5)(j)).  The statement must be prepared by a diocesan officer nominated by the bishop (3(1)(a)).

The initial statement must be given to the office holder not later than one month after he takes up the office.  The Terms of Service Regulations also envisage that particulars of office may change after the office holder has been appointed.  In that case, the office holder is entitled to another statement ‘containing particulars of the change’ (Reg 6(1)).

It may be very unlikely in practice, but the vagueness of Regulation 29 suggests the possibility of a misunderstanding over the designation of a particular office.  The office holder might accept an office before realising that it is designated and therefore of limited duration.  The bishop might change his mind and designate an office after the office holder has been appointed, thereby reducing the office holder’s tenure.

A disappointed office holder could then have recourse to the diocesan grievance procedure required by the Terms of Service Regulations (reg 32), but this may not be a very attractive option as the grievance procedure is controlled by the bishop.

Clerical Capability

The Ecclesiastical Offices (Terms of Service) Measure 2009 suggests 3 procedures for removing clergy on account of their unfitness for office:

(1) the prosecution of ‘reserved’ offences against doctrine, ritual and ceremonial, under the unrepealed provisions of the Ecclesiastical Jurisdiction Measure 1963

(2) proceedings under the Clergy Discipline Measure 2003 and

(3) the capability procedure, or procedures, provided under the 2009 Measure itself (s.3(3) and (6)).

The capability procedures are described as ‘procedures to assess the performance of office holders, including remedies for inadequate performance’ (s.2(2)(d)).  Under the Terms of Service Regulations 2009, capability procedure takes the form of ‘an inquiry into the capability of an office holder to perform the duties of his or her office’ (reg 31(1)).  The bishop may instigate an inquiry ‘if he considers that the performance of an office holder affords grounds for concern’.  Any inquiry must be conducted in accordance with a statutory Code of Practice (reg 31(3)).

The 2009 Measure does not completely abolish the old class distinction between beneficed and licensed clergy.  However, it seeks to provide that, once they are beneficed or licensed, all clergy will enjoy the same security of tenure and be subject to the same professional discipline.  This point is made by describing the terms of service under which beneficed and licensed clergy hold office as ‘common tenure’ (s.1(3)).

However, it has been argued elsewhere in this blog that ‘common tenure’ is endangered by the confused relationship between the Clergy Discipline Measure and the capability procedure, i.e procedures (2) and (3) above (see posts filed below under this category).

The statutory Codes of Practice concerning the 2003 Measure and the capability procedure are not reassuring on this point.  The Clergy Discipline Code suggests, ominously, that the boundary between discipline and capability procedure

‘will need to be determined on a case by case basis.  It is in the interests of justice for there to be flexibility between the capability procedure under the [Terms of Service] Regulations and disciplinary proceedings under the [2003] Measure, so that cases are dealt with in the most appropriate way’.  (paras 259-60, emphasis supplied).

It is argued that this view is mistaken.  On the contrary, ‘the interests of justice’ demand consistency and certainty.  Clergy discipline, like all professional discipline, is a penal, quasi-criminal jurisdiction which exists to maintain professional standards and public confidence.  This demands that everyone, both the subjects of the jurisdiction and the public, should know what to expect and that the subjects of the jurisdiction should be treated the same.

The Clergy Discipline Code suggests that it is for the bishop to decide whether a complaint should be pursued under the 2003 Measure or under the capability procedure (para 261).  The Capability Code provides that the person appointed by the bishop to oversee a particular case (usually the archdeacon) may suspend a capability inquiry if he decides that the matter should be dealt with under the 2003 Measure or the Ecclesiastical Jurisdiction Measure 1963 (para 22.1).

Neither Code provides for the accused clergyman to have a say in the matter.  The only protection afforded to him is that both Codes agree that he should not be subject to disciplinary proceedings and capability inquiry at the same time.

The danger is that the ‘flexibility’, or rather, the arbitrary ‘case by case’ approach which results from the uncertain boundary between the Clergy Discipline Measure and the Terms of Service Measure will undermine the common professional discipline that was the raison d’etre of both Measures.  Different clergy will be treated differently in respect of the same alleged misconduct.  Worse, accused clergy will only be able to defend themselves in the ecclesiastical courts if their bishops and archdeacons permit them to do so.  The uncertain boundary may cause the capability jurisdiction to become larger and larger as that of the ecclesiastical courts becomes smaller and smaller. 

What is the correct purpose of the capability procedure, if it is not to trespass on proceedings under the Clergy Discipline Measure?  One obvious use for a capability procedure is to assess an office holder’s medical fitness.  It is not misconduct to be in poor health.  The Terms of Service Regulations expressly provide for a medical capability procedure (cf reg 28).  Another use of the capability procedure is to address pastoral difficulties between an office holder and his parishioners.

In the case of Bland v Archdeacon of Cheltenham (1972) 1 All England Reports 1012 the Court of the Arches firmly held that disciplinary proceedings cannot be used to resolve a difficult pastoral situation by removing an incumbent who has alienated his parishioners but cannot be got rid of by other means.  In the wake of that case, the Incumbents (Vacation of Benefices) Measure 1977 was passed. 

The 1977 Measure introduced a procedure whereby incumbents and team vicars could be removed from office or subject to special restrictions, if it was found on inquiry that their conduct had contributed over a substantial period of time to a serious breakdown in pastoral relations.  ‘Serious breakdown’ was defined as a situation which impedes the promotion of the Church’s mission in the parish (s.19A).

Unfortunately the inquiry procedure provided by the 1977 Measure was so lengthy and expensive that it was hardly ever used.  The case of Cheesman v Church Commissioners (1999) Privy Council 12 records that the Bishop in the case was forced to abandon proceedings against the Rev Mr Cheesman on account of their sheer length and expense (p.20).  The Bishop complained bitterly that the 1977 Measure was ‘a deeply flawed piece of legislation’ (quoted at p.22).  The Privy Council itself acknowledged that ‘It is [the Measure’s] structure which makes the implementation of the 1977 proceedings so cumbersome and uncertain in outcome’ (p.6).

As mentioned, the 1977 Measure applied only to incumbents and team vicars.  This was long before common tenure was introduced.  Licensed clergy who fell out with their parishioners would simply have their licences terminated.

However, s.11(6) of the Terms of Service Measure provides that the 1977 Measure does not apply to any clergy who are subject to common tenure.  This means that the 1977 Measure will soon become obsolete (to the extent that it is not already!) as all clergy will eventually be subject to common tenure. 

The effective repeal of the 1977 Measure under s.11(6), and the decision in Bland, imply that pastoral breakdown will in future be addressed by the capability procedure.

This may have implications for clergy who take advantage of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013 to enter into homosexual ‘marriages’.  We have argued elsewhere that such clergy are safe from the ecclesiastical courts as the law now stands.  However, they may not be so safe from the capability procedure.  It is arguable that the procedure could be used to remove them from office if inquiry were to show, at least to the satisfaction of the Church authorities, that their status had caused pastoral difficulties.

The Divine Right of Kings

John Neville Figgis, The Divine Right of Kings (1896).

This post, and the one that follows it, depart somewhat from the usual subject-matter of this blog.  They are appreciations of commentaries by two outstanding Anglican writers.  Although they are not concerned with ecclesiastical law the commentaries address two subjects close to ecclesiastical law, the relationship between the Church and the secular state, and Christian morality.  

The author, a high Anglican clergyman, sought to address the position of the Church in the modern, and British, world at the end of the 19th century.  On one view, this had never been stronger.  The British empire was at its zenith.  The Church of England had followed in its wake to create the worldwide Anglican Communion.  However, the Church was also vulnerable.  The theocratic regime and theocratic assumptions on which it had been based since the Reformation had collapsed.  The British constitution was hardly less secularised than it is today.  Theories of natural law had become discredited in favour of a legal positivism.The Church of England remained ‘established’, but there was some agitation in favour of disestablishment, and the overseas Anglican Churches were all constituted on a voluntary basis.

While accepting that divine right theory has no place in the contemporary world, the author attributes to it the emergence of modern liberal democracy: ‘to the derided Anglican clergy of the 17th century are due many of the most cherished principles of modern life’ (p.213).  It was the achievement of divine right theory in England to effect a gradual and largely peaceful transformation from mediaeval theocracy to stable pluralist democracy.

Divine right theory emerged in the late middle ages, though its origins may be traced to the Bible and ancient history.  It was enthusiastically adopted by the Tudor regime in England.  Henry VII’s claim to the Crown was weak, and the Crown itself had been weakened by the Wars of the Roses.  Divine right theory was therefore an intellectual force for strong government and passive obedience thereto.  During the Reformation, it was employed to promote the Crown’s claim of supremacy over the English Church and to oppose the Pope’s own claim of divine right.  Its popularity revived in the later 17th century following the restoration of the Stuarts and the unsettling experiences of the English civil war and the Cromwell regime.  The theory inculcated the need for continuity in national life, and a ‘law-abiding habit’ regardless of social class.

Divine right theory teaches that ‘laws’ and ‘human rights’ are not enough by themselves.  Law requires a lawgiver, a sovereign, to make and enforce the laws.  The sovereign is, and must be, ‘technically arbitrary’ (p.241).  The author deprecates the ‘[impossible] dream of a perfect state with no power in it exempt from legal limitation’.

The sovereign need not be an hereditary monarch.  However, sovereignty cannot be explained in terms of a mere social compact.  The state is an entity that is native to mankind, not something artificially created by mankind.  As Burke taught, the state has an ‘organic character’, an identity and character of its own (p.251).  It therefore cannot be dismantled and reconstructed ab initio.

Sovereignty may be democratic rather than autocratic, but there is no sovereignty of the people in any modern state.  In Britain, Parliament is sovereign, not the electorate.  The electorate cannot be sovereign because it does not make and enforce the laws.  Its function is limited to electing those who do.

The modern secular state does not acknowledge the supreme authority either of the Pope or of a Calvinist presbytery.  Any clerical hierarchy within the state is subordinate to the sovereign.  The English state repudiated the authority of the Pope at the Reformation and also declined to accept a presbyterian regime on the Genevan model.  Instead it asserted ‘absolute competence to prescribe forms of religious belief … and … of ecclesiastical organization’ (p.202).

However, this totalitarianism was mitigated by the state’s ‘consent[ing] to be guided’ by the English hierarchy (p.202).  The clergy were the ‘experts’ on whom the state relied in all matters of religion.  Anglicanism compared favourably with Gallicanism, which ambiguously asserted a state sovereignty in political matters while admitting the ‘spiritual claims’ of the papacy, yet could not resolve the tension between political sovereignty and religious claim (p.112).

The essential function of a clerical hierarchy is to guarantee or protect the religious conscience.  Provided the state accepted the advice of the clerical ‘experts’ there was no need of a papacy or presbytery.  Once the state accepted the principle of religious freedom, that obviated the need for any clerical hierarchy at all.  Thus a religious ‘establishment’ is not essential in a free country.  A clerical hierarchy is only necessary where the state denies religious freedom to its subjects, or purports to determine religious questions for itself.

The course of history in the 2oth century, after the author wrote, makes it doubtful that the benign legacy he attributed to divine right theory has endured.  The positivist link between law and lawgiver rests on the assumption that sovereign and subjects share a common conception of what law is.  It assumes that the sovereign will always respect certain values, values which are derived from the Christian religion.  The atrocities committed by modern totalitarian regimes have shattered that assumption.  It is therefore harder to accept that law can be entrusted to any sovereign lawgiver.

Modern secularism has also challenged the assumption of a law based on Christian values.  The author’s conclusions on religious freedom look a little complacent (with the benefit of hindsight, of course).  The state should undoubtedly practise religious tolerance but it is questionable whether the state can ever be neutral in matters of religion.  Tolerance and neutrality should be clearly distinguished.  If the state affects a religious neutrality, it merely constructs a religion-substitute or ideology of its own, which takes the place of traditional religion, and which may be far from tolerant of religions which contradict it.

It is therefore arguable that a religious ‘establishment’ of some sort may be essential to religious freedom after all.  If religious freedom is to be respected the state ought to, indeed must, accept one religion as the religion of the state, while tolerating others.

Christian Morality

Hensley Henson, Christian Morality (1936), the Gifford Lectures of 1935-6.  Hensley Henson (1863-1947) was Bishop of Durham during the interwar period.

Jesus and Judaism

The earliest Christian preaching had a simple twofold message:

(1) the Resurrection of Jesus and

(2) a call to repentance (p.39).

The Gospel accounts of Jesus’ life (miracles, parables etc) came later (p.40).

However, the Gospels provide the mode of repentance: ‘it is … in the life and teaching of Jesus that [we] must find the supremely authoritative version of … duty’ (p.54).  For this reason, the historical character of the Gospels is ‘vital’ to Christian morality.

Christianity, hence Christian morality, ‘is unique in attaching vital importance to the personal character of the Founder’ (p.301).  It has always been part of Christian tradition that Christ was without sin.  Even non-Christians who deny Christ’s divinity, Resurrection and miracles are still prepared to accept His sinlessness (p.302).

Judaism anticipated Jesus’ teaching to some extent.  By the time of Jesus, Judaism was a ‘book’ religion, concerned with rules of behaviour more than with sacrifice: ‘the pharisees controlled the synagogue, the sadducees controlled the Temple’ (p.69).

As the Jewish religion became more personal and ethical, and less communal and sacrificial, it began to reach out to the pagan world (pp.72-3).  ‘Every synagogue became a missionary centre’ (p.74).

Christian morality, inspired by the teaching of Jesus, continued the moral trend of Judaism, but went further.  Jesus ‘stood at the parting of the ways’ of the two Judaisms, the nationalist and the universalist.  He also ‘broke the paralysing bonds of pharisaic legalism’ (p.84).

Specifically, Jesus advanced beyond contemporary Jewish morality in 3 respects:

(1) His message was universal, addressed to all humanity, not just to a particular race

(2) He opposed the ‘mechanical’ concept of duty taught by the pharisees and

(3) He was progressive in His attitude to women (p.99).

Tension and Genius

Christianity teaches that man is born to original sin, and yet contains an essential goodness, being made and loved by God.  Therein lies the tension between

(1) self-discipline (which is necessitated by original sin) and

(2) self-expression (which is demanded by essential goodness) (pp.190-1).

Jesus’ earthly life was partly ascetic (celibacy, fasting in the wilderness) and partly non-ascetic (turning water into wine, dining with worldly companions) (cf.p.192).  Christianity likewise has both an ascetic and a non-ascetic character.  Therein lies another source of tension.  All religions have an ascetic tradition (p.190).

The Sermon on the Mount ‘provides the most complete version of essential Christian morality which the Church possesses’  (p.254). However, it is not simply ‘a manual of conduct to be precisely followed’ (p.253).  Applying the principles of the Sermon to changing practical circumstances involves ‘the painful and repulsive necessity of learning and unlearning [to achieve] sound knowledge’ (p.290).

St. Paul’s letters show how Jesus’ teaching was applied in the earliest Christian communities.  Paul was personally ascetic, but he did not ask his Churches to imitate his lifestyle.  His pastoral advice to them is ‘sober practical admonition’ (p.94).  The early post-Apostolic Church had a rigorous penitential system, but this ‘could hardly ever have been more than theoretical’ (p.133).  Christianity had nothing in common with stoicism (p.147).

Morality consists of unalterable principles, which are, however, applied to ‘ever novel conditions of life’ (p.138).  The soundness of a principle is proved by its applicability to a new situation.  Thus Christian morality must be both unalterable and adaptable at the same time.  If it is not adaptable, morality is reduced to ‘an unnatural and impracticable idealism’ (p.149).

The genius of Christianity was that it ‘purified, stimulated and completed whatever in the world was congruous with itself’ (p.147).  Christianity prevailed because it ‘is alone genuinely natural’ (p.189).  Thus true morality consists in enabling people to become what they truly are.

This ‘unique genius of assimilation … distinguishes Christianity from every other religion’ (p.150).  The influence of Christian morality is shown in the fact that ‘Christian civilization has become in the modern world the norm of civilization itself’ (p.161).

Prevailing social custom and convention may be the chief enemies of true Christian morality (cf.p.44).  However, ‘Christianity ever stoops to conquer … acquiescence is … the weapon by which the Christian religion conquers the hostile forces in its secular environment, and slowly but surely introduces its own transforming spirit’ (p.275).

Sexual Morality

Early Christianity practised a strict sexual morality.  This was partly a reaction against contemporary pagan religion.  Pagan worship ‘was linked so closely with sexual licence that in Christian eyes the two were inseparable’ (p.133).

However, sexual morality remains at the heart of Christianity.  It cannot be dismissed merely as a reaction against pagan practices of 2000 years ago.  Hard though it may seem, Christian morality does demand ‘holding the animal passions … under the control of the higher instincts of man’s nature … at whatever cost of inner conflict’ (p.220).  ‘[T]he true law of [man’s] nature can only be his Creator’s Will.’

Jesus’ teaching on sexual matters was the most original aspect of all His teaching (p.199).  He was celibate, thereby constituting virginity as ‘the specifically Christian virtue’ (p.197, quoting Harnack).  He enjoined purity and condemned divorce (p.199).

The basis of Jesus’ sexual teaching is monogamy.  Its purpose is the protection of women and children, though also to serve ‘the deepening and sweetening of the man’s character which follows the birth of his child’ (cf.p.209).

However, the indissolubility of marriage is, on Henson’s view, a Christian ideal (p.202) rather than the legal characteristic which it became in the middle ages (p.200).  There is ‘no rule with respect to divorce which can properly claim to be … Christian’ (p.201).  The Christian attitude to divorce, above all, may illustrate the tension between unalterable principle and adaptable application.

The Lambeth Conference of 1930, which gave a guarded approval to artificial contraception, marked ‘a decisive breach with ecclesiastical tradition’ (p.217).  Earlier Lambeth Conferences had condemned the practice.  As Henson wrote elsewhere, the term ‘birth control’ is really just a euphemism for birth prevention.

However, the 1930 Lambeth resolution may be consistent with Christian morality, to the extent that it requires that ‘Christian parenthood … must imply a frank recognition of all sound and relevant knowledge’ (p.218).  This may mean that contraception, on Henson’s view, can be justified as an act of responsible parenthood, but not so as to create a new type of sexual relationship not involving parenthood. 

Social Morality

In the 19th century, responsibility for charitable relief (of poverty and sickness) and for education passed from the Church to the secular state, ‘a power plainly superior to the Church in [practical] effectiveness’ (p.251).  This has caused the Church, perhaps for the first time in its history, to support greater power for the secular state.  Historically, the Church has usually been in the position of demanding autonomy from the state, not wishing more power to the state.

The reason for the Church’s conversion to the cause of secular state intervention is, of course, the noble Christian aims of improving social conditions and relieving poverty and distress.  However, giving all responsibility for welfare and education to the secular state carries the danger of totalitarianism.  People will look to the state, not to the Church, for their moral guidance and ‘salvation’.  The Church itself will become secularised as a result.  It will have nothing left to do except to support the state, or indeed to criticise the state for not intervening enough in society.

Henson opposes a socialist emphasis on ‘equality’:  ‘Since men are unquestionably unequal, and the extent of their risks and labours varies indefinitely, equity itself authorises a large inequality of recompense’ (p.276).

Free-market capitalism is also preferable and superior to the slavery and feudalism which it replaced (p.276).  However, Protestant-inspired capitalism and the famous Protestant ‘work-ethic’ are too reliant on the ‘inferior morality’ of the Old Testament, with its dubious ‘association of divine favour and mundane prosperity’ (p.278).