Ecclesiastical law

Month: May, 2017

The Burial Act 1857: A Grave Offence

‘Except … where a [dead] body is removed from 1 consecrated place of burial to another by faculty … it shall not be lawful to remove any body … which may have been interred in any place of burial, without licence [from the Secretary of State] …

‘any person who shall remove any such body or remains, contrary to this enactment … shall, on summary conviction before [the magistrates], forfeit and pay [a fine]’.  S.25 of the Burial Act 1857, the original version.

The case of Fairmile Cemetery (Oxford Consistory Court 2017) concerned a petition for a faculty to exhume a body which had mistakenly been buried in a plot that had been reserved for someone else.  (The case is discussed in a separate post, filed below.)

The judgment relates that some burial authorities correct mistakes of this kind informally, by a practice known as sliding (para 35).  Sliding  involves ‘excavating the ground so as to move the coffin sideways … but without lifting it out of the ground’ (para 34).  This is done without troubling either the ecclesiastical court or the Secretary of State for a licence.  The burial authority, literally, covering up its mistake.

The burial authority involved in the Fairmile case had initially proposed to resolve it by sliding, though an official piously assured the court that this was ‘not a practice she herself would ever resort to’ (para 35).  However, the Chancellor was clearly appalled that sliding had even been considered.  He warned sternly that ‘Should cases of this happening become known to the court, I shall instruct the Registrar to report the matter … to the Police with a view to their investigating whether a criminal offence has been committed’.

Referring to s.25 of the Burial Act 1857, the Chancellor correctly observed that ‘If [sliding] amounts to the remains being ‘removed’ it is … a criminal offence’.  But does sliding amount to removal within the meaning of s.25?

S.25 makes it an offence to remove a dead body, not to disturb one.  It could be argued that not every disturbance of a dead body amounts to removal.  The ecclesiastical exception in s.25 refers to removal ‘from 1 consecrated place of burial to another’.  A ‘consecrated place’ refers to a consecrated burial ground, not to a particular plot within the burial ground.  This may suggest that the s.25 offence applies only to the removal of a body from a burial ground altogether, not to the relocation of the body within the same burial ground.

It is also unlikely that s.25 was originally addressed to incompetent burial authorities.  It was directed rather at grave robbers, known ironically as ‘resurrection men’, one of the grimmer manifestations of the 19th century ‘Age of Science’.

In Gilbert v Buzzard (1820) 161 English Reports 1342, another burial case, the Chancellor, Sir William Scott, shuddered at the ‘ravages … to be dreaded … of the persons engaged in the employment of furnishing bodies for dissection, an employment which, whatever be its necessity, is certainly not conducted without lamentable violation of natural feelings, and occasionally of public decency itself’ (p.1347)

Grave robbers unscrupulously took advantage of the common law rule that there is no property in a dead body.  If a dead body does not belong to anyone then it cannot be stolen.  Grave robbers could therefore dig up a body and sell it on to the medical school with impunity.  S.25 was intended to prevent this.

As the Chancellor observed in Fairmile, s.25 of the 1857 Act has recently been rewritten.  The Miscellaneous Provisions Measure 2014 substituted a new version (at s.2).  The 19th century wording has been tightened up.  S.25(2) now provides that ‘It is an offence for a body or … remains which have been interred in a place of burial to be removed’ without licence or faculty.  There is no longer a reference to a body being removed from 1 place of burial to another.  Perhaps this means that ‘removed’ now refers to disturbance of the original interment, and not merely removal from the cemetery, or consecrated part of the cemetery.  The Chancellor seemed to think so.

The concern expressed in Fairmile is understandable, of course.  Decent and respectful treatment of the dead demands a high degree of formality.  Incompetent cemetery management undoubtedly risks disrespect for the dead, and distress to relatives.  However, the magistrates court may not be the best forum for remedying this.  Political and administrative means, such as scrutiny by councillors, staff disciplinary procedures and references to an ombudsman, may be more appropriate.

A Rogue Bishop

It is reported that a Church of England curate has been illegally ordained, or consecrated, as a ‘bishop’ by the Presiding Bishop of a breakaway Anglican Church based in South Africa.

Reacting to the distressing news, the Church authorities were not slow to refer to the Overseas and Other Clergy Measure 1967.  The Presiding Bishop could only perform episcopal functions in an English diocese ‘at the request and by the commission of … the [diocesan] bishop … and with the consent and licence … of the Archbishop’ (s.4(1)).  Yet he had acted without any such authority.

S.4(2) of the 1967 Measure stresses the authority of the diocesan bishop: ‘any person ordained priest or deacon by a [visiting] bishop acting on such request and by such commission as aforesaid shall be deemed to have been ordained by the [diocesan] bishop … and not by the [visiting] bishop’.  Of course, this provision refers only to the ordination of lesser clergy, not bishops.

The ordination of priests and deacons requires the authority of the diocesan bishop.  The consecration of a bishop requires the authority of the Monarch.

Thus the 1662 Ordinal provides that, before a new bishop is consecrated, ‘the Archbishop [shall] demand the Queen’s Mandate for the consecration, and cause it to be read [i.e read aloud]’ (rubric).  The consecration of a new bishop is performed by archbishops and bishops, but their authority to consecrate comes from the Monarch.  The choice of bishops is a jealously guarded royal prerogative.

Thus even if the local bishop and the Archbishop had given their full agreement to the consecration in accordance with the 1967 Measure, this would still have been ineffective without the Royal Mandate.

The 1967 Measure (which is only 50 years old, after all) may therefore not be the correct starting point for this case.  The Measure probably does not contemplate the illegal ordination of bishops, only of priests and deacons.  The true starting point is the Reformation statutes concerning the Monarch’s rights over the Church and its bishops: the Appointment of Bishops Act 1533, the Suffragan Bishops Act 1534.  And the Submission of the Clergy Act 1533, which provides that no ecclesiastical proceeding ‘shall be contrary or repugnant to the King’s prerogative royal …’ (s.3).

S.4(2) of the 1967 Measure provides that ‘If any overseas bishop performs any episcopal functions … otherwise than in accordance with this section [i.e without the authority of the local bishop and the Archbishop] he shall be guilty of an [ecclesiastical] offence’.

Yet if the offending bishop does not belong to the Church of England, disciplinary proceedings against him are unlikely to be effective in practice.  Moreover s.6(1) provides that an ‘overseas bishop’ means a bishop ‘in communion with the Church of England‘.  The breakaway South African Church is not in communion with the Church of England, apparently.  So the Presiding Bishop could not be subject to ecclesiastical discipline.

However, the English curate who was purportedly ‘consecrated’ by the Presiding Bishop certainly is subject to ecclesiastical discipline.  The Clergy Discipline Measure 2003 provides that ‘doing any act in contravention of the laws ecclesiastical’ constitutes misconduct for which disciplinary proceedings may be taken (s.8(1)).

The case of Bishop of St. Albans v Fillingham (1906) Probate 163 may be instructive here.  The Rev Mr Fillingham was an incumbent of Low Church persuasion.  He objected to the ritualism practised by another incumbent in the same diocese.  He was also disgruntled by the neglect or inability of the Bishop to take action against the ritualist.

He therefore decided to take direct action himself, by purporting to ‘ordain’ a non-conformist minister as priest, using the 1662 Ordinal with certain variations.  His idea was that the non-conformist would undertake an alternative mission in the ritualist’s parish.

Mr Fillingham was duly prosecuted and convicted of an ecclesiastical offence.  The Court of the Arches held that his purported ‘ordination’ constituted ‘an act of rebellion against the organisation and discipline of the Church of England’ (p.179).  His defence of necessity was rejected: ‘he cannot justify his acts … by shewing that they were intended to counteract the wrongful acts of someone else’ (p.176)

The Court found that Mr Fillingham’s offence was unprecedented (p.183).  His case may therefore be the only legally reported case of schism in the Church of England.

The judgment makes clear that a dispute over doctrine or moral values is not a schism.  Schism concerns the power of governance in the Church.  It requires a deliberate act of rejection by the schismatic of an authority to which he is subject.  Yet schism is more than mere disobedience.  It requires an express or implied claim of some other authority, in place of the authority that is rejected.

A century later, in Coekin v Bishop of Southwark (2006), unreported, the Rev Mr Coekin was involved in the ordination of two deacons by another breakaway Anglican bishop.  Mr Coekin did not directly participate in the act of ordination itself, but he associated himself with it and, in particular, he was responsible for ‘the making of necessary administrative arrangements’ in connection with the ordination (para 20).  The report on his case concluded that ‘by the part he played in arranging the [ordination] service [Mr Coekin] bore some degree of responsibility for the resultant breach of canon law’ (para 34).

The facts of these 3 cases are not identical.  Mr Fillingham purported to ordain a priest, Mr Coekin merely facilitated the purported ordination of deacons.  The curate in this case purported to be ordained a bishop.  However, all 3 cases involved active participation in an unlawful ordination.

Mr Fillingham and Mr Coekin were both dealt with leniently.  The Court of the Arches suggested in Fillingham that ‘offences of this nature differ from very grave moral offences in this, that they are not so irretrievable in their results on the reputation of the guilty person’ (p.186).  Mr Fillingham was suspended for two years, but was not deprived of his benefice after undertaking not to repeat his offence.  Likewise, Mr Coekin was allowed to keep his licence after giving suitable undertakings (para 39).

The offence in the present case is arguably graver than the first two, and not just because a bishop is more senior than a priest or a deacon.  It is, of course, part of a bishop’s function to perpetuate the ordained ministry by ordaining new clergy.  The 1662 Ordinal provides that a new bishop must promise to ‘be faithful in ordaining, sending or laying hands upon others‘.

The ordinations in which Mr Fillingham and Mr Coekin were involved were one-offs.  There was no proven intention to participate in future schismatic acts.  By contrast, receiving unlawful ordination as bishop arguably demonstrates an intention to administer unlawful ordinations in the future, and hence to establish a schismatic ordained ministry.  The late Archbishop Lefebvre was, of course, excommunicated for ordaining bishops without the permission of the Pope, as were the bishops he ordained (though the latter excommunications have since been lifted).

The validity of unlawful ordinations is discussed in the blogpost ‘Holy Orders: Validity and Legality’, which is filed below.

The Case of Fairmile Cemetery: A Distinguished Judgment

Oxford Consistory Court 2017, published on the internet website of the Ecclesiastical Law Association (accessed 5th May 2017).

This case offers much food for thought (albeit rather hard to digest) on the faculty jurisdiction over exhumation.

The late Mr Miller was buried in Plot 172 of the consecrated municipal cemetery.  Unfortunately Plot 172 had already been reserved by Mr Leventis, who was still alive.  Mr Leventis had reserved Plot 172 because he wanted to be buried adjacently to other members of his family.

The burial of Mr Miller in Plot 172 therefore infringed Mr Leventis’s legal right.  This was entirely the fault of the local authority.  They had mistakenly advertised Plot 172 as Plot 171.  So Mr Miller’s family thought they were burying him in an unreserved space.

Mr Leventis sought a faculty to have Mr Miller exhumed from Plot 172, but the Chancellor refused to grant one.

The facts stated in the judgment suggest that this was probably the right decision.  Although Mr Leventis could not be buried exactly as he had intended, his wish for a close family burial ‘can be approximately satisfied by the acquisition … of alternative plots … in a different configuration’ (para 80).  The contrite local authority ‘have said they will make such vacant plots as there are available to the Leventis family in any configuration they wish’ (para 85).  (They also paid all the legal expenses of the case (para 87)).  If Mr Leventis was still dissatisfied, he could complain to an ombudsman or sue for damages in the secular court. (para 84).  The slight interference with his burial plans did not justify the disturbance of Mr Miller’s remains and the ‘serious distress’ that this would cause to his family, who were entirely innocent of the mistake (para 80).

The Chancellor also rightly held that, though a mistake over burial and infringement of a right of burial are indeed grounds on which the court may grant an exhumation faculty, the court is never obliged to do this.  A faculty is always a matter for the court’s discretion, which depends on the facts of the particular case.  (He might have added that, though the faculty jurisdiction is subject to legal rights, it is not obliged to vindicate legal rights that others have infringed.)

So far, so reasonable.  But the Chancellor was clearly aware that, though exhumation faculties are not inevitable in cases of mistake and infringement of third party rights, they generally are granted in such cases.  Moreover, he himself had recently granted an exhumation faculty in just such a case:  Twyford Cemetery (2015).

This awareness seems to have made the Chancellor excessively anxious to distinguish this case from other cases where exhumation faculties have been granted.  The decision itself is reasonable, but these attempts to distinguish it from other decisions in similar cases are not.  Two false distinctions are made, concerning

(1) the nature of mistake and

(2) opposed and unopposed cases.

(1) The leading case on private exhumation is Blagdon Cemetery (2002) 4 All England Reports 482, in which the Court of the Arches held that ‘a mistake as to the location of a grave can be a ground upon which a faculty for exhumation may be granted … for example, a burial may take place in the wrong burial plot in a cemetery or in a space reserved for someone else …’ (quoted in para 42)

The Chancellor correctly observed that this dictum ‘does not amount to a rule, or even a presumption, that exhumation will be permitted where a mistake as to the location of a grave has been made’ (para 48).  The language is discretionary (‘can’, ‘may’).  But he went much further: the dictum did not apply to the case at all.

A baffling suggestion.  Surely this is exactly the sort of case to which the dictum applies?  Mr Miller had been buried in the wrong burial plot, which was also reserved for someone else.  There could not be a clearer case of mistake.

The Court of the Arches had gone on to suggest in Blagdon that exhumation faculties in mistake cases ‘amount to correction of an error in administration’, but that the presumption of permanent burial ‘is predicated upon disposal of remains in the intended not in an unintended plot …’.

The Chancellor seized on this last phrase: ‘Mr Miller’s body was buried where his family intended him to be buried … The misdescription of the vacant plot … is not material to that intention’ (para 49).  From this he concluded that ‘This is not … the sort of case identified by the Court of the Arches as being one where faculties can readily be granted’ (para 50).

What does this mean?  That Blagdon only applies where the person seeking the exhumation is the one responsible for the mistake?  Or that it only applies where the mistake concerns the physical location of the burial?

Mr Miller’s family were, of course, not responsible for the mistake.  And the family did intend to bury Mr Miller where they did.  But this intention was vitiated by their ignorance of Mr Leventis’s legal right.  They did not intend to bury Mr Miller in Mr Leventis’s reserved space.  If Mr Levantis’s legal right had been known at the time, Mr Miller would not have been buried where he was.  He was therefore buried in Plot 172 by mistake.  The judgment on this point makes a false distinction, based on an over-analysis of the Blagdon guidance that is strained to the point of perversity.

(2) The exhumation of Mr Miller’s remains was, understandably, opposed by his family.  Most private faculties (like most faculties in general) are unopposed, and they usually concern only the deceased person’s relatives, not third parties.

The Chancellor saw this opposition as a further distinction from Blagdon.  He asserted that ‘Blagdon does not provide any guidance as to how petitions where exhumation is opposed should be dealt with’ (para 48).  He continued: ‘where the Court of Arches addresses cases of mistake [in the Blagdon guidance] it is concerned with cases where exhumation is carried out … with the support of the family of the deceased’ (para 51).

He therefore turned to the Victorian case of Dixon (1892) Probate 386, where the court held that exhumation may be permitted

‘[1] on the application of members of the family, for reasons approved of by the court, or

[2] upon the application of other parties upon the ground of necessity or proved public convenience …’ (quoted para 51).

On the basis of this supposed authority the Chancellor held that, because ‘it is ‘other parties’ [i.e Mr Leventis] who apply for the faculty the test would seem to be a higher one than that which applies where the application is made by … the [Miller] family’.  Mr Leventis would have to show necessity or public convenience, not a mere private right.

It is true that Blagdon was unopposed.  But so was Dixon.  In that case the deceased’s widow was evidently an enthusiast for the then novel practice of cremation.  She wished to exhume her late husband (who had died 18 years earlier) in order to cremate him, so that his ashes could be mingled with hers when the time came.  A faculty was refused.

It should be fairly obvious from this context that the dictum about ‘other parties’ did not refer to a disputed private exhumation.  It referred to public exhumation, i.e cases where exhumation is sought in order to facilitate some development (e.g enlargement of the church, road-widening, reordering of the churchyard).  It was not addressed to the dispute in this case.

In Blagdon, the case which the Court had to decide was unopposed.  However, the guidance that it gave along with its decision was addressed to opposed and unopposed private exhumations alike.

In the published report, the Blagdon guidance is entitled ‘Exhumation: General Principles’ (above para 18).  This hardly suggests that it is limited to unopposed cases.  On the contrary, it is general guidance.  Moreover, the guidance does contain at least one explicit reference to opposed exhumation:

‘we do not regard it as persuasive that there is particular support for an unopposed petition any more than support for a contested petition of this nature would affect the decision on the merits of the petition’ (para 36).

An opposed case will require a more onerous procedure, and is likely in practice to receive closer scrutiny than an unopposed case.  However, there is no reason of principle why opposition to a private exhumation should per se affect the substantive final decision on the case.  Why should two dead bodies be treated differently just because one is the subject of a dispute and the other is not?

As well as the 2 false distinctions, the judgment contains exaggerations introduced to justify the decision.  The Chancellor was understandably influenced by the fact that Mr Miller had been buried with Anglican rites and that his family were practising Christians (para 62), and less impressed by Mr Leventis’s clannish desire to be buried with his family (paras 64-68).  He emphasised the finality of Christian burial (paras 58-61).  However, he went too far in holding that ‘To exhume and relocate [Mr Miller’s] body now would be contrary to the Christian belief of the family’ (para 62).  There is no such Christian belief.  The fact that ecclesiastical courts regularly permit exhumation demonstrates this.

The Chancellor also found Mr Leventis guilty of ‘undue delay’ in applying for Mr Miller’s exhumation.  ‘Approximately a year’ passed between his awareness that his reserved plot had been taken by Mr Miller and the lodging of the faculty petition (para 69).  This may be rather harsh, as secular courts allow as long as 12 years for claimants to assert their proprietary rights.

However, as we noted earlier, the faculty jurisdiction is not concerned with the vindication of legal rights.  The Chancellor cited Watson v Howard, aka St. Luke, Holbeach (1991) 1 Weekly Law Reports 16 (para 55).  The decision to permit exhumation in that case seems to have been taken according to equitable criteria.  Mrs Watson had acted promptly in asserting her right to the burial plot, and had not acted unreasonably in declining alternative arrangements for her burial.