A Rogue Bishop

by Philip Jones

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.

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