A Metropolitical Visitation of Monmouth

Church in Wales Report, The Monmouth Enquiry and Review (2021)

The Report relates that various ‘disclosures’ and ‘concerns’ were raised a few years ago about the then Bishop of Monmouth. It is not altogether clear what the Bishop was supposed to have done amiss, as the report is heavily redacted. His alleged conduct was much discussed and investigated, but no disciplinary proceedings were taken against him. He later retired on health grounds, to the regret of many in his diocese.

For some 800 years, the Church in Wales was part of the Province of Canterbury in the Church of England. Then in 1920, following a highly controversial Disestablishment, it was reconstituted as an independent, self-governing province of the Anglican Communion, with its own Archbishop.

The conservative, High Church character of the Constitution of the Church in Wales has been discussed elsewhere in this blog. The Constitution provides that

‘The ecclesiastical law as existing in England on 30th March 1920, with the exception of [certain 19th century statutes], shall be binding on the members … of the Church in Wales, and shall be applied to the determination of any question or dispute between them … insofar as it does not conflict with anything contained in the Constitution …’ (1(5)).

It also affirms ‘the powers and functions inherent in the office of Metropolitan [i.e Archbishop] … [and] in the Episcopal Office’ (2(37)).

The notion that Archbishops and bishops possess ‘inherent’ powers may owe more to Tractarian theology and romantic mediaevalism than to ecclesiastical law. However, it is argued that such powers are correctly understood as common law powers, or powers inherited from English law at Disestablishment. This interpretation is consistent with the Constitution’s earlier reference to ecclesiastical law.

In the case of Bishop of St. David’s (1699) 91 English Reports 126 – another Welsh case – English law affirmed that ‘By the common law, the Archbishop has a metropolitical jurisdiction … Archbishops are over bishops, as well as bishops are over the other clergy (p.127) … The Archbishop hath a provincial power over all bishops of his province …’ (p.711).

These authorities make clear that concerns about a diocesan bishop are a matter for the Archbishop, not any other ecclesiastical institution or officeholder, whether inside or outside the bishop’s diocese. Disciplinary proceedings against a bishop are now determined by a Disciplinary Tribunal, not by the Archbishop (9(9)). However, as mentioned, no such proceedings were commenced in this case, so the Tribunal and the Church courts were not involved.

The Archbishop’s metropolitical jurisdiction, like other ecclesiastical institutions, is exercised by a procedure known as visitation. Those subject to jurisdiction are said to be ‘visitable’. In the old days, a visitation resembled a judicial circuit. Modern communications now make it possible to exercise jurisdiction without going on a special trip. A visitation is essentially an inquiry.

The Constitution, conservative as always, provides that ‘Archiepiscopal visitations shall be held as heretofore, and the law and practice thereto shall be that prevailing on 30th March 1920’ (9(43)).

A metropolitical visitation / inquiry is exceptional. Visitations are normally carried out by archdeacons, not Archbishops. The Constitution provides that ‘Archdeacons shall conduct regular visitations of all parishes in their archdeaconries’ (9(43)). The bishop may decide to hold a visitation of his own. But archdeacons have no jurisdiction to visit the bishop, who is their superior. And of course the bishop cannot visit himself.

Hence the need of a metropolitical visitation. The revised canons of the Church of England suggest that the purpose of the Archbishop’s jurisdiction is ‘to correct and supply the defects of other bishops’ (C22(5)), i.e to intervene only when things are going badly wrong.

Although the jurisdiction is his alone, the Archbishop is free to consult others about its exercise. He may also delegate the jurisdiction to others. Persons exercising delegated ecclesiastical authority are traditionally known as ‘commissaries’ or ‘surrogates’.

Canon 128 of 1603 makes provision for ‘The Quality of Surrogates’, but this does not apply to those appointed by Archbishops and bishops, only to inferior delegated authority. The revised canons contain no equivalent of canon 128. So the Archbishop would seem to have an unfettered discretion in his choice of commissaries / surrogates, just as he is unfettered in his choice of consultees.

The Church in Wales report asks whether the Archbishop has a ‘free-standing’ power to suspend a bishop (pp.73-74). It noted that the Constitution empowers a bishop to suspend an officeholder in his diocese (9(39)), but confers no equivalent power on the Archbishop to suspend a bishop (though no power of suspension was actually required in this case, as the Bishop of Monmouth voluntarily recused himself from all official duties).

One of the Bishop’s supportive colleagues argued that the Archbishop did indeed have power to suspend him, under the ‘inherent powers’ provision cited above. Professor Norman Doe was more cautious: ‘it would require a very thorough search of the pre-1920 English ecclesiastical law … to determine whether an archbishop / metropolitan has any power … to suspend a diocesan bishop’.

However, modern ecclesiastical lawyers are fortunate that the late Sir Robert Phillimore did most of the searching for them. Phillimore relates that ‘In the bishop’s [visitation], as also in regal and metropolitical visitations, all inferior jurisdictions … are inhibited from exercising such jurisdiction, during such visitation’ (Ecclesiastical Law, 2nd edition 1895, p.1050).

This suggests that there is no discrete or ‘free-standing’ power to suspend a bishop, because none is needed. On the contrary, the very institution of the Archbishop’s visitation / inquiry automatically suspends the bishop’s exercise of his official functions. Visitation per se effects suspension.

Phillimore’s dictum refers to inhibition rather than suspension, but it is hard to see any material distinction between the two. They have the same practical effect, separation from official function. Indeed the revised canons do not seem to recognise any distinction, providing that ‘During the time of … visitation the jurisdiction of all inferior ordinaries shall be suspended …’ (G5(2)).

There is the apparent difficulty that automatic inhibition is not limited to the bishop, but applies equally to the archdeacons (because they exercise ‘inferior’ jurisdictions) and possibly to other diocesan officeholders as well, even though the visitation / inquiry is concerned only with the Bishop’s conduct.

However, Phillimore makes clear that the automatic inhibition is flexible. It can be appropriately limited or tailored to the scope of the visitation. Thus the visiting Archbishop may grant ‘relaxations … pending the visitation … an unlimited leave or commission to exercise jurisdiction … notwithstanding the visitation’. So the archdeacons could still get on with their work, and diocesan administration continue, with the bishop alone being inhibited. The Archbishop could even limit the inhibition of the bishop himself, by permitting him to continue with some of his functions but not others, or by attaching conditions to his performance of official functions.