Ecclesiastical law

The Easter Offering: Duty and Charity

[At] the Offertory, so many as are disposed, shall offer unto the poor men’s box every one according to his ability and charitable mind.

And at the offering days appointed, every man and woman shall pay to the Curate [i.e the incumbent] the due and accustomed offerings.’  (Book of Common Prayer 1549, rubric)

There seem to be 2 widely held assumptions concerning the Easter offering, that:

(1) it is the collection taken at church services on Easter Day and

(2) the proceeds are part of the incumbent’s official income, at least if the incumbent wishes to claim them.

The 1549 rubric quoted above suggests that this assumption is mistaken.  The rubric indicates a clear distinction between the Easter offering and the normal offertory collection, including the collection taken on Easter Day.  The Easter offering is separate from, and additional to, the offertory collection.

Moreover, the two payments are different in character.  The offertory collection is a voluntary charitable donation for the relief of poverty.  The Easter Offering, by contrast, is a ‘due’ payment, not a gift determined by charitable disposition.  A due is a duty (just like a duty on imported goods).  The Easter Offering is a compulsory payment, a tax payable to the incumbent.

As the rubric implies, Easter was not the only ‘offering day’ in the middle ages.  Phillimore relates that there were originally 4 offering days in all, Christmas, Easter, Whitsun-Pentecost and the feast of the dedication of the parish church (Ecclesiastical Law, 2nd edition 1895, p.1243).

However, from 1552 onwards, Easter is the only offering day referred to in the Book of Common Prayer.  The revised rubric provides that

‘yearly at Easter, every parishioner shall reckon with his parson, vicar or curate … and pay to … him all ecclesiastical duties, accustomably due …’.  The word offering no longer appears.

This revised wording, of course, makes more explicit the compulsory nature of the payment, and its difference from the voluntary donation for the poor.

Phillimore suggests that the Easter duty was a common law right of all incumbents (p.1243).  Therefore an incumbent did not have to prove his right to payment.  An Easter offering was a larger payment than the common law duty, but it was payable only if the incumbent could prove an immemorial custom in the parish for payment of the offering (i.e a custom dating from 1189, very difficult to prove).

Victorian legislation permitted individual parishes ‘to enter into a parochial agreement for the commutation of Easter offerings’ (p.1244), i.e to cancel the parish offering in return for payment of a one off lump sum to the incumbent.

Although reference to Whitsun as an offering day was removed from the Prayer Book in 1552, Pentecostals (Whitsun offerings or duties) may have continued after that time.  The Ecclesiastical Jurisdiction Measure 1963 provides that Pentecostals ‘shall cease to be exigible’ (demandable) (s.82(3)), but does not mention the Easter duty / offering.

The Easter duty / offering referred to in the Prayer Book has not been generally abolished, but it has been effectively destroyed by inflation.  The common law duty was a mere twopence a head (2d), so would now be impossible to enforce in practice.  An immemorial offering (if it can be proved) will only be worth a few pence more.  Common law and customary payments may not be adjusted for inflation (see the case of Bryant v Foot (1867) 2 Law Reports Queen’s Bench 161).

On our analysis, therefore, the incumbent’s only legal right is to the compulsory, though negligible, Easter duty.  He has no a priori common law right to keep the voluntary Easter collection for himself (any more than collections taken on other Sundays).  Even though it was removed from the rubric as long ago as 1552, the word ‘offering’, with its connotation of voluntary donation, has served to conflate the two payments artificially, encouraging a perception that they are one and the same.  However, they are clearly distinct in law.

The rubric concerning the offertory collection has changed since 1549.  It now provides that ‘the money given at the Offertory shall be disposed of to … pious and charitable uses’.  This, of course, allows a broader scope of use of the money than that available in 1549.  The money can now be applied to many uses other than the relief of poverty.  However, it is hard to argue from this that the incumbent’s personal benefit constitutes a ‘pious and charitable’ use.

The Parochial Church Councils (Powers) Measure 1956 empowers the parochial church council (‘the PCC’) ‘jointly with the minister to determine the objects to which all moneys to be given or collected in church shall be allocated’ (s.7(iv)).   If they cannot agree, the bishop decides instead (s.9(3)).

This power was originally expressed to be ‘subject to the directions contained in the Book of Common Prayer as to the disposal of money given at the offertory’.  The incumbent and PCC (and the bishop) therefore remained bound by the rubric.  They could decide how, exactly, the collection money was to be spent, but it still had to be spent on pious and charitable uses.

This restriction on the use of the collection money was removed in 1988, so the incumbent and PCC are no longer bound by the rubric at all.  However, it is arguable that, even in its amended form, the 1956 Measure does not confer an unfettered discretion on the incumbent and the PCC.  It suggests that the collection money must still be applied for the benefit of ‘objects’, i.e purposes or causes, rather than the benefit of particular people.

It has been pointed out that the rubric in the Book of Common Prayer applies only to the collection taken at Holy Communion.  The Prayer Book makes no provision for collections taken at Morning and Evening Prayer and other services.

In the case of Marson v Unmack (1923) Probate 163 the Court of the Arches suggested that ‘Collections … other than … the offertory, may lawfully be made for objects determined by agreement between the incumbent and the PCC.  Such objects may be and … ought to be announced to the congregation before collection …’ (p.169).  Again, the reference is to ‘objects’, and the Easter collection is not specifically discussed.

Apart from the wording of the 1956 Measure, it is arguably inconsistent with the incumbent’s trusteeship of the collection money for him to be able to determine that it should be paid to himself, even with the agreement of the PCC and the bishop, and even if the congregation is fully informed.  There is a clear conflict of interest.  A trustee may not profit from his trust.

If the incumbent’s claim on the voluntary Easter collection has no basis in common law it obviously requires a statutory basis.  It might therefore be appropriate to amend the 1956 Measure to provide this.

Moore’s Introduction to English Canon Law (3rd edition 1993) suggests that nowadays incumbents do not bother to claim the Easter collection, ‘since such offerings merely result in a pro tanto reduction in the [stipend] paid by the diocese’ (p.92).  Thus the stipend is simply reduced by the amount of the Easter collection money so the incumbent is no better off.

The Terms of Service Regulations 2009 confirm that an incumbent’s right to be paid the national minimum stipend is not absolute, but is subject to ‘any [other] income received by the office holder from other sources which is related to or derived from the duties of the office’ (reg 11.1).

Nevertheless the question of the Easter collection may still be relevant, even if incumbents no longer benefit personally.  A large sum of donated money is at stake.  If the incumbent makes a purported covenant or assignment of the Easter collection (to the diocese or elsewhere), this will be invalid if he is not entitled to the money in the first place.  (Nemo dat quod non habet).  Likewise, any decision on the allocation of the money, taken under the powers conferred by the 1956 Measure, may be flawed if it is influenced by the mistaken belief that the incumbent has a legal claim on it.


Electing the Bishop of Llandaff: Propriety and Privacy

The informative Thinking Anglicans website has drawn attention to a potential legal dispute concerning the election of the new Bishop of Llandaff, in the Church in Wales.

Legal objections to the election of bishops are raised from time to time, of course (though they invariably fail).  But the novelty of the Llandaff case is that an objection has been made even though no bishop has been elected.  The objection concerns the conduct of the Electoral College that failed to elect one.

The Constitution of the Church in Wales provides that

‘If, at the close of the [Electoral College], which shall not extend beyond 3 consecutive days, no person shall have received two-thirds of the votes of those present and voting, the right to fill the vacancy shall pass to the Bench of Bishops, unless and until the Governing Body shall have otherwise determined’ (Chapter 5, Reg 23).

It is not disputed that the Llandaff Electoral College met for 3 days, nor that it failed to elect a candidate by a two-thirds majority.  However, the objectors claim that the proceedings of the College during those 3 days were conducted so improperly as to render them invalid.

The invalidating impropriety consisted of ‘the raising … of the matter of sexuality or civil partnership status, in direct contravention of the Church in Wales’s own policy that sexuality or civil partnership status is not a bar to appointment as a Bishop’.  (It is thought that raising this matter at the Electoral College meeting deterred some electors from voting for an openly gay candidate, and thereby caused him to fall short of the required two-thirds majority.)

There are difficulties with this objection.  If accepted, it would render decisions of the Electoral College very vulnerable to external challenge in the future.  It might take only 1 elector to raise an ‘inappropriate and prejudicial’ matter to invalidate the entire proceeding.

The assertion of the Church’s ‘policy’ is also questionable.  Chapter 5 of the Constitution regulates ‘The Archbishop and the Diocesan Bishops’, and the Electoral College procedure.  There is nothing in Chapter 5 to the effect that sexuality and civil partnership are not a bar to election as a bishop.  A policy made only by means of a collective statement from the Bishops is not part of the Constitution, and therefore cannot bind the Electoral College.

(And even if sexuality etc is not a ‘bar’ to election as a bishop, that does not mean that it is irrelevant, or that any discussion is forbidden.)

Allegations of procedural irregularity will be difficult, even impossible, to prove satisfactorily, because the Constitution provides that any meeting of the Electoral College ‘shall be private‘ (Reg 21.1).  This is mandatory legal language: ‘shall be private’ means ‘must be private’.  There is no discretion to waive privacy.

However, let us assume (for the sake of argument) that the electoral procedure was indeed tainted with grave impropriety.  Who has power to declare it invalid?

Perhaps it does not matter in this case.  Suppose the Electoral College had elected a new Bishop by some improper procedure.  If the election was invalid, this would mean that the Bishop-Elect had not really been elected at all.

The Constitution provides that an election is confirmed when the Bishop-Elect is notified to the Bench of Bishops and ‘if they or a majority of them … are satisfied of his fitness‘ (Reg 26.1).  But if, unfortunately, they ‘are not so satisfied, another election shall be held in similar manner …’ (Reg 26.2).

The word ‘fitness’ seems to refer to the candidate’s personal qualities rather than his election.  It suggests that the Bishops could reject a candidate for some personal fault or limitation, but not for any flaw in the procedure by which he was elected.

But of course it is unnecessary to decide the point here, because no candidate was elected or notified to the Bishops.  Thus the constitutional provisions as to ‘fitness’ are not engaged.

Hence any impropriety by the Electoral College is arguably irrelevant, because

(1) it did not purport to elect a candidate, and

(2) it has now lost the right to elect.

Its procedure may have been invalid, but this did not result in an invalid election.  The procedural impropriety may have caused the loss of the right to elect, because it caused the Electoral College to fail to elect a candidate by a two-thirds majority within 3 days.  But that is the Electoral College’s own fault for acting improperly.  The loss of the Electoral College’s constitutional right is therefore self-inflicted.

(Of course, the gay candidate may well be disappointed, but he has not been deprived of any constitutional right, only of a personal ambition.  Indeed the constitutional rule of privacy suggests that a candidate has no right even to know that he is a candidate, unless and until the Electoral College elects him by the required majority.)

However, the objectors would presumably not have bothered to object in the first place if they had taken this view.  They may argue that the procedural impropriety was such that the Electoral College never really met at all.  This means that the College has not lost the right to elect, since it has not yet had the opportunity of exercising that right, and the right has not passed to the Bishops.  The Electoral College must therefore meet and deliberate again, and properly this time.  (And hopefully the preferred candidate will at last achieve the majority that has hitherto eluded him.)

Chapter 5, Reg 23 (quoted above) suggests that only the Governing Body of the Church in Wales has power to reconvene the Electoral College after it has failed to make an election.  As it says, the lapse of the right of election to the Bishops is not unconditional after the Electoral College’s failure to elect, but only if ‘the Governing Body shall [not] have otherwise determined’ (see also Reg 24).

The Thinking Anglicans website relates that the objection ‘has now been referred to the Legal Sub-Committee, which is a body in the Church in Wales assembled to consider legal and governance matters’.

However, it is difficult to see what this Sub-Committee can achieve, however legally learned its members.  Absent proper authority from the Governing Body, it has no power under the Constitution to investigate the deliberations of the Electoral College.  And to be effective in practice, any investigation of the objection is bound to contravene the constitutional rule of privacy concerning the Electoral College meeting.  One procedural impropriety is remedied by committing another.

Ecclesiastical Preferment: Canon 33 and Martyn v Hind

Canon 33 of 1603, The Titles of such as are to be made Ministers, provided that

‘no person shall be admitted into sacred orders, except he shall …

[1] exhibit to the Bishop … a presentation of himself to some ecclesiastical preferment then void in that diocese; or shall

[2] bring to the said Bishop a … certificate that either he is provided of some church within the … diocese … or of some minister’s place vacant …’.

It goes on to warn that

‘if any Bishop shall [ordain] any person … that hath none of these titles … then he [the Bishop] shall keep and maintain him … till he do prefer him to some ecclesiastical living.  And if the said Bishop shall refuse to do so, he shall be suspended … from giving of Orders by the space of a year’.

Canon 33 was discussed in the case of Martyn v Hind (1776) 98 English Reports 1174.  The case sheds an interesting sidelight on the status of Church of England ministers.

Mr Martyn was a newly ordained curate.  He sued his rector (or former rector), Dr Hind, after the latter dismissed him.

When appointing Mr Martyn, the rector had stated that ‘I … promise to allow him a yearly sum of 50 guineas for his maintenance … until he shall be otherwise provided of some ecclesiastical preferment …’.  Mr Martyn was referred to in the third person because the statement was addressed to the Bishop, not to him.

Some time after his appointment as curate, Mr Martyn took on the office of ‘parish reader’, an appointment in the gift of the vestry that had nothing to do with the Bishop.  (Presumably he needed the extra money.)  The rector took the view that Mr Martyn was now ‘otherwise provided of some ecclesiastical preferment’, and that this in turn had the effect of releasing the rector from his promise of payment and entitling him to dismiss Mr Martyn.

When sued for the 50 guineas, the rector tried to argue that he had no liability to Mr Martyn, because the promise had been made only to the Bishop, to satisfy the requirements of Canon 33.

However, the court held that the rector’s statement ‘[was] not a contract with the Bishop to indemnify him: but a certificate and assurance to the Bishop of a matter of fact’, viz that Mr Martyn had a suitable job to go to (p.1177).  The instrument was ‘merely a matter of information to the Bishop: the contract [was] with the curate’ (p.1178).  As well as complying with the requirements of Canon 33 and the Bishop, the rector’s act of appointment also created a contract between himself and Mr Martyn.

The court held that Canon 33 ‘shows that … it is not barely necessary that [an ordination candidate] should have a maintenance [i.e an income]: but that he should likewise have … some church where he may exercise his ministerial function: for that is the ground upon which the Bishop is entitled to ordain’ (p.1177).

This suggests that the Bishop’s right to ordain a candidate is conditional on the candidate’s possession of a title, an ecclesiastical office.  If the candidate lacks a title, that will not invalidate the ordination, but Canon 33 effectively obliges the Bishop to obtain a title for the candidate himself.  (An ordained minister could not undertake secular employment.)

The same point also disposed of the rector’s next argument.  He claimed that Mr Martyn had never really been his curate at all, because, though ordained, he had not been licensed by the Bishop.

However, the court held that the ordination itself constituted a licence to officiate as curate.  Mr Martyn had not been ordained simpliciter.  On the contrary, the Bishop had ordained him to the particular curacy.  The office of curate was ‘the very foundation and title of the ordination: therefore he [Martyn] is licensed to all intents and purposes’ (p.1178).

Canon 33 was replaced by Canon C5 of the revised Canons.  Canon C5 does not repeat the threat of financial liability on a bishop who ordains without title.  However, it still requires that an ordination candidate ‘shall first exhibit to the bishop … a certificate that he is provided of some ecclesiastical office  … which the bishop shall judge sufficient’.

However, the new regime of ‘common tenure’ suggests that it is now the Bishop’s responsibility to certify the office, not the candidate’s.  The Terms of Service Regulations 2009 provide that an ecclesiastical office ‘may be designated as a training post if the office holder is required by the … bishop to undertake initial ministerial education’ (29(3)).  Like other officeholders one newly ordained is also entitled to a written statement of particulars of office (including remuneration) from a diocesan officer nominated by the Bishop (3(1)).  This may mean that an ordination candidate is ordained to the diocese more than to a particular office.

To return to Martyn v Hind.  The court doubted that Mr Martyn really was a parish reader: ‘The term reader has confounded us … [Mr Martyn] is not a reader in any sense of the law.  This is nothing more than a parish employing a clergyman … to read prayers, and they call him a reader’ (p.1178).

As the court observed, a reader (or lector) ‘is one of the 5 minor orders of the Roman Church, inferior to the deacon’.  It was therefore a lay office: ‘a reader known to the canon law is always put in opposition to a clergyman: they [readers] are always considered laymen’.  That was why the court doubted that Mr Martyn could be a reader, because he was an ordained clergyman.

The reader’s status was a matter of contemporary practice, as well as ‘foreign’ canon law.  The court noted that parishes would appoint lay readers where clergy were lacking.  For example, ‘in the Welch dioceses, where there is no endowment worth the while of a clergyman to accept … many persons officiate as readers ‘in opposition to clergymen”.

Whatever the precise nature of the parochial office bestowed on Mr Martin, it was not an ‘ecclesiastical preferment’.  This was because ‘the office [is] such as requires no licence or authority [from the Bishop].  Therefore … it is impossible to consider this as an ecclesiastical preferment’.  So the court awarded Mr Martyn his 50 guineas.

The court’s conclusion was therefore that the office of reader could not be an ecclesiastical office because

(1) it was an intrinsically lay office and

(2) it lacked episcopal authority.

Today a reader is still a lay officeholder (1).  The revised Canons are clear that only ‘a lay person’ can become a reader (cf Canon E4(1)).  An ordained minister is not eligible.  However, the office now requires episcopal authority just as much as that of an ordained minister (2).  It is no longer a parochial appointment but an episcopal one.

Thus a lay reader must be both (1) admitted to office and (2) licensed to officiate by the Bishop (Canons E5 and E6).  The Bishop may not licence a stipendiary reader unless satisfied that ‘adequate provision’ has been made for the reader’s maintenance (E6(4)).  A stipendiary reader also holds common tenure on the same terms as stipendiary clergy (Terms of Service Measure 2009, s.1(1)).

Continuing Anglicanism: Conscience and Communion

‘the exercise of conscience is an act strictly and indefeasibly individual.  A number of individuals may take the same stand of conscience; but individuals they remain nevertheless.  No commonality, no collective identity, is created, nor can those who follow their own consciences create a new legitimacy, a new source of authority or conformity’.

(Enoch Powell on the non-jurors, The Times 14 November 1988)

A small piece of ecclesiastical history is being made today with the consecration of the first woman bishop in the Church in Wales.  This year will also see the 40th anniversary of the Affirmation of St. Louis, Missouri in 1977, made by ‘traditionalist’ Anglicans who could not accept the ordination of women.

The Affirmation of St. Louis announced that the constitutional structures of the Anglican Church of Canada and the American Episcopal Church had dissolved as a result of ‘unlawful attempts to alter faith, order and morality’.  Thus the Affirmation did not purport to dissolve any structure.  It merely declared that the structures had dissolved already.

The constitutional structure of the North American Church had dissolved, but not the Church itself.  On the contrary, the Church continued to exist.  It was therefore in need of a new constitutional structure.

The Affirmation therefore made a distinction between (1) the Church and (2) its constitutional structure.  ‘The Church’ comprises bishops, clergy and laity.  Thus the Church consists of real people, its structure is an artificial institution (or institutions).

If the constitutional structure is dissolved, where is the authority to create a new structure?  The authority came from the Affirmees themselves, who ‘affirm, covenant and declare that we, lawful and faithful members of the [North American] Churches, shall now and hereafter continue and be the unified continuing Anglican Church in North America, in true and valid succession thereto’.

Authority and communion were therefore united in the Affirmation.  The Affirmation itself was to be the source of constitutional authority in the continuing American Church.  Full communion was found only in the Church declared by the Affirmation.

The reference to a covenant makes the point that the basis of future governance is the Affirming Church members’ covenant with each other.  And the Continuing Church proceeded to make constitutional rules and to govern itself on the basis of this 1977 covenant.

A covenant is capable of creating a consensual authority as between the parties thereto, but it cannot bind third parties.  Moreover the whole point of a consensual covenant is that it rests upon the consent of the individual parties, which may be withdrawn at any time.  The ‘unified’ Church proclaimed in 1977 did not last long.  Today there are apparently several continuing Anglican Churches (including at least 2 in this country), each of which claims that it, and it alone, is in ‘true and valid succession’ to the Church recognised by the Affirmation.  Authority and communion have become hopelessly fragmented.

The Affirmation of St. Louis offers what might be called (to adopt the language of Brexit) a ‘hard’ continuing Anglicanism.  A softer continuing Anglicanism is to be found in the Church of England, and in the Church in Wales.  It was described in an interesting paper, ‘Ecclesiological Issues’, delivered by the Bishop of Ebbsfleet to a conference held in anticipation of today’s historic event (21-22 September 2016, text accessed on the Credo Cymru website 19 January 2017).

The Bishop belongs to the Society of St Wilfrid and St Hilda.  This Society is described as ‘an ecclesial structure which continues the orders of bishop and priest as the Church has received them’ (para 12).

The Society requires the appointment by the Church of

(1) a male bishop

(2) who only ordains male priests and

(3) is a member of the Society’s ‘College of Bishops’.

Such a bishop is required because he supplies the magic ingredient of full communion.  By providing pastoral oversight to traditionalist clergy and parishes he is their ‘focus and means of … communion’.  The full communion of the Society’s College of Bishops brings its clergy and parishes into a relationship of full communion with each other.

That is not all.  The bishop also effects a degree, or ‘dimension’, of communion (albeit something less than full communion) between his followers and their own diocesan bishops, also their ‘neighbouring parishes in the life and structures of deanery and diocese’.  In other words, a bishop of the Society forms a link or bridge between traditionalists and the rest of the Church, ‘their brothers and sisters … under the oversight of bishops who ordain both men and women’ (para 13).

Apart from the reference to ‘continuing’ the ordained ministry, this is a far cry from the Affirmation of St. Louis.  There is no triumphalist assertion of authority and communion.  The Society does not consider the existing ecclesiastical structures to have dissolved.  On the contrary, it wishes to be accommodated within them.  Nor does it make any exclusive claim of communion.  It seeks to integrate the full communion that exists between its members inter se into the communion of the Church.  So far from ‘unchurching’ other Church members who do not share its traditionalism, it humbly asks to be admitted to the same degree of communion within the Church as they.

The Bishop conceded that his Society and its College of Bishops have no authority in English law (nor in the constitution of the Church in Wales).  There is no legal mention even of their existence.  Their sole basis is the mutual recognition and consent of their members.  They are not a Church within a Church, merely an informal ‘ecclesial network of clergy and parishes, with ‘a certain ecclesial pattern’.

Above all, the Society makes a strict submission to ecclesiastical authority: ‘nothing can alienate the parish and its clergy from the juridical oversight of the diocesan bishop’ (para 9).  A bishop of the Society can offer only pastoral oversight.

Thus the ‘full communion’ proposed by the Society has no legal basis or expression to support it.   It depends entirely on the goodwill of those outside the Society who possess the necessary legal authority to appoint its bishops to positions of pastoral oversight.  If they refuse to appoint such bishops (and the Church in Wales authorities have refused so far, notwithstanding the Bishop’s eloquence at the conference), that is too bad.  There can be no full communion.

This bleak narrative of continuing Anglicanism, in both its hard and soft versions, supports the moral drawn from the experience of the non-jurors of 1688-89, quoted above.  Forty depressing years end where they began, with an individual conscientious objection.  They demonstrate that an act of conscience cannot create an authority or a communion.

Brexit: The High Court fills a Legislative Lacuna

The intention of Parliament … is a shorthand reference to the intention which the court reasonably imputes to Parliament in respect of the [statutory] language used (Lord Nicholls of Birkenhead)

‘it is inappropriate for the courts to trespass further than parliamentary intention by … filling … a lacuna under the guise of public policy’ (Mr Justice David Steel)*

The famous Brexit case is formally cited as R v Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union on the application of Miller and Another (2016) EWHC 2768 Administrative Court.  It concerns the British exit (or Br-exit for short) from the European Union (‘the EU’).

What exactly is the EU?  The EU is constituted by a number of treaties (i.e contracts) made between the member states.  Joining the EU therefore means acceding to, becoming a party to, the EU treaties.  By the same token, leaving the EU means withdrawing from, ceasing to be party to, those treaties.

The issue raised by the Brexit case concerns ‘whether, as a matter of the constitutional law of the United Kingdom [not EU law], the Crown … is entitled to use its prerogative powers to give notice … for the United Kingdom to cease to be a member of the European Union’ (para 4).  Can the Crown withdraw the UK from the EU treaties unilaterally under the Royal Prerogative, or does it require the authority of Parliament to do this?

The High Court (not the usual single judge but 3 of the most senior judges in England, assisted by no fewer than 24 barristers) concluded unanimously that the Crown does not have such unilateral power.  The consent of Parliament is therefore required.

The decision has been the subject of fierce but legally inarticulate criticism.  Few constitutional lawyers have opposed it.  The Supreme Court will shortly hear an appeal, which it is widely expected to dismiss.

It is well settled that the Crown, not Parliament, negotiates treaties with other countries on behalf of the UK.  The High Court acknowledged that ‘the conduct of international relations is a matter for the Crown in the exercise of its prerogative powers’ (para 89).  Withdrawal from the EU treaties obviously engages international relations between the UK and the other members of the EU.  So why should this matter be treated any differently from other international business?

The High Court’s answer was that parliamentary approval is required because of the effect of withdrawal on UK domestic law.  ‘It is precisely because … the conduct of international relations [normally] has no effect in domestic law that the courts accept that this is a field of action left to the Crown …’ (para 89).

The European Communities Act 1972 (‘the ECA’)

The United Kingdom joined the EU on 1st January 1973, after Parliament had passed the European Communities Act 1972 (‘the ECA’).  For all its constitutional significance the ECA is a very short piece of legislation, with just 12 sections as originally enacted.  (This brevity was deliberate, to facilitate the Bill’s controversial passage through Parliament and discourage amendments.)

Why was the ECA needed in the first place?  The High Court explained that

‘by reason of the limits on its prerogative powers … the Crown could not have ratified the accession of the UK to the European Communities under the [EU] treaties … unless Parliament had enacted legislation.  Legislation … was needed to give effect to EU law in [UK] domestic law … as was required by those [EU] treaties …

‘… If this legislation [i.e the ECA] had not first been put in place, ratification of the treaties by the Crown would have immediately have resulted in the UK being in breach of its obligations under them, by reason of the absence of provisions for direct effect of EU law in domestic law’ (paras 41 and 42).

This suggests that the ECA was passed because the Royal Prerogative was in need of legislative support in order to ratify the EU treaties properly in accordance with international law.  As we shall see, the Court’s conclusion on the Brexit case is arguably inconsistent with this account, its own explanation for the ECA.

S.2(1) of the ECA provides that ‘rights … created by or arising … under the [EU] treaties … are without further enactment to be given legal effect … in the United Kingdom [and] shall be recognised and available in law, and be enforced … and followed accordingly’.  It further provides that ‘the expression enforceable Community right … shall be read as referring to [these rights]’.

The effect of s.2(1) is therefore that EU-inspired rights, which are enjoyed today by millions of people, are incorporated into UK domestic law.  Leaving the EU will not per se repeal the ECA.  (Repeal will undoubtedly require legislation.)  However, Brexit will affect the legal rights to which the ECA gave effect.  The High Court suggested that ‘virtually everyone in the United Kingdom or with British citizenship will … have their legal rights affected if notice [of withdrawal] is given’ (para 7).

Some EU-inspired rights, such as those relating to employment, could continue in domestic law even if the UK left the EU (para 58).  Other rights (eg freedom of movement and trade within EU countries) could continue only with the agreement of the remaining EU members (para 59).  Some rights (eg the right to stand for election to the European Parliament) would be lost completely (para 61).

Thus the Brexit case exposes a tension between 2 constitutional principles

(1) the Royal Prerogative to make, and withdraw from, international treaties and

(2) Parliamentary supremacy over domestic law.

Constitutional principle asserts that, while dealings with other countries are indeed a matter for the Royal Prerogative, the Prerogative cannot be used to alter domestic law.  Withdrawal from the EU will alter domestic law because of s.2(1), even though it will not repeal the ECA.  This means that constitutional principle (2) trumps (1) if there is a conflict between them.

However, the status of the EU-inspired rights in domestic law depends on the ECA.  The ECA is an Act of Parliament, not a constitutional principle.  Absent the ECA the EU rights would have no status at all in UK law.  The Brexit case therefore turns on the question of what Parliament intended by legislating as it did.  It does not turn on constitutional principle per se.  The High Court acknowledged that its decision must depend on ‘What Parliament intended by legislating in the [ECA]’ (para 82).

The answer to that question, however, was loaded with a presumption that Parliament intended to legislate in accordance with the constitutional principles identified by the Court.  ‘Where background constitutional principles are strong, there is a presumption that Parliament intended to legislate in conformity with them’ (para 82).

All presumptions are rebuttable, of course.  (2) will not trump (1) if ‘it [can] be inferred that … Parliament … intended … to produce effects at variance with [constitutional principle]’ (para 82), i.e if it can be inferred that Parliament intended, when it passed the ECA, that the Royal Prerogative could be exercised even though this would affect the s.2(1) rights.

The Court therefore reviewed the text of the ECA.  Not just s.2(1), but s.2(2), and s.1 and s.3.  Also the long title of the Act ‘to make provision in connection with the enlargement of the European Communities to include the United Kingdom’.  Also the heading of s.2 ‘General Interpretation of Treaties’ (para 93).

Having done this, the Court held that it is ‘clear that Parliament intended … to introduce EU law into domestic law … in such a way that this could not be undone by the exercise of Crown prerogative power’ (para 92).

The Intention of Parliament

Thus the Court’s conclusion was that Parliament had a twofold intention when it passed the ECA:

(1) to give effect to the EU treaties by introducing the treaty rights into domestic law (obvious) and

(2) to ensure that those rights could not be ‘undone’ by Royal Prerogative in the future.

Conclusion (2) above is therefore the essential reason, the ratio decidendi, for the High Court’s decision on the Brexit case.  Not constitutional principle per se, but the intention of Parliament deduced from the text of the ECA, albeit subject to a presumption that that intention will accord with constitutional principle.

It is argued that the High Court’s conclusion (2) was wrong and that its decision on the case was therefore wrong also.

The obvious difficulty with conclusion (2) is that the ECA says nothing about leaving the EU.  It is concerned only with joining the EU.  It regulates UK membership of the EU while that membership continues.  However, it makes no provision for the cessation of UK membership.

As Lord Nicholls indicated (in the dictum quoted above) the intention of Parliament depends on the language used in the statute.  The High Court did pay close attention to the language of the ECA, but this exercise merely demonstrates that the ECA simply does not address the issue raised by the Brexit case.

This means that, in reaching conclusion (2), the High Court went beyond the language of the ECA.  It imputed to Parliament an intention that Parliament did not have.  It effectively implied an unwritten provision into the ECA that Brexit requires the authority of Parliament.

If the ECA did contain a ‘Brexit clause’ that provided for, or even referred to, the possibility of EU withdrawal, then the High Court would indeed be right to interpret this provision or reference conformably with ‘background constitutional principles’.  But, as it is, there is no such provision or reference.

Perhaps the ECA ought to have included a Brexit clause, to regulate any future withdrawal from the EU.  The absence of such a provision in the ECA is arguably anomalous, a lacuna (i.e a gap or loophole).  But the Court’s function of giving effect to the intention of Parliament does not extend to filling in legislative lacunae on Parliament’s behalf.  That is a matter for Parliament itself.

Parliament has now had the best part of half a century to assert its supremacy by amending the ECA so as to include a Brexit clause.  It is still not too late for it to do so.  (And presumably it will do so if the appeal to the Supreme Court fails.)  But deciding whether or not to amend the ECA is none of the High Court’s business.

Thus it could be argued that, by presuming to fill the lacuna in the ECA concerning Brexit, the High Court was itself guilty of infringing the constitutional principle of parliamentary supremacy.

The High Court stressed the implausibility of Brexit by Royal Prerogative alone.  If an Act of Parliament gives effect to important legal rights then surely any interference with those rights must require another Act of Parliament?  ‘Parliament having taken the major step of switching on the direct effect of EU law in the national legal systems … it is not plausible to suppose that it intended that the Crown should be able by its own unilateral action … to switch it off again’ (para 87).

Yet there is no implausibility if we consider the historical context of the ECA.  In the early 1970s, as today, the Crown was represented by a Conservative government with a slender majority in Parliament.  The Bill that became the ECA was only passed in the face of determined opposition from within the government’s own party as well as from the official opposition.  Hence its brevity.  (History repeated itself two decades later, when Parliament passed the European Communities (Amendment) Act 1993, which concerned the Treaty of Maastricht.)

The political situation in the early 1970s was therefore the exact opposite of what it is in the current Brexit case.  A strongly pro-EU government was striving, from a distinctly weak position, to persuade a sceptical legislature to join the EU.  When viewed in this context, it is not surprising that the ECA fails to address the possibility that the government might one day seek to withdraw from the EU against the wishes of the legislature.

The High Court’s own account of the EU accession (paras 41 and 42, quoted earlier) suggests that the purpose of the ECA, i.e the intention of Parliament, was to strengthen the Royal Prerogative, not to limit or exclude it.  It could even be argued that Parliament’s intention in passing the ECA concerned international law, not domestic law at all.  Parliament intended to empower the Crown to ratify the EU treaties effectively, hence to ensure UK compliance with international law.  The introduction of EU law into UK domestic law was therefore merely incidental upon that ratification.

* Lord Nicholls’ dictum is taken from the case of R v Secretary of State for the Environment ex parte Spath Holme Ltd (2001) 2 Appeal Cases 349 at p.395.  That of David Steel J is from Hashwani v Jivraj (2010) 1 All England Reports 303 at p.317.

Holy Communion and the Constitution of the Church in Wales

‘And there shall none be admitted to the Holy Communion, until such time as he be confirmed, or be ready and desirous to be confirmed’ (Book of Common Prayer 1662, rubric)

The bishops of the Church in Wales have just issued a radical Pastoral Letter concerning admission to Holy Communion (September 2016, accessed on the Diocese of St. Davids website on 17th September).  This announces that the bishops ‘are giving permission for all those who are baptised … to receive Holy Communion’.  Confirmation, and even readiness for confirmation, will no longer be required.  As the Pastoral Letter says, this decision means that ‘even the youngest of children [will] be entitled to receive Holy Communion’.

The Pastoral Letter asserts that baptism is the only ‘gateway’ to the Eucharist, so ‘no [further] barrier should be erected to prevent all the baptised from making their communion …’.  Removing the ‘barrier’ of confirmation will ‘readopt the practice of the Early Church with respect to admission to Holy Communion’.

It is not for this blog to comment on the theological merits of the bishops’ decision.  We question only the legal authority for the decision.

The Pastoral Letter says that the bishops have ‘taken [legal] advice … and have been given the assurance that such a step does not require any change in the present Canon Law or Constitution of the Church in Wales’.

This is surprising.  A major and radical change is being made to the administration of the Church’s principal act of worship.  Surely this must require some amendment of the Church’s Constitution?  And what about the 1662 rubric, quoted above?

In the Church of England, Canon B15A(1) provides that ‘There shall be admitted to the Holy Communion … baptised persons who are communicant members of other Churches … and who are in good standing in their own Church’, as well as those referred to in the 1662 rubric.  The intention is that practising members of non-conformist Churches, which lack episcopal structure and confirmation, can still receive the Anglican Sacrament.  Canon B15A was promulged under the Admission to Holy Communion Measure 1972.

That is the English law.  The Church in Wales was constitutionally separated from the Church of England in 1920, as a result of Disestablishment.  Since then it has been governed, as the Pastoral Letter indicates, by its own Constitution.

The Constitution does not seem to contain an equivalent of Canon B15A.  It incorporates a number of ecumenical Declarations of ‘intercommunion’, or ‘full communion’, according to which ‘Each Communion agrees to admit members of the other Communion to participate in the Sacraments’ (September 1966), but such Declarations seem to be restricted to overseas Churches which possess episcopal structures (e.g the Spanish Reformed Episcopal Church).  They do not extend to local non-conformists.

However, the Church in Wales Prayer Book 1984 makes a critical amendment of the 1662 rubric:

‘Except with the permission of the Bishop, no one shall receive Holy Communion until he is confirmed, or is ready and desirous to be confirmed.’

The permission of the Bishop.  In the Pastoral Letter, the bishops are jointly giving a general permission to baptised but unconfirmed persons to receive Holy Communion.  The 1984 rubric makes clear that bishops already have a constitutional power to permit unconfirmed persons to be admitted to the Sacrament.  So maybe the legal advice referred to in the Pastoral Letter is correct, and the Constitution does not require amendment after all.

However, it is suggested that there are constitutional difficulties with the Pastoral Letter, whatever its good intentions, as follows:

(1) On its wording, the 1984 rubric indicates that confirmation remains the general rule for receiving Holy Communion.  The Bishop is empowered to dispense from the general rule, i.e allow exceptions in particular cases, but that is all.  He cannot abolish the general rule altogether.  Yet that is exactly what the Pastoral Letter is seeking to do, abolish the general rule of confirmation.  This arguably exceeds, or at least misuses, the bishops’ power, which is merely to permit exceptions.

(2) Canon B15A gives practising non-conformists the legal right to receive Holy Communion.  The 1984 rubric, by contrast, does not confer any legal right on an unconfirmed person.  It provides only for the possibility of permission from the Bishop.  The grant of permission is a matter for the Bishop’s discretion.

The effect of the Pastoral Letter is that any person wishing to receive Holy Communion in future must have either

(1) episcopal confirmation or

(2) episcopal permission under the Pastoral Letter.

Yet there is an important difference between (1) and (2).  Confirmation founds a right to Holy Communion, episcopal permission merely grants a favour.  Confirmation cannot be withdrawn, but permission can be.  If the bishops can grant permission at their own discretion, they can also withdraw it at their discretion.  The ‘barrier’ of confirmation has been lowered for now, but it could be raised again just as easily.  The Pastoral Letter is arbitrary as well as permissive.

It is also doubtful that a mere permission, unsupported by a constitutional right or duty, is sufficient to bind the clergy.  A vicar who disagrees with the Pastoral Letter could not be compelled to give Holy Communion to unconfirmed persons.  Hence different parishes might adopt different policies on the matter.

In short, the constitutional position of unconfirmed communicants will be different, and inferior, to that of confirmed communicants.

Perhaps this will not matter in practice, if the bishops’ decision proves uncontroversial.  However, it is arguable that

(1) the importance of the substantive issue and

(2) the constitutional difficulties discussed here

both demand that admission to Holy Communion be regulated by the Constitution of the Church in Wales, and not merely by Pastoral Letter.

Unprecedented Confusion: A Tribute to Chancellor Bursell

Re Sam Tai Chan (2016) Durham Consistory Court, Chancellor Bursell QC

The erudite and informative Law and Religion UK blog (to which this blog is ever indebted for both information and inspiration) has helpfully drawn attention to this recent faculty case.  The judgment appears on the website of the Ecclesiastical Law Association (accessed 12th September 2016).

The Worshipful Chancellor Bursell QC’s singular contribution to the public understanding of ecclesiastical law has been discussed in other posts (e.g ‘The Rubrics of the Book of Common Prayer’, and ‘Liturgy and the Faculty Jurisdiction’, filed under category ‘Liturgy and Law’).  This case is another egregious example of it.

The Chancellor permitted a Chinese lady to exhume the body of her late husband for reburial elsewhere.  She, at least, has reason to be grateful to him, though other less fortunate petitioners for exhumation may not have.

When deciding exhumation cases, consistory courts have for many years followed guidance given by the Court of the Arches in the case of Blagdon Cemetery (2002) 4 All England Reports 482, without any apparent difficulty or controversy.  The guidance was given because guidance given by the Chancery Court in the earlier case of Christ Church, Alsager (1998) 3 Weekly Law Reports 1394 was considered unsatisfactory.

The Chancery Court is the Archbishop of York‘s provincial court (Ecclesiastical Jurisdiction Measure 1963, s.1(2)(a)).  It is therefore the principal court of the northern province, the Province of York.  The Durham Consistory Court, over which Chancellor Bursell presides, is also in the northern province.  The Court of the Arches, of course, is in the Province of Canterbury, the southern province.

It was for this reason that the Worshipful Chancellor found it necessary to disturb the tranquil operation of the post-Blagdon faculty jurisdiction.  He acknowledged that his intervention might prove ‘inconvenient’ (cf para 12).  But the exhumation case raised ‘the question … as to how rules of precedent apply within the two provinces’ (para 8).

After a lengthy discussion of the subject of judicial precedent in the ecclesiastical courts, he concluded that ‘in so far as the northern province (sic) the Alsager test [i.e the guidance given by the Chancery Court in the Alsager case] still prevails’ (para 22).  Canterbury and York are separate provinces, and they remain separate ecclesiastical jurisdictions.  The Court of the Arches has no superiority over the Chancery Court.  This means that northern consistory courts are not ‘bound’ by the Blagdon guidance, only southern ones.  On the contrary, the northern courts are bound to follow the Alsager guidance.

The Chancellor modestly forbore to mention that he was himself a member of the Chancery Court that decided Alsager, and was therefore a co-author of the unsatisfactory guidance.  He seemed to resent the Court of the Arches’ criticism of the guidance (cf para 22)  (Which is understandable, of course).  He also had a dig at some fellow northern chancellors who meekly followed the Blagdon guidance instead of adhering to the Northern Precedent (paras 13 and 14).

It is argued that the Chancellor misunderstood the doctrine of judicial precedent.  A precedent is what the court decides, not what it says, in the particular case.  Stare decisis, not stare dictis.

What, exactly, did the Court of the Arches decide in Blagdon?  The Court granted an exhumation faculty because the consistory court, which had refused exhumation, ‘did not address this [case] specifically in terms of the bringing together of parents and child in a family grave … the exercise of the [consistory court’s] discretion was flawed in so far as it was based on an erroneous evaluation of the facts in this respect, and … in the way [it] treated the lapse of time as determinative’ (para 39).

The consistory court in Blagdon had refused exhumation because it was following, or trying to follow, the Alsager guidance.  The guidance had confused the chancellor and led him into error.  The Court of the Arches therefore issued its own guidance.

Thus the only discernible ‘precedents’ in Blagdon are that

(1) a long lapse of time between a burial and an exhumation request should not be determinative of an exhumation petition, and

(2) a discretionary decision should be set aside if based on an erroneous evaluation of facts.

The guidance given in Blagdon had nothing to do with the Court’s decision on the particular case.  The decision was merely the occasion for issuing the guidance.  The guidance was issued to assist consistory courts to avoid erroneous decisions, and hence avoid the need for future appeals.

Thus the Blagdon guidance did not engage the doctrine of judicial precedent.  The guidance is just that – guidance.  It does not ‘bind’ the consistory courts of either province.  It merely seeks to assist them to avoid errors and appeals.  Guidance is not binding precedent.

Chancellor Bursell was therefore not obliged to follow the Blagdon guidance, if he did not want to.  (Whether he was wise not to do so is quite another matter, of course.)  He was free to follow his own guidance in Alsager.  Indeed a chancellor in the southern province could choose to follow the Alsager guidance and ignore the Blagdon guidance.  Or a chancellor could choose to ignore both.

Bursell’s judgment reveals a second misunderstanding about precedent.  The doctrine of judicial precedent does not apply to the grant or refusal of faculties at all, because this is not a judicial function, even though it is exercised by courts and judges.  The grant or refusal of faculties (which are licences or permissions) is an administrative or pastoral function, not a judicial one.  It is an administrative discretion.  (See post ‘Doing Justice to Faculties’, filed below).  Administrative discretion should be exercised fairly and consistently.  Clear guidance will assist this.

It is true that Bursell is far from being alone in these confusions.  The doctrine of judicial precedent is widely misunderstood.  Court judgments are often read and interpreted as if they were legislation.  And ecclesiastical judges seem unable to grasp that the faculty jurisdiction is administrative, not judicial (just as they cannot grasp that ecclesiastical courts are governed by English law and not ‘canon law’).

However, Bursell’s judgment is of poor quality, even apart from its basic confusions.  It strongly suggests that Bursell used the case merely as a convenient peg on which to hang his flawed thesis on judicial precedent.  The facts of the case and the reasons for the granting the faculty are not adequately stated.

The Chinese lady’s husband died in 1978, but the Chancellor did not require an explanation of why exhumation was not sought until nearly 40 years later.  Lapse of time may not be determinative of an exhumation case, but it is still relevant to the case.  The lady sought exhumation because the original burial was ‘a mistake by virtue of mis-information’ (para 5), but the mistake and the mis-information are not described.

Moreover, the Chancellor did not grant the faculty on the basis of a mistake, but because ‘the different ethnic approach to burial within the Chinese Christian Church provides a good and proper reason for exhumation’ (para 27), but again this ‘ethnic approach’ is not described.  Yet non-Chinese Christians whose petitions for exhumation are refused might be interested to know what it is.

Cathedral Governance: A Constitutional Monstrosity

Kathleen Edwards, The English Secular Cathedrals in the Middle Ages (Manchester University Press, 2nd edition 1967)

This is a most helpful commentary on the confused subject of cathedral governance.  It explains the cause of the confusion, and also demonstrates how little the subject has changed since the middle ages.

The constitution of a cathedral church ought to be a simple thing.  Everyone knows that a cathedral is so called because it contains the cathedra, the official seat of the bishop.  The bishop’s relationship to the cathedral is analogous to that of an incumbent to a parish church.  The bishop is the incumbent of the diocese.  The cathedral is the bishop’s church, the church from which he officiates as bishop.  It is therefore the parish church, or ‘mother church’, of the whole diocese.  The proper function of any other cathedral clergy is to assist the bishop with his official duties, just as the curate assists the vicar.

But of course the constitution of an English cathedral is not nearly so simple.  Edwards relates that ‘the [mediaeval] bishop was more and more drawn away from his cathedral city, both on affairs of state and through … looking after a large diocese.  During his long absences there began to develop some sort of home government among the cathedral clergy’ (p.98).

Thus the cathedral chapter obtained a degree of autonomy from the bishop.  The absent bishop’s place at the head of the chapter was taken by the dean (cf.p.137).

Edwards quotes a graphic and prescient early warning against this separation of bishop and chapter, dating from 1313: ‘the bishop and the chapter … make one body, of which body the bishop is the head and the chapter are the members.  Therefore to argue that the dean is another head is to argue two heads in one body, which is like a monster, and prejudicial to the bishop’ (quoted, p.97).  Needless to say, this powerful argument was not accepted at the time, or subsequently.

However, the mediaeval separation of bishop and chapter makes the point that the bishop’s position is not precisely analogous to that of a parochial incumbent.  The bishop has a power of governance which incumbents do not share.  He is the principal ordinary of the diocese, and also has some responsibility for secular governance, through membership of the House of Lords (canon C18(2) and (8)).

In the old days, such responsibilities necessitated lengthy absences from the cathedral, but the cathedral still had to function without the bishop.  So perhaps the chapter had to have some autonomy then.  Of course, modern transport and communications should make it possible for the bishop to govern both the diocese and the secular state without prolonged absence from the cathedral.  (And bishops usually live right next door to their cathedrals.)  However, these improvements have not, as yet, led to the constitutional reunion of bishop and chapter.

The cathedra is always situated in the choir area of the cathedral.  It is generally an ornate and imposing structure, as befits the ‘principal seat and dignity in the cathedral’ (Cathedrals Measure 1999, s.6(1)).  It is often regally described as the bishop’s throne, an allusion to the power of governance.  However, Edwards points out that cathedra also means a professorial teaching chair (p.177).  Thus the cathedra symbolises not only the bishop’s governance, but also his pastoral function of teaching and guiding.

Moreover, the bishop did not exercise the power of governance in the choir.  The choir was a place of worship, where the Divine office was celebrated.  Governance was done in the chapter house.  (The consistory court would meet in the chapter house.)

The separation of bishop and chapter did not affect the bishop’s liturgical position in the choir.  The bishop continued to enjoy an undisputed precedence at all services at which he was present, and to exercise his pastoral ministry of preaching, ordaining and confirming.

However, the chapter house, as the seat of governance, became the subject of competing claims by the bishop and the chapter.  These claims were settled by the constitution of the particular cathedral.

In the middle ages, the chapter had two functions:

(1) governing body of the cathedral (as it still is) and

(2) bishop’s council, which he consulted about the governance of the diocese.

In other words, the original function of the chapter was to assist the bishop’s governance of both the cathedral and the diocese.

Cathedral constitutions could vary widely.  At Chartres Cathedral, apparently, ‘the bishop was not allowed to enter the chapter house on any pretext’ (p.106).  York Minster ‘denied to its bishop all statutory right to sit in chapter’.  However, most cathedral constitutions gave their bishop some say in the governance of his cathedral.

The competing claims of bishop and chapter were generally resolved as follows:

(1) the bishop had no right to attend ordinary meetings of the chapter, because he was not a member of the chapter

(2) however, the bishop could attend chapter meetings on a visitation, i.e an inquiry into the governance of the cathedral, if he had a constitutional right of visitation in the first place.  Bishops generally did have the right to inquire into the governance of their cathedrals, but the right might be limited in various ways, e.g to particular times or occasions.

(3) the bishop could also convene and preside over the chapter qua bishop’s council, in order to consult it about the governance of the diocese, rather than the cathedral.

Today, of course, the cathedral chapter has no responsibility for the governance of the diocese.  The bishop’s council is now a committee of the diocesan synod, which is completely different from the chapter (Synodical Government Measure 1969, schedule 3.28).

Thus the constitutional separation of bishop and chapter eventually resulted in the constitutional separation of the cathedral from the rest of the diocese.  Yet this separation is hardly consistent with the cathedral’s role as the ‘mother church’ of the diocese.

Nothing illustrates the confused state of cathedral governance so starkly as the position of archdeacons therein.  The function of archdeacons is to assist the bishop’s governance of the diocese within their respective archdeaconries (canon C22(2) and (4)).  But archdeacons, qua archdeacons, have no responsibility for the cathedral.

Edwards notes that ‘The place of archdeacons in secular cathedrals in the middle ages was peculiar … their chief work was in their archdeaconries outside the cathedral precincts’ (p.243).  She suggests that ‘in most mediaeval cathedral churches archdeacons had come to be regarded as the bishop’s official guests, to be treated with the honour due to guests’ (p.249).

Yet archdeacons can be ex officio members of the chapter, even though the bishop, whose diocesan governance they assist and whose church the cathedral is, cannot.  The Cathedrals Measure 1999 further provides that archdeacons, and suffragan bishops too, must be ex officio members of the college of canons established by the Measure for every cathedral (s.5(2)).  But the diocesan bishop is still excluded from ex officio membership of the college.  Not monstrous, perhaps, but all rather absurd.

The Cathedrals Measure 1999, and the bishop’s status as visitor of the cathedral, are discussed in separate posts, filed below.

Baptism: Sin, Sacrament, Sacrilege and Salvation

‘Baptism, where it may be had, is necessary to salvation’ (Church in Wales Prayer Book 1984, rubric)


Protestantism started from a deep consciousness of sin.  Of course, human beings commit grave actual sins, but the problem is worse than that.  The whole human race, the human condition per se, is innately sinful.  It suffers from original sin, also called birth sin.  Article 9 sternly teaches that ‘in every person born into this world, it [birth sin] deserveth God’s wrath and damnation’, even though a new-born baby is incapable of actual sin.

The remedy for this seemingly hopeless condition is faith, faith in the redeeming love of God.  Article 11 is reassuring: ‘that we are justified by faith only (sola fide) is a most wholesome doctrine, and very full of comfort …’.

Yet the comfortable doctrine created a difficulty.  If human beings are saved by faith alone, then baptism and the other sacraments are prima facie superfluous.

Article 27 seeks to reconcile baptism with justification sola fide.  It suggests that baptism is to some extent dependent on the faith of the recipient: ‘they that receive baptism rightly are grafted into the Church …’.  Baptism certifies the faith of the believer: ‘the promises of forgiveness of sin, and of our adoption to be the sons of God … are visibly signed and sealed; faith is confirmed and grace increased by virtue of prayer‘.

This may suggest that baptism is for adults only.  It should only be administered when the candidate is of sufficient age and understanding to make a personal act of faith.  However, Article 27 affirms that ‘The baptism of children is … to be retained … as most agreeable with the institution of Christ’.  From its first publication in 1549 until 1662, the Book of Common Prayer made no provision for the baptism of adults, only infants.  (Ronald Knox, a Catholic convert, once scoffed that ‘Quakers and Baptists are the only truly logical Protestants’.)

Whatever their ambivalence about baptism, the 39 Articles are unequivocal in their condemnation of relativism: ‘They … are to be had accursed that presume to say, that every man shall be saved by the law or sect which he professeth … For holy Scripture doth set out … only the Name of Jesus Christ, whereby men must be saved’: Article 18.

Sacrament and Sacrilege

The rubrics of the Book of Common Prayer lay down 2 rules about baptism:

(1) it must not be repeated and

(2) subject to emergencies, it should be administered in church.

Canon law (i.e Roman Catholic law) is clear that baptism cannot be repeated because it imprints an indelible character on the recipient (Code of Canon Law 1983, canon 845(1), also canon 849).  To attempt to repeat a valid baptism is sacrilegious, because it denies the indelible character of the original baptism.

However, conditional baptism is allowed if there is a ‘prudent doubt’ about the validity of an earlier baptism (canon 845(2)).

The rubrics follow Catholic doctrine in providing that a child baptised privately ‘is lawfully and sufficiently baptised, and ought not to be baptised again in the church’.  The priest had to check that the child was indeed baptised: ‘if they that bring the infant to church do make such uncertain answers to the priest’s questions, as that it cannot appear that the child was [validly] baptised’, then the priest must baptise conditionally: ‘If thou art not already baptised, N, I baptise thee etc’.

The public baptism service formerly required the priest to check that the child was not baptised already, before administering the sacrament (rubric).

Baptism may be validly administered by anyone, not just an ordained minister.  As the Court of the Arches pointed out, ‘if lay baptism had been considered as one of the errors of the Romish Church, it would have been corrected [at the Reformation]’ (Kemp v Wickes (1809) 161 English Reports 1320, p.1326).  The Court later affirmed that ‘The law of the Church is beyond all doubt that a child baptised by a layman is validly baptised’ (Mastin v Escott (1841) 163 English Reports 553, p.586).

Home baptism seems to have been widespread until as late as the 19th century.  High infant mortality is one obvious explanation.  In the middle ages, priests were required to warn expectant mothers to ‘have water ready prepared to baptise the child if necessity shall so require’ (Lindwood Provinciale Book 1, Title 11, chapter 2).  However, in the case of Bennett v Bonaker (No.2) (1829) 162 English Reports 1066, the Court of the Arches noted disapprovingly that ‘It has become … a sort of fashion to have … children christened in their houses instead of at church and … too many of the clergy comply with [this] practice …’ (p.1075).

Unofficial baptism is valid in principle, but, as the rubrics indicate, its validity may be doubtful in practice if administered by an unauthorised and uninstructed minister and without reliable witnesses.  It may also be corrupted by superstitious or pagan practices.

Moreover, baptism confers membership of the Church.  The baptised is thereby ‘grafted into the body of Christ’s Church’.  For this reason baptism should be administered publicly, in facie ecclesiae, ‘on Sundays or other Holy Days at or immediately after public worship when the most number of people come together’ (canon B21).  Even after a private baptism, the child ‘shall be brought to the church and there, by the minister, received into the congregation of Christ’s flock’ (canon B22(8)).

Possession of a baptismal font was once regarded as the legal test for determining that a building is a parish church and therefore a place of public, rather than private, worship.  The font is traditionally located by the door, at the opposite end of the building from the altar, to symbolise the sacramental entry into the Church.

Canon F1(2) follows tradition by laying down a general rule that the font ‘shall stand as near to the principal entrance [to the church] as conveniently may be’, though a faculty may permit the location of the font elsewhere in the church.  Canon 81 of 1603 required ‘a font of stone … to be set in the ancient usual places’.

(There is an amusing twist here.  The older ecclesiastical law insisted that the font be made of stone, but also insisted that the altar or ‘communion table’ should not be made of stone.  The modern law allows that the altar may be made of stone, and that the font need not be.)

Ecclesiastical law makes provision for the sanctity of baptism.  Canon F1 provides that the font must be ‘decent’ and have ‘a cover for the keeping clean thereof’.  Moreover, the font must be used exclusively for baptism, ‘and for no other purpose whatsoever’.

The mediaeval Church was not concerned only with cleanliness: ‘The baptising font must be kept close under lock, for fear of witchcrafts‘ (Lindwood Book 3, Title 25, chapter 1).  Water used for emergency baptism ‘[should] for the reverence of baptism either be poured into the fire or  be brought to the church to be poured into the font, and let the vessel be burned or deputed to the church’s use’ (Title 24, chapter 1).

Access to the altar is via the font, but the baptised must still make the journey from the font to the altar.  Canon law holds that baptism is a necessary precondition to valid reception of all other sacraments.  Baptism is the ‘gate’ (ianua) of the sacraments (1983 Code, canon 849).  In the Catholic Church, of course, there are six other sacraments besides baptism, but in the Church of England only one, ‘the Supper of the Lord’ (Article 25).  English law is clear that only the baptised may be admitted to holy communion (cf canon B15A).

However, the legal relationship between baptism and marriage is confused.  The report The Canon Law of the Church of England (1947) proposed a new canon that ‘No minister shall allow matrimony to be celebrated in his church between two persons neither of whom has been baptised: and if … one of [them] has not been baptised … shall refer the matter to the Bishop … [for] his order and direction’ (p.126).  This canon was rejected for fear that it infringed the common law right of unbaptized parishioners to marry in their parish church.

It is argued that this fear was misplaced.  It ignored the font at the entrance to the church.  The common law right originated at a time when marriage was still a sacrament, therefore accessible only by baptism, and when only baptised persons were married in church.  The Prayer Book marriage service clearly assumes that the couple will both be baptised, for it provides that they ‘should receive the holy communion at the time of their marriage, or at the first opportunity after …’.  The Marriage Act 1753 required marriages to be solemnised in the parish church, but excepted Quakers and Jews from this requirement, because they were not baptised.  This implies that church marriage is for baptised persons only.

Moreover, ecclesiastical law (like canon law) formerly denied Christian burial to the unbaptised (cf canon B38(2)).  It is illogical that an unbaptised person should be entitled to a church wedding but denied a church funeral.  (However, the illogicality has been cured.  An unbaptised person may now have a church funeral.)


The Prayer Book Catechism seems to affirm the Catholic doctrine that baptism, not just faith, is necessary to salvation.  Baptism makes the recipient ‘an inheritor of the Kingdom of Heaven’.  It brings ‘A death unto sin, and a new birth unto righteousness’.

Private baptism ‘in tyme of necessitie’, i.e if the infant was in danger of death, was retained in the Prayer Book.  This also implies a link between baptism and salvation.  Baptism is considered necessary, even though the dying infant is too young to have committed any actual sin.

The fault-line between justification sola fide and salvation through baptism was exposed in the famous Victorian case of Gorham v Bishop of Exeter (1849-50).  The Rev Mr Gorham apparently doubted that baptism ipso facto imprints an indelible character.  He held that ‘the grace of regeneration [rebirth] does not so necessarily accompany the act of baptism, that regeneration invariably takes place in baptism … [regeneration] may be granted before, in or after baptism … baptism is an effectual sign of grace … but only in such as worthily receive it …’ (Phillimore Ecclesiastical Law, 2nd edition 1895, p.496).

The Bishop refused to institute Mr Gorham to a benefice because of these doubts.  He was supported by the Court of the Arches.  However, the Privy Council controversially overruled them both, and ordered Mr Gorham’s institution.  Its conclusion was that English law does not deny the indelible character of baptism, but does not insist on it either.  There is liberty of belief in the matter.

The Catholic Church does not, of course, hold that faith is irrelevant to baptism.  On the contrary, the recipient of baptism is required to co-operate in the work of salvation.  This is the reason for the promises required at public baptism, to ‘renounce the devil and all his works, … and constantly believe God’s holy Word, and obediently keep His Commandments’.

Canon law therefore makes it a condition of baptism that ‘there be a realistic hope that the infant will be brought up in the Catholic religion: if such a hope is altogether lacking, the baptism is to be deferred (differatur)’ (canon 868(1), avoiding the word ‘refused’).

Modern English law has again followed canon law in emphasising the importance of co-operation with baptism.  In the 20th century, clergy became concerned that baptism was becoming a mere social convention, an occasion to celebrate the baby’s birth and show it off to family and friends, but with no intention of observing the baptismal promises and bringing the child up as a Christian.

Canon B22(3) of the revised Canons of the Church of England therefore requires the minister to instruct parents in their responsibilities.  Canon B23(2) provides that godparents must be ‘persons who will faithfully fulfil their responsibilities both

[1] by their care for the children committed to their charge and

[2] by the example of their own godly living’.

A clergyman is protected from disciplinary action if he refuses or delays baptism from concern that co-operation with the sacrament will not be forthcoming.  The parents may refer the matter to the bishop, who must first consult the clergyman and then ‘give such directions as he thinks fit’ (canon B22(2)).  (This is discussed further in the post ‘Baptism and Godly Living’, which is filed below.)

Modern ecclesiastical law rightly provides for the co-operation of parents and godparents in the child’s baptism, but, like the older law, it assumes that parents will want to have their child baptised in the first place.  The 20th century concern may seem anachronistic now.  The children who were baptised then, whether for social or religious reasons, now decline to have their own children baptised at all.  When congratulating devout elderly churchgoers on the birth of a grandchild, the author of this blog has learned not to make any reference to christening, for fear of the embarrassed silence that often follows.

Parents may decline baptism out of indifference, or outright rejection of religion, but a more insidious reason may be advanced: the children should be free to decide for themselves whether they want to be baptised and go to church, when they are old enough to do so.

Such parents are asserting their right, and maybe their duty, to decline baptism for their child, in order to preserve the child’s right to choose whether or not to be baptised later on.  This sounds plausible because it is in harmony with the prevailing secularist conception of human rights, according to which religious belief and practice are no more than an individual lifestyle choice.

Such a muddle-headed concept of religious freedom is, of course, highly conducive to secularism.  It implies that there is something wrong with infant baptism.  And very few people who are denied baptism as infants are likely to seek it in later life.

If baptism really is necessary to salvation, no loving parent would refuse it and leave the child to make its mind up later.  No more than refuse inoculation against a dangerous disease in the hope that the child will not catch it.  But in a secular, pluralist society, either there is no such thing as salvation, or everybody is saved regardless of faith and baptism.  The Protestant fear of sin and Catholic hope are both lost.

What can ecclesiastical law do if parents do not want to have their children baptised?  In practice, virtually nothing.  We have to admit, of course, that parents cannot and should not be forced to have their children baptised (in the way that they can be forced to send their children to school).

Canon B26(2) exhorts ‘All parents and guardians [to] take care that their children receive [religious] instruction’, but the revised canons do not seem to impose any duty on them to have their children baptised.  Ecclesiastical law formerly required the clergy to ‘often admonish the people that they defer not the baptism of their children …’, but this rubric was removed by the Prayer Book (Further Provisions) Measure 1968, s.3(2).

Though ineffectual in practice, ecclesiastical law may at least inform the confused and secularist-dominated debate about religious freedom:

(1) Baptism, above all, proves that religion is corporate and public, not merely individual and private.  Nobody can baptise himself.  Baptism is administered by the Church and it confers membership of the Church.  It therefore proves that the Church exists.  Though uncertain of its precise effect, English law is clear that baptism is ‘ordained of Christ our Lord in the Gospel’ (Article 25).  If baptism is Divinely ordained, then so is the Church which administers it.  Therefore the Church cannot be reduced to a mere private contract between individuals.

(2) If baptism is ordained of God, if it is God’s Will for everybody, then there cannot be a human right to choose whether or not to be baptised.  Such a right blasphemously subordinates Divine ordination to mere human choice.  It reduces baptism to the level of a political or consumer choice (which party to vote for in the election, which bank to get a loan from).

(3) However, a person does have a right not to be baptised against his will.  The distinction between a right (1) to choose whether or not to be baptised and (2) not to be baptised against one’s will may seem a fine one, even non-existent.  However, it is argued that the distinction is critical, because it brings the human right into alignment with the Divine ordination of baptism.  It is also consistent with the rite of baptism, which assumes the cooperation of the recipient, either personally or vicariously through parents and godparents.

(4) Of course, an infant cannot be baptised against its will.  The Divine ordination of baptism, and the affirmation of Article 27 that infant baptism is ‘most agreeable with the institution of Christ’ make clear baptism is the infant’s right.  It is therefore the duty of parents to give effect to the child’s God-given right to be baptised, not to deny it in favour of a non-existent right to ‘choose’.

The Great Schism 1378-1417: Beyond Canon Law

The Great Schism marked the end of the ‘classical’ canon law period that had begun c.1140 with Gratian’s Decretum.  No originality is claimed for what follows.  It is merely a narrative of the historical facts from a legal perspective, drawing on the commentaries cited at the end.


The Holy See made a confident entry into the 14th century.  Pope Boniface VIII (Pope 1294-1303) ‘occasionally dressed up in imperial insignia, boasting that he was emperor no less than pope’ (Kelly).  He uncompromisingly asserted papal supremacy in his famous bull Unam Sanctam (1302): ‘The temporal sword is in the power of Peter … It is absolutely necessary for salvation that every human creature be subject to the Roman Pontiff’.  He proclaimed the first Holy Year of Indulgence in 1300.

However, the Holy See’s political position was always precarious, to an extent that is unthinkable today.  Imagine if the present Pope were taken prisoner by a hostile state, or forced to leave Rome because of public hostility.  Yet such events were occupational hazards for his mediaeval predecessors.  The ink was barely dry on Unam Sanctam when Pope Boniface was imprisoned by the King of France.  He was later rescued, but died a broken man.

The city of Rome was ‘wretchedly unsafe’ on account of faction-fighting between the leading Roman families (Renouard).  Boniface’s successor, Bl Benedict XI (Pope 1303-1304), therefore sought safety outside Rome, but he died after only a few months.  The cardinals then elected Clement V (Pope 1305-1314), a Frenchman who was very much   under the King of France’s influence.  After moving around Provence and Gascony he finally settled at Avignon in 1309.

Avignon was not actually in ‘France’ at this time, in the sense that it did not belong to the French crown, but to the King of Naples (who was formally, and confusingly, entitled ‘King of Sicily‘).  The King of Naples/Sicily was nominally a vassal of the Pope.  Avignon also had the advantages of political stability, a pleasant countryside and climate, and access to the sea.

There were 7 Avignon popes in all.  All were French.  The move to Avignon was intended to be temporary at first, and the French popes all professed a vague desire to return to Rome some day.  The tombs of the Apostles were still at Rome, of course.  A second Holy Year was celebrated in 1350.  However, as Rome became ever more dilapidated and politically unstable for lack of effective papal government, so the prospect of returning there from beautiful Avignon became less and less appealing.

Pope Benedict XII (Pope 1334-1342) began construction of the Palais Vieux at Avignon.  Before then, popes had resided in the local bishop’s palace or in a monastery.  A purpose-built papal palace naturally gave an air of permanence to the ‘Babylonian captivity’ at Avignon.  Benedict’s worldly successor, Clement VI (Pope 1342-1352), built the sumptuous Palais Neuf for himself.

Then Bl Urban VI (Pope 1362-1370) showed serious interest in a return to Rome.  He required bishops to reside in their dioceses, so had to set a personal example.  He also sought reunion with the Greek Church, and could not credibly do this from outside Rome.  In the face of strong opposition from cardinals and curia he entered Rome in 1367 and stayed for 3 years in the Vatican.  (The Lateran palace had become uninhabitable, and no pope lived there again.)  There he received both the Holy Roman Emperor and the Byzantine Emperor.  However, he returned to Avignon just before his death.

The last Avignon pope, Gregory XI (Pope 1370-1378), delayed a permanent return to Rome for many years, but ‘saw the hand of God in the arrival of St Catherine of Siena at Avignon to urge his return’.  Curial opposition had not diminished (‘If only the mountains would move and stop our journey!’ one official prayed), but in 1377 Pope Gregory at last arrived in Rome.

The Disputed Election

After 70 years of papal absence the Eternal City was in a grievous state.  The people of Rome also bitterly resented French control of the papacy.  Such was the anti-French hostility that Gregory XI found it necessary to leave Rome, only a short time after he had arrived there, for Agnani.  He died just a year after his return from Avignon.

The Romans were adamant that the next pope should be ‘a Roman pope, or at least an Italian’.  That was the popular slogan.  In this hostile atmosphere the French cardinals who were to elect Gregory’s successor had good reason to feel uncomfortable, even frightened.  The conclave itself was invaded by the mob.  The cardinals had to pretend that an elderly Roman cardinal had been elected Pope.  Placated, the mob withdrew.

However, the cardinals really did elect a new, and Italian, pope, Urban VI (Pope 1378-1389).  The day after the incursion of the mob, they returned to the conclave to confirm the election.  They also publicised the election to the world, and officiated at the new Pope’s coronation.  For several weeks they assisted him (or tried to) in his official duties.  Only then, several weeks after the election and coronation, did the Great Schism begin.

It began when the French cardinals started to withdraw to Agnani.  There they pronounced the election invalid for duress.  If the election was invalid, this meant that Urban VI was not really Pope, so the Holy See was still vacant.  On this basis, the cardinals purported to elect a new pope.

However, the cardinals’ claim of duress is not supported by the known facts.  Commentators have rejected it: ‘the existing evidence would seem to show decisively that the undoubted pressure of the Roman populace [to elect an Italian pope] was not such as to incapacitate a body of reasonably honest and courageous men’ (Obolensky, p.416).  The cardinals’ conduct towards Urban VI after his election was inconsistent with their claim that they had elected him against their will, under threat from the mob.  Their repudiation of the election came too late to be credible.

The real reason for the cardinals’ desertion of Pope Urban was his appalling treatment of them.  The Holy Father suffered from a ‘great lack of self-control’ (Ullmann, p.45).  His ungovernable rages ‘made his face red and his voice hoarse’.  The cardinals were understandably aggrieved when he ordered them to eat only one course at meals, and worse was to follow.  There is no certain explanation for Urban’s behaviour, but ‘his unexpected elevation seems to have upset the balance of his mind.  He became very unstable, and subjected [the cardinals] to violent abuse and uncontrollable tirades’ (Kelly).  The abuse was physical as well as verbal.  He had one cardinal tortured in his presence, reciting the Divine Office so as to drown the poor man’s screams.

However, the cardinals did not attempt to declare the Holy See vacant on account of the Pope’s insanity, or to claim the power to make such a declaration.  Their desertion of Urban on account of his behaviour may be understandable.  But there were no legal grounds for disputing Urban’s title.  Mad and intolerable he may have been, but he was the Pope.  The cardinals’ action in purporting to elect a new pope was therefore schismatic.

After the French cardinals defected, Pope Urban grew madder and quarrelled with everybody.  Nevertheless, despite lengthy enforced absences from Rome, Urban remained in office till his death.  His successor, Boniface IX (Pope 1389-1404), strengthened papal control of Rome.  The French-led schism never gained a foothold there.

The Avignon Anti-Popes

The schismatic cardinals elected the most distinguished of their number as ‘Clement VII’.  The new anti-pope was actually Swiss, not French, and so could appear to rise above the French-Italian animosity.  He was personally more impressive than ranting, red-faced Pope Urban, but he was an evil man who lacked Urban’s excuse of madness for his crimes.  (When papal legate he had barbarously ordered the massacre of the inhabitants of a rebellious town.)  Most of the Roman curia defected to him.  Unable to enter Rome, ‘Clement’ returned to Avignon.  There he established an efficient administration and a glittering court.

Europe reacted to the Schism on political and national lines.  The Emperor recognised the Roman papacy, as did England.  France and her allies, including Scotland, recognised Avignon, as did Spain.  The Queen of Naples also supported Avignon when she quarrelled with Urban.  However, Italian public opinion, always resentful of any French claim to the papacy, remained consistently hostile to Avignon, whatever the political upheavals in Rome and Italy.

The Schism

Fortunately the Schism was a relatively peaceful, civilised affair.  Unlike the Reformation it did not start any wars or create any martyrs.  Those on the losing side, or losing sides, were treated magnanimously.  St Vincent Ferrer’s long and close association with Avignon (he was the anti-pope’s confessor) did not prevent his fairly rapid canonisation, though he submitted to Rome shortly before his death.

The confusion and disruption caused by rival papacies can be exaggerated.  The religious practice of the Latin Church (Divine Office, sacraments, popular devotions) continued undisturbed.  As the Schism followed existing secular divisions and jurisdictions this meant in practice that the Church within a particular jurisdiction acknowledged the same pope as the local ruler acknowledged.  Thus lesser clergy and laypeople were not much affected by it.  Two great English writers of the period, Geoffrey Chaucer and Mother Julian of Norwich, apparently do not even mention the Schism.

However, religious orders suffered from the Schism.  Unlike the secular Church they were constituted on a supranational basis.  Authority within them was usually centralised in a single superior or general chapter.  The division of the papacy therefore forced the centralised religious orders to divide as well.

The intellectual and political elites of Europe (secular rulers, universities, bishops, even the cardinals and curias of Rome and Avignon themselves) were scandalised by the Schism.  Rival papacies were, of course, incompatible with the God-given unity of the Church.  The Schism also discredited the Holy See’s claim over the Greek Church, and the Christian cause against Islam.

From the outset, therefore, there was strong elite pressure on the rival popes to end the Schism.  Reconciliation was impossible while mad Pope Urban reigned.  His death, and the election of a more suitable successor, undermined the anti-pope’s cause.  French support for Avignon weakened, and was even withdrawn altogether for a time (1399-1403), though it was later restored.

In principle, even the rival popes accepted the imperative of reconciliation.  Candidates for both papacies made solemn promises that, if elected, they would abdicate if this would facilitate reconciliation.  However, the promises were not kept.  The second and last Avignon anti-pope, ‘Benedict XIII’, was notoriously obstinate and has been condemned as ‘the principal cause of prolonging the Schism’ (Renouard, p.76).  For their part, the Roman pontiffs, conscious of their legitimacy, were reluctant to make concessions to Avignon.


There were 2 proposals for ending the Schism:

(1) the via cessionis, inducing one or both rival popes to abdicate and

(2) the via concilii, superseding the rivals by a General Council (Obolensky, p.417).

Intellectually, the Church was not completely unprepared for the crisis of 1378.  The authority of the General, or Ecumenical, Councils of the Church, and their relationship to the Holy See, were much discussed by mediaeval canonists.

Surprisingly, perhaps, the deposition of the Pope, his involuntary removal from office, was by no means a taboo subject in mediaeval canon law.  There had long been a consensus among canonists that the Pope could be deposed for heresy.  The problem was how.  Canon law was unable to supply a procedure for effecting deposition (Tierney, p.96).

In principle, therefore, the Pope might be deposed for heresy by a General Council, but only the Pope could lawfully convene the Council in the first place.  If someone other than the Pope were to take the initiative and summon a Council, the summons and the Council would be invalid, as would any acts of the Council.  This may suggest that a heretical pope would have to consent to his own deposition.  Then again, if the Pope was a heretic, perhaps he would already, ipso facto, have lost his papal authority and would therefore be unable to depose himself!

The Great Schism created the additional problem of two rival popes.  Only the rightful Pope could summon a Council.  Gratian had anticipated this problem.  His solution was that ‘he alone shall remain in the papal chair whom the consensus universitatis [i.e the whole of Christendom] had elected’ (Ullmann, p.197).  But this ran into the same procedural difficulty that prevented the deposition of a heretical pope.  How could the consensus universitatis be lawfully articulated, so as to make a lawful election?

The inability of both canon law and the rival popes to resolve the Great Schism encouraged more radical thinking about the papacy itself.  (The deeply unattractive personalities of the rivals may also have encouraged this.)  The Schism ‘[made] men think more seriously about the institution [of the Church] … slowly there formed … the conviction that unity must be fought for, whatever the existing law of the Church might say’ (Jacob, p.7).

The intellectual movement known as conciliarism had many different variations.  None went so far as to reject papal authority altogether, as happened at the Reformation.  However, all versions proposed some constitutional limitation of papal authority by a General Council, perhaps through the agency of the College of Cardinals, or secular rulers.  Conciliarism, like canon law, saw the Church as a corporation, or hierarchy of corporations.  Unlike canon law, it held that papal headship was, to a greater or lesser extent, subject to the consent of the whole Church, the fidelium congregatio, as represented in General Councils.

Dissatisfaction with the Pope and the papacy was not new, of course.  Nor was resentment of the papal claim of plenitudo potestatis over the Church.  Conciliarism was not created by the Great Schism.  It had ‘penetrated academic circles many years before 1378’ (Obolensky, p.418).  It had been proposed, in a radical form, by William of Ockham (c.1285-1347) and Marsilius of Padua (1275-1342).

There were 3 practical manifestations of conciliarism in the 15th century:

(1) the Council of Pisa (1409)

(2) the Council of Constance (1414-1417)

(3) the Council of Basle (1431-1449)

Pisa (1409)

Pope Gregory XII (Pope 1406-1415) broke his promise not to appoint new cardinals.  All but three of his original cardinals deserted him and made common cause with some disillusioned Avignon cardinals.  Together they called the Council of Pisa.

This Council was therefore the creature of a second schism in the Roman papacy.  The difference is that this time the cardinals summoned, or purported to summon, a General Council rather than elect an anti-pope.

The Council met, and purported to depose both Pope Gregory and the Avignon anti-pope.  It then elected a new ‘pope’ of its own.  This was the first Council anti-pope, as distinct from the Avignon anti-popes.  When he died soon afterwards the Council elected a second anti-pope, ‘John XXIII’.


This Council anti-pope was initially a great success, and even entered Rome, something the Avignon anti-popes had never achieved.  However, the tide of politics soon turned against him and he fled to Florence.  The Emperor then forced him to summon a second Council.

The Council of Constance was the most significant manifestation of conciliarism.  It was dominated by Cardinal Francis Zabarella (1360-1417), the most eminent canonist of the day and author of De Schismate, an exposition of conciliarist theory.  Zabarella might have become Pope himself but he died during the Council.

The Council issued two momentous decrees

(1)  Sacrosancta, in which the Council claimed the authority of Christ for itself, and claimed the obedience of all Christians, including the Pope.  However, the Holy See never recognised this decree.

(2) Frequens, which called for Councils to be held at regular intervals.

Constance brought the Great Schism to an end, but the process by which it did so must be clearly understood.  A glib summary has it that the Council was confronted by 3 rival popes.  Nobody could decide who the rightful pope was, so the Council got rid of all 3, and then made a fresh start by electing a new Pope.  This narrative is misleading, because it confuses law and politics.

The Council had been summoned by an anti-pope, and therefore could have no legitimacy.  The Holy See could not recognise it as truly ecumenical.  However, the ageing Pope Gregory XII had at last been converted to the cause of reconciliation.  He therefore resolved the legal difficulty by convening the Council afresh.

The Pope’s action in (re)convening the Council conferred legitimacy on it from that time on.  Hence it is now recognised as the 16th Council of the Church.  Having thus convened the Council, Gregory then abdicated.  He died shortly afterwards.

A unique conclave comprising cardinals and representatives of the Council then elected a new pope.  He took the name Martin V (Pope 1417-1431) because the conclave was celebrated on St. Martin’s Day.  Martin V’s pontificate began exactly 100 years before another Martin inaugurated the Reformation by nailing his 95 theses to the church door at Wittenberg.

As well as receiving Pope Gregory’s abdication, the Council deposed both the Avignon and the Council anti-popes.  The Council anti-pope submitted to Rome.  The Avignon anti-papacy lingered on obscurely for some years after 1417, but the Great Schism had effectively been healed.  Avignon itself acquired a lasting stigma from its unhappy associations, and was never again a papal residence.

Thus the Council of Constance solved a political problem.  Pope Gregory was the rightful Pope but he was incapable of healing the Schism, so he had to go.  The two anti-popes had no legal title, and no political value either, for they too were incapable of healing the Schism.  The Council ended the Schism by overcoming the old Pope’s intransigence, prevailing on him to abdicate, repudiating the two anti-popes and effecting the election of the new Pope.

This was undoubtedly a great political achievement, but it did not change any law.  There were not ‘three popes’ in 1414, or at any other time.  There was only ever one Pope.  Pope Gregory was not deposed.  The Council of Constance started along the via concilii, but it then changed direction and ended on the via cessionis.  It did not create a new source of authority.  Conciliarism as a religious doctrine did not prevail at Constance.  The Holy See survived without renouncing any of its jurisdiction.

A canonist explains that ‘Gregory XII’s fresh convocation and authorisation of the Council were a mere matter of form [but] this form was the price to which he attached his abdication, and it meant … that the [Council] should formally acknowledge him as the lawful Pope, and …. confess that its own authority dated only from that moment, and that all its previous acts … were devoid of all ecumenical character’.

He continues: ‘The [Council’s] recognition of Gregory XII’s legitimacy necessarily includes a similar recognition of [all the post-1378 Roman popes] and the rejection of the [anti-popes]’ (quoted by Pastor, p.201).

Basle (1431-1449)

Although the Holy See had not compromised its claims at Constance, conciliarism had become a powerful political force which could not be ignored.  ‘At this epoch, the idea of a General Council exercised a strange fascination on men’s minds.  It was looked upon as the cure for all the ills of the Church’ (Pastor, p.288).  Martin V therefore reluctantly convened the Council of Basle that had been prescribed by Frequens.

It was at Basle that conciliarism made its final bid for control of the mediaeval Church.  The Council published radical decrees abolishing the papal reservation of benefices (1433) and papal first fruits and annates (1435) (an early target of the English Reformation).

Martin V died shortly after convening the Council, and was succeeded by Eugene IV (Pope 1431-1447).  The new Pope’s position was weak.  He tried to dissolve the Council in 1433 but was forced to rescind the dissolution.  The political situation at Rome was so precarious that he fled to Florence and remained there for 10 years.

However, the Council was becoming discredited by its radicalism and crude political bias (pro-French, anti-Italian).  Pope Eugene gained ascendancy over it by his dialogue with Constantinople.  He held out the dazzling prospect of an end to the Greater Schism, that between the Greek and Latin Churches.  With Greek agreement, he ordered the Council to move from Basle to Ferrara (in 1437), then to Florence (in 1439).  Full of ecumenical enthusiasm for the reunion of Christendom, most of the Council Fathers obeyed the Pope’s command and left for Italy.

Of course, the Council of Ferrara-Florence proved a failure.  Reunion was agreed there, but it was never accepted by the Greek Church.  Constantinople fell to the Turks in 1453.  At the time, however, Ferrara-Florence seemed an outstanding ecumenical success.

The real success of Ferrara-Florence was that it averted a second major schism in the Latin Church.  The few Fathers who refused to leave Basle purported to depose Pope Eugene in 1439, and elected a third Council anti-pope, ‘Felix V’.

However, Eugene defeated this last schism by adroit diplomacy, ensuring support for the Holy See throughout Germany and Italy.  He was assisted Aenea Silvio Piccolimini, the celebrated memoirist and future Pope Pius II, who had originally supported ‘Felix’ and then defected to Rome.  ‘Felix’ himself submitted to Eugene’s successor, Nicholas V.


The Council of Constance had a lasting intellectual and cultural influence.  While the Council met ‘Constance was for three years the metropolis of Europe’ (Obolensky, p.420).  It must have been a scintillating experience: ‘The world had never before beheld an assembly at once so numerous and intellectually so brilliant … the opportunities of intercourse between learned and cultivated men, afforded by these Councils, exercised an important influence on general civilization, and especially on the renaissance in literature’ (Pastor, p.256).  Constance ‘inaugurates a new epoch in the history of the search … for manuscripts … the impetus given to the interchange of thoughts … cannot be exaggerated.  The dawn of humanism, north of the Alps, dates from this period’.

This account suggests that, just as classical canon law ended when the Great Schism began, so the Renaissance began when the Schism ended.

Conciliarism addressed questions of authority and government in the Church that canon law had apparently failed to answer.  It may therefore have given birth to modern political science, the systematic study of political power.  It has been hailed admiringly as ‘part of the liberal tradition of Europe’ (Jacob, p.2).

Conciliarism again became fashionable at the Reformation: ‘[conciliarist] ideas, and those ideas alone, form the raison d’etre of the Church of England … federalism in the Church … preserving the unity of the whole while securing the independence of the parts’ (Figgis, p.236).  The 39 Articles give qualified approval to General Councils (Article 21), but warn that Councils are not infallible and can only be held with the permission of the secular authorities.  (The Council of Trent was meeting at the time.)  The English text of the 39 Articles uses the term congregation to describe the Church (Articles 19 and 23), though the Latin text only uses the term coetus once (Article 19) and otherwise sticks to ecclesia.

Yet the reformers did not succeed in making conciliarism work in practice.  There have never been any Protestant ‘ecumenical councils’ comparable to the pre-Reformation councils.  Nor was any ‘federal’ unity achieved.  Instead the Reformation resulted in the very evil that conciliarism had sought to prevent, the fragmentation of Latin Christendom by secular political jurisdiction (now euphemistically described as ‘dispersed authority’).

After initially close contact in the 16th century (when the 39 Articles were written) the Church of England distanced itself from European Protestantism.  The creation of the worldwide Anglican Communion in the 19th century was due to the expansion of the British Empire, nothing to do with mediaeval conciliarism.  Whatever the publicity they attract, modern supranational assemblies such as the Lambeth conferences and primates’ meetings are mere informal contacts with no legal authority.

Mediaeval conciliarism also gave birth to Gallicanism in the French (Catholic) Church.  Jean Gerson (1363-1429), the ‘Father of Gallicanism’, was another luminary at the Council of Constance.  Gallicanism perished in the French Revolution, but conciliarism was recalled nostalgically in the 19th and 20th centuries by those who regretted the ultramontane papalism of the Catholic Church at this time.  The papacy was again considered an obstacle to Christian unity.  Not, as in 1378-1417, because it was weak and divided, but because it was too strong and autocratic.

The second Vatican Council modified modern papalism with its doctrine of the collegiality of the Pope, successor of Peter, and the bishops, successors of the other Apostles.  Pope and bishops together constitute one Apostolic College.  (The Pope who summoned this Council, St John XXIII, took the same name and number as the second Council anti-pope, thereby proving the latter’s lack of legitimacy.)

However, any resemblance of modern episcopal collegiality to mediaeval conciliarism is superficial.  Vatican II made clear that ‘the college of bishops has no authority [without] its head, the Roman Pontiff … and without any lessening of his power of primacy over all … [which] he can always freely exercise’ (Lumen Gentium (1964), para 22).

The Code of Canon Law 1983 confirms that the Pope may abdicate, but he must do so ‘freely’, and the abdication does not have to be accepted by any other authority (canon 332.2).  He may not be deposed against his will.  The Holy See ‘is judged by no one’ (canon 1404).  It remains a canonical offence to attempt to impugn a papal decision before an ecumenical council or the College of Bishops (canon 1372).


Commentaries referred to

Figgis, J.N, Churches in the Modern State (London 1913)

Jacob, E.F, Essays in the Conciliar Epoch (2nd ed, Manchester 1953)

Kelly, J.N.D, The Oxford Dictionary of Popes (OUP 1986)

Knowles, D and Obolensky, D, The Christian Centuries (vol 2, Clarendon 1969)

Pastor, L, History of the Popes (ed F.I Antrobus 1906)

Renouard, Y, The Avignon Papacy (1954, transl D Bethell 1970)

Tierney, B, Foundations of Conciliar Theory (CUP 1955)

Ullmann, W, The Origins of the Great Schism (London 1948)