*** DEBUG END ***

Letting the spirit give life

10 August 2012

Mark Hill sees how church law seeks to avoid legalism


Till death: the sacrament of marriage in a window, c.1485, at St Michael's, Buckland, Glos. One of the 100 colour photos in Roger Rosewell's slim but information-packed Stained Glass (publication details in caption, facing page), which provides a chronological history in 11 chapters, a gazetteer listing where to see more than 500 English church windows of particular interest, and suggestions for further reading

Till death: the sacrament of marriage in a window, c.1485, at St Michael's, Buckland, Glos. One of the 100 colour photos in Roger Rosewell's slim bu...

Legal Flexibility and the Mission of the Church: Dispensation and economy in the ecclesiastical law
Will Adam
Ashgate £50
Church Times Bookshop £45 (Use code CT374 - free postage on UK online orders during August)

FOR most of the general public, the expression "legal flexibility" might be something of an oxymoron. The law is popularly regarded as rigid, restrictive, and unbending. On a proper analysis, however, law is facilitative and enabling, and nowhere is this more evident than in the canonical tradition of the Western Christian Church.

Dr Adam's book, therefore, is a welcome addition to the burgeoning corpus of ecclesiastical-law literature, providing a long-overdue modern treatment of an ancient concept and established practice of some Churches - namely, dispensation from compliance with the strict rigour of a particular law, and the more illusory concept of economy as being episcopally approved law-breaking.

The value of the book lies largely in its coverage of the historic development of the Catholic practice of dispensation and, particularly, its implicit relevance to 19th-century disputes over church ritual and the controversy surrounding the 1928 Prayer Book.

Of course, the modern ecclesiastical law of the Church of England has lost dispensation as a general overarching concept, and replaced it with express exemptions and savings within specific Measures, Canons, Rules, Regulations, and Codes of Practice. An obvious example is Canon C4(3A), by which an archbishop may grant a faculty for the removal of the impediment from ordination constituted by marriage after divorce. Detailed directions exist as a form of quasi-legislation prescribing how this dispensing provision is to be exercised in individual cases. 

The Church of England is not impoverished by having re-articulated the Early Church's general principle of economy in this way. Far from it, because clarity, certainty, and predictability are essential features of any legal system. But, as long ago as 1980, Lord Wilberforce railed against "the austerity of tabulated legalism", and encouraged the generous reading of statutory provisions when circumstances permitted.

The existence of an appropriate degree of flexibility within English canon law should be preserved, nurtured and developed in a coherent and orderly manner. Adam's book provides meaningful evidence of how such concepts have been successfully utilised in the past and might be recovered for further use in the future. Law-makers and legal practitioners in the Church of England must never lose sight of the exhortation in Corinthians that the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life.

The Worshipful Mark Hill QC is Chancellor of the diocese of Chichester and the diocese in Europe, Hon. Professor at the Centre for Law and Religion, Cardiff University, and President of the European Consortium for Church and State Research.

Church Times Bookshop

Save money on books reviewed or featured in the Church Times. To get your reader discount:

> Click on the “Church Times Bookshop” link at the end of the review.

> Call 0845 017 6965 (Mon-Fri, 9.30am-5pm).

The reader discount is valid for two months after the review publication date. E&OE

Forthcoming Events

6-7 September 2022
Preaching as Pilgrimage conference
From the College of Preachers.

8 September 2022
Church Times Cricket Cup: North v. South
Join us to watch the match at the Walker Cricket Ground, in Southgate, north London.

26 September 2022
What am I living for? God
Sam Wells and Lucy Winkett begin the St Martin-in-the-Fields autumn lecture series in partnership with Church Times.

More events

The Church Times Archive

Read reports from issues stretching back to 1863, search for your parish or see if any of the clergy you know get a mention.

FREE for Church Times subscribers.

Explore the archive

Welcome to the Church Times

​To explore the Church Times website fully, please sign in or subscribe.

Non-subscribers can read four articles for free each month. (You will need to register.)