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The Church needs unfrocking

19 August 2016

It is time to restore a stronger penalty for criminal clerics, argues Neil Patterson


THE Archbishop of Canterbury has been reported as saying that we still have some way to go to change our culture in the Church of England as regards safeguarding, and Justice Lowell Goddard, shortly before she resigned last week, noted that some survivors of abuse are seeking responses beyond what the civil justice system can provide (News, 12 August). The Church of England used to possess one such additional response to deal with clergy who had been found guilty of serious offences, and now is the time to restore it.

This was the canonical penalty properly called “deposition from holy orders”, or more commonly “unfrocking”, by which a bishop exercised his judicial authority to declare that someone was no longer ordained in the Church of England.

It should not be confused with the medieval punishment of degradation, a ritual “un-ordination”, which was inflicted in order to remove benefit of clergy so that the offender could be handed over to secular authority for execution (this was suffered by Thomas Cranmer, for example).

Deposition was introduced as recently the 1892 Clergy Discipline Act, and retained by the 1963 Ecclesiastical Jurisdiction Measure; and, through the 20th century, members of the clergy were regularly unfrocked — almost always after they had committed a serious criminal offence.

The effect was the same as the provision (which is still valid) for clergy to relinquish holy orders under the 1865 Clerical Disabilities Act. Under the 2003 Clergy Discipline Measure (CDM), however, it was given up as unnecessary, in favour of “inhibition for life” by an amendment at an early stage of the Measure in Synod.

There is, though, a serious difference between inhibition and deposition. It is true that those inhibited for life can never hold office again, or receive permission to officiate. They are also now, by recent amendment of the CDM, forbidden to robe in church, or even to participate in a procession. And yet they are still indisputably clergy, can describe themselves as such, and could even claim, under Canon C27, that they could dress as such.


EX-OFFENDERS will typically settle in a new place, and can become known in a community as clerics, even if they never take a service. “Trust me, I’m a vicar” is about identity, without necessarily functioning publicly as such. There is also a degree of additional pain for survivors of abuse, with the suggestion that the Church continues to accept the offender as “one of us”.

While the Church of England cannot prevent anyone putting on a clerical collar and posing as a member of the clergy, if we returned to unfrocking, the parish or diocese could say that the person has been deposed from holy orders, and has no right to go around calling him- or herself “Revd”.


THERE are possible objections. One is that, before 2003, deposition was treated as an “optional extra” to a sentence of lifetime inhibition. It was up to the diocesan bishop to decide whether the offence merited it, and it may have been felt that this placed too much reliance on personal discretion, in the absence of legal clarity. An appeal to the archbishop was also available, and he, too, depended on his own judgement rather than having a legal obligation.

All this could be overcome by bringing the decision within the respected tribunal structure, as a strict recommendation to the bishop to act.

A subtler question is the doctrine, enshrined in Canon C1, of the indelible character of ordination. This is the idea that what God does in ordination cannot be undone, and makes most sense for more catholic Anglicans who are concerned about the validity of the sacrament of the eucharist.

The example often given is of a group of Christians in a concentration camp, desperate for the consolation of communion, given their peril of imminent death. The doctrine of character says that if the only priest present is an unfrocked priest, his or her celebration would still be valid.

This concept would not, however, be undermined by restoring deposition, and the existence of deposition before 2003 did not prevent ARCIC in 1973 agreeing on the unrepeatable character of ordination.

A further concern was expressed to me by the synod member who brought the amendment to the CDM that removed unfrocking, the Revd Stephen Trott. This was that the act of deposition, confirmed, if necessary, after appeal to the archbishop, was irreversible.

This would seem to have an effect rather like that of capital punishment: that if a miscarriage of justice were discovered, there could be no going back. But it would be possible to provide for this in a new Measure, and the concept of indelible character means that those restored after a genuine miscarriage would not have to be re-ordained.


SOME might wonder whether we can find the synodical time for such action, when there is so much to do for Renewal and Reform. But action to tackle seriously our persistent and justified reputation as a harbour for abusers could do more to restore the image of the Christian Church in England than a good deal of complex tinkering with pastoral reorganisation.

Those who have taken advantage of the sacred trust placed in them at ordination by committing serious crime — especially abuse of the young or vulnerable — need to know that all privilege and status of ordination has been taken from them.

Inasmuch as the idea of indelible character has significance, though, they would do well to remember that, in God’s sight, they are still those who were once given the responsibilities of ordained ministry. When they come before their Judge, they may have been unfrocked, but they will still be known as betrayers of the trust placed in them by him.


The Revd Neil Patterson is Director of Vocations and Ordinands in the diocese of Hereford, and has recently completed a BD thesis on the history of ecclesiastical discipline.

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