THROUGHOUT my ordained ministry, I have often had cause to reflect on the importance of ecclesiastical law in facilitating the mission of the Church, and on the surprising absence of formal training for clergy in the legal provisions that equip the institutional Church to make the gospel a lived reality.
As Rowan Williams observed in his foreword to The Confluence of Law and Religion, “thinking about the law of the Church is thinking about practical ecclesiology — how the life of the Church recognises and nurtures the shared dignity and liberty of the children of God.”
Sadly, the perception still persists that ecclesiastical law is a negative, coercive, and oppressive instrument, which constrains the working of the Spirit by a series of obstacles and prohibitions. But a more nuanced understanding reveals the liberating force of law, which equips and enables the people of God to live out their faith with confidence.
The life of the Church is structured through its institutions, not for their own sake, but to create and foster a pastorally appropriate means of making present Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. How we choose to regulate ourselves as a confessing community of Christians speaks volumes for what “being Church” is all about. The law of the Church of England is a profound form of applied ecclesiology.
ECCLESIASTICAL law, properly understood, is creative and facilitative. It is the servant of the Church, not its master. It facilitates and orders its life, mission, and witness. It should not be allowed to become ossified, but must be constantly reinterpreted and, like the gospel, preached afresh in every generation.
It is easy to lose sight of the General Synod’s function as a legislative chamber, making and revising measures and canons, and ensuring that they are fit for purpose in today’s world, rather than an anachronistic legacy of a previous generation.
In the coming months, it is expected that the Royal Assent will be given to the Statute Law Repeals Measure, which, at a stroke, will consign to oblivion vast tracts of obsolete legislation; and to the Legislative Reform Measure, which will introduce a fast-track mechanism for removing unnecessary burdens in church legislation. These changes can only be welcomed: a bonfire of the redundant, and a swift means of eliminating obstacles to efficiency.
But, if a clear understanding of ecclesiastical law is of such significance to the effective worship and mission of the Church of England, why is it not front and centre of the syllabus for every theological college and course?
In Roman Catholic seminaries, knowledge of canon law is regarded as a fundamental element of clerical formation, whereas Anglican clergy are somehow expected to acquire a working knowledge of ecclesiastical law from their training incumbents through osmosis. It is hardly surprising that new incumbents struggle with basic principles of marriage law and the faculty jurisdiction when they receive no formal training in ecclesiastical law, notwithstanding its direct relevance to their daily ministry. Getting it wrong is a pastoral disaster.
And it’s not just curates and new incumbents who are left to founder. Though there are legal duties and obligations inherent in both offices, I received hardly any training in ecclesiastical law on my appointment as archdeacon or, subsequently, as bishop.
THE Ecclesiastical Law Society was founded in 1987 to promote education in ecclesiastical law. It has a growing membership, and has recently undergone something of a renaissance, focusing its activities on education through a sub-committee led by the Archdeacon of Lichfield, the Ven. Simon Baker.
It has explored pockets of teaching that already exist, and is collating training material for clergy and office-holders, to address the deficit in education in ecclesiastical law. I am delighted that the Northern Province has not been forgotten, and a programme of occasional seminars will begin in Leeds on 24 April with a talk by Sir Mark Hedley, Deputy President of Tribunals at the Clergy Discipline Commission.
There will be an opportunity to examine the various opportunities for engagement in education in ecclesiastical law at the Society’s next conference, “Gospel and Law in Theological Education”, to be held on Saturday 17 March at St Bride’s Institute, off Fleet Street, in London. It will include a keynote presentation from Dr Andrea Russell of the Queen’s Foundation in Birmingham.
The conference is open to non-members of the Ecclesiastical Law Society, but provides an opportune moment to join it. The modest annual subscription of £40 is a proper expense of office for parochial clergy, who are particularly welcome. The conference will also mark the publication of the fourth edition of Mark Hill’s Ecclesiastical Law, which has become the standard textbook on the subject.
Re-engagement with ecclesiastical law can only enhance the ministry, mission, and pastoral outreach of all clergy, whether freshly ordained assistant curate or beleaguered bishop.
The Rt Revd Christine Hardman is the Bishop of Newcastle, and sits on the governing committee of the Ecclesiastical Law Society. Information about the Society’s activities, including its forthcoming conference and membership, can be found at ecclawsoc.org.uk.