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Ecclesiastical Law, Clergy and Laity, by Neil Patterson

29 January 2021

Jeremy Morris reviews a study of the Church of England’s canons and their enforcement

THE study of canon law in the Anglican Churches has undergone a modest revival in recent years. The influence of Norman Doe, the doyen of Anglican canon law, the establishment of the Centre for Law and Religion in Cardiff, the continuing success of the Ecclesiastical Law Journal, and the availability of postgraduate courses in canon law have all helped.

But it probably remains true that most clergy groan inwardly at the thought of having to read anything on the subject. And that’s a pity, because law is not just a set of tiresome rules: it embodies the operational norms, relationships and even theological principles that ought to steer the work of the Church in an imperfect world. The canon law of the Church of England has a good claim to be considered as one of the Church’s formularies, albeit one subject to constant and necessary revision.

For readers who have never studied or even considered the subject before, Neil Patterson’s new book is as good a place to start as any. Although its origins lie in a doctoral thesis, it has become a wide-ranging and very readable introduction to the whole history of the Church of England’s attempts to enforce its canon law since, roughly, the late 17th century. Apart from some outline comments, Patterson wisely leaves the impact of the Reformation and the legacy of medieval canon law, in all its complexity, to one side. The starting point for his survey is essentially the Act of Toleration of 1689, which rendered the old attempts to enforce conformity largely impotent.

From then on, as he shows remarkably well, there has always been a trade-off between the relatively limited ability of the hierarchy to enforce the canons (and, with them, the provisions of the other formularies, including, of course, the Prayer Book) and the consequent need to encompass as wide a range of opinion as possible to secure a broad consensus.

It was, in a sense, the failure of disciplinary action that really established the latter. But this is not, he says, necessarily a systematic failure in a wider sense; indeed, he asserts, right at the beginning, that the “legal liberalism” that developed in the course of the Church’s history may be “the most precious gift the Church of England has to offer to a world full of religions still in hock to the allure of coercion”.

Not every reader will agree fully with this conclusion. The argument does come close to justifying a certain theological incoherence as if it is in itself quintessentially Anglican. Anglican identity is certainly contested, but that does not mean that the mere fact of contestation defines Anglicanism. But that is another argument. Patterson’s great merit in this book is to show, with a lawyer’s sharp eye, just why successive theological causes in the Church of England — and he reserves his greatest criticism for Anglo-Catholics and Ritualists — failed to gain the traction that they desired. Church history looks refreshingly different from this perspective.

This is an excellent, clear, and, in the best sense, opinionated study of Anglican canon law in operation. It is up front about its limitations, but, for all that, none the less impressively well-researched. The price is a little high for a paperback of fewer than 200 pages, but that is nearly a quarter of the original hardback price, and in my view very good value.


The Revd Dr Jeremy Morris is the Master of Trinity Hall, Cambridge.


Ecclesiastical Law, Clergy and Laity: A history of legal discipline and the Anglican Church
Neil Patterson
Routledge £36.99 (pbk)
Church Times Bookshop £33.30

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