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100 years ago: Bishop Cecil and the Canons

14 July 2023

July 13th, 1923.

THE Bishop of Exeter [R. E. W. C. Cecil] arrived too late to take part in the debate in the House of Bishops on the reform of ecclesiastical Courts. He and we are fortunate, for instead of being reported in three lines he has been able to explain in three-quarters of a column in the Times what he would have said, and his letter is not without interest. He says that the extreme Churchmen are unjustly accused of lawlessness; on the contrary, they are very law-abiding, but they abide by an eclectic selection of mediaeval laws. They are wrong-headed, but they are conscientious, they are trying hard to obey the law as they understand it. And “we”, it is uncertain for whom the Bishop precisely speaks, can only try to convince them of their error by friendly discussion. We are grateful indeed for the admission, somewhat late in the day of the Catholic revival, that Catholics are not lawless. And we look forward with some interest to the discussion which shall convince our canonists that they are in the wrong in their interpretation of Church law. For it may not, after all, be quite so simple a matter as the Bishop of Exeter considers. Canonists are in agreement that there are pre-Reformation laws which bind us in conscience, and the Bishop, of whom we have not yet heard as a canonist, will have to show that those laws have been repealed. Under 25 Henry V III. c. 19 all existing Canons have the same force as they had before, provided they are not contrary to the laws of the realm or the King’s prerogative. What precisely is now covered is matter of prolonged study, which the Bishop has perhaps made. We may, then, congratulate him on having been able to combine with the activities of a very busy life research which has occupied the lifetime of scholars.

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