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As we celebrate the Lord's death in this service, I want to encourage you to put the Cross at the centre of our deliberations about Gospel and order. It might help to relate judgment with the vertical arm of the Cross and mercy with the horizontal.
The Ecclesiastical Law Society is rightly promoting afresh the study of ecclesiastical law. In the case of the Church of England, the sources of ecclesiastical law are three-fold: case-law, statutes (and Measures made thereunder) and the Canons of the Church of England. These are the formal sources for identifying and expounding (Anglican) ecclesiastical law. The sources qua sources may not be the subject of debate; the debate may only be as to the interpretation of the contents of the sources and whether the sources should be amended. This approach to determining the substantive content of ecclesiastical law reflects the positivist approach to law, such as Bentham, Austin and Hart have set out.
The title of this article is deliberately provocative: what meaning can be attached to a concept which lacks all the classic jurisprudential marks of authority, by those who concern themselves with the legal aspects of Anglican churches? Conversely, what lessons can be learned by them from the very persistence of such a concept over so very many years?
For many years it has been assumed that all parishioners legally qualified to intermarry have a legal right to be married in their parish church. In Blunt's The Book of Church Law it is expressed thus:
‘Every person within the parish in which a church is situate has a common-law right to the use of it in time of Divine Service. … Much more have they a right to the use of the church whenever they are to be present for the performance of any offices as regards themselves. Hence the incumbent's control over all access to the church is limited by the rights of the parishioners to its use at such times as he may appoint to the celebration of any of the offices contained in the Book of Common Prayer: whether those of public worship…; or whether those of a personal kind,… such as marriage.’
The history of the office of dean rural, like that of the office of the archdeacon, is shrouded in the mists of ancient Church history. It is however clear that since the rural dean, by whatever name he was called, stood in a relationship to the parochial clergy beyond the immediate episcopal environment, the history of the rural dean's office is directly related to the development of the parochial system. The development of this system is vastly different in the various corners of Christendom, and the appearance of the dean rural, or his equivalent, varies by nearly four centuries from place to place.
For a number of years the Society has been troubled at the absence of, or at least the spasmodic nature of, any systematic teaching about Canon or Ecclesiastical law among ordinands and clergy of the Church of England. The first that an ordinand knows of law is often his or her Declaration of Assent and licensing as an Assistant Curate. Provided there are no great crises or scandals, or problems over marriages when the training Incumbent goes on holiday leaving the new Deacon to his or her own devices, the next occasion of ecclesiastical law will be at first incumbency, or possibly as a Team Vicar. After that Faculties, secular employment law, the Children Act, the Charities Act, the Ecumenical Canons become increasingly important; not to speak of the Pastoral Measure in Teams and Groups. No other profession would allow its officers such systematic ignorance of the rules of the game, or be so tardy in providing them with a summary of their rights and responsibilities. Sadly the image of law—and lawyers—has obscured the need for knowledge of professional rules and good practice. A misunderstanding of St Paul on Law and Gospel has permeated much evangelical, charismatic and radical thinking. Anglo-Catholics have a perverse respect for the canon law of another church rather than their own. But the tide has begun to turn.