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There was an ecclesiastical law shaped hole in the Church of England from the dissolution of Doctors' Commons in 1857 until 1987 when it was filled by the formation of the Ecclesiastical Law Society. In 1947, forty years earlier, the Archbishops' Canon Law Commission had suggested how the hole might be filled. The Commission was appointed in 1939 and published its report under the title The Canon Law of the Church of England (SPCK, 1947). The Report consisted of a learned and authoritative review of the sources of English canon law and made recommendations for its reform, in particular by appending to the Report a body of suggested revised canons. Included in the Report was the following paragraph expressing the hope that a society might be formed for the study of canon law:
‘The success of a new code of canons will to a great extent depend on a wider knowledge than at present exists among the clergy of the law of the Church of England, its nature, history, development, and particular characteristics; and it is hoped that the previous chapters of this Report will provide an elementary introduction to the subject. We recommend therefore that those who are responsible for the training of ordination candidates and for the post-ordination training of the clergy should be asked to consider what steps can be taken to give both ordinands and clergy a more professional knowledge of the Church's law and constitution. In giving evidence before the Ecclesiastical Courts Commission in 1883 the late Sir Lewis Dibdin pointed out that since the disappearance of Doctors' Commons in 1857 there had really been no method of teaching or preserving a knowledge of the Ecclesiastical Law. It is impossible at this stage to revive anything like Doctors' Commons, but we would suggest that a society, consisting of clergy, professional historians, and lawyers, be formed for the purpose of studying the Ecclesiastical Law and of suggesting ways in which that law either needs alteration or can be developed to meet new needs. As a rule there is far too little contact and interchange of ideas and points of view between the clergy and ecclesiastical lawyers, and such a society would give opportunities for this. Such a society would train up a number of people competent to advise and help the clergy in the particular problems of Ecclesiastical Law with which from time to time they are confronted.’
The right of patronage has for many centuries played a most significant role in the life of the English Church. In many ways it is a remarkable concept. What could be more spiritual than the right to present a clerk who is to have the care of the souls of a parish to the bishop for admission and institution? Yet from around the twelfth century this right has been regarded in England as a piece of secular property, and disputes concerning this right cognisable in the common-law courts. Coke tells us that it is an ‘incorporeall inheritance’, or, to use a more modern term, an ‘incorporeal hereditament’, which is real property capable of devolving to heirs on intestacy and yet takes no tangible form: an invisible right which gives substantial power to those who possess it.
One hears frequently of missionaries and often about the Roman Catholic Church's missionary effort. But seldom does one find in English a survey of the canon law of Roman Catholic missionary prelates. This may be because the canon law of missions was perfected only in this century and because to this day it remains only partly codified. In any case, for reasons which will later become apparent, this body of canon law has special application in the Commonwealth.
It is by no means uncommon in the present day for proposals to be put forward for the re-ordering of a church in order to enable part of the building to be used for what might be described as secular purposes. In some instances this might mean the nave having all fixed furniture removed so that it could be used as a hall, or as part of the church when required. Sometimes rooms are created in part of the building, perhaps in the tower or close to the entrance. Sometimes a great deal of space can be found in a crypt.
This study describes and evaluates the Church of England's revision of its canon law in the twentieth century, concentrating on the period from 1939 to 1969. By way of introduction it should be said that this assessment is but part of a larger study which proceeds on two planes of comparison. In the larger study, revision by the Church of England is laid horizontally alongside another Anglican revision carried out as a result of disestablishment of the Church in Wales in 1920, and also the two revisions of Roman Catholic canon law leading to the promulgation of the Codex luris Canonici in 1917 and 1983. Vertically, the history of the revision of English canon law over the previous four hundred years gives some idea of what needed revision, and the difficulties in carrying it out under the constraints of being an established church. In this article, however, only the process of revision by the Church of England in the twentieth century is discussed.