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General Synod and Heresy Trials
Simon Sarmiento, Anglicans Online staff
17 July 1999

Church restores heresy trial for priests who defy doctrine screamed The Telegraph headline on 13 July. Church brings back heresy trials said the BBC website, and followed it up with a "deeper" report The vicars who don't believe in God. Church to bring back trials for heresy said The Times. What was all this about?

The synod was considering new legislative drafts entitled Ecclesiastical Jurisdiction (Discipline) Measure 199- and Draft Amending Canon No 24. These would replace the Ecclesiastical Jurisdiction Measure 1963, in respect of all issues except doctrine, ritual and ceremonial. In November 1996 the synod had received and debated a major report Under Authority which recommended sweeping changes to the current disciplinary system. But the synod then voted by a small majority to exclude these three issues from the drafting of the new measure. And so the proposals reflect this position.

What happened in July was that the reports accompanying the drafts, both from the group that prepared them and (separately) from the House of Bishops expressed dissatisfaction with this state of affairs. But the bishops and the implementation group both urged the synod to pass the measure in its present form first, so as to complete the process before the end of the current synod quinquennium next year. At that time, new elections will be held, and it is thought unreasonable to leave such a complex debate incomplete for a (somewhat) new set of synod members to finish after the election. So the hope is that amendments in this area will be deferred. A separate detailed consultation will be started with a view to introducing a further measure after November 2000.

It is clear that proposals to include doctrine, ritual and ceremonial matters under the new procedure will be made eventually, and thus remove completely the old procedure. The proposals now goes to a revision committee and any synod member can propose any amendment to that body by 7 September. The committee will bring revised texts back to the synod later for a more detailed debate. 

Although the synod overwhelmingly approved the recommendations to go forward, some speakers expressed views that generated the headlines quoted above. In particular Robert Reiss, the Archdeacon of Surrey, was in favour of retaining the old procedure for doctrine precisely because it was so cumbersome as to make it unusable. He thought it was naive to assume, as had been said by the chairman of the drafting group, the Archdeacon of Swindon, Alan Hawker, that a streamlined process would not be used any more frequently than the existing procedure. He referred to the threat of "evil spirits" being let loose. Brian McHenry from Southwark was unhappy about leaving doctrine etc. out of the new procedures, and asked what ecumenical partners would make of a Church of England that was so reluctant to exclude doctrinal discipline.

So what is in the new proposals?

First, they would replace not only the official procedure that is so rarely used, but also the rather varied informal systems that exist in each of the 44 dioceses of the church, and replace all of these with a single national standard. It provides a framework to protect any accused person from suspension by a bishop without due process, a procedure that often occurs today, often without legal authority. And although resignation is a frequent response to disciplinary cases today, this penalty has no place whatever in the 1963 measure.

Second, they provide a much more flexible set of procedures and a wider range of possible penalties than hitherto. The proposals are in broad terms comparable with modern English secular employment legislation, which has come into being since 1963 and from which the clergy are in most situations exempt by virtue of their self-employed status. The normal standard of proof will become the "balance of probabilities" as in other civil proceedings.

Third, they regularise another informal procedure known as the Archbishops' Caution List, which has been widely regarded as a secret blacklist of clergy. The list contents will remain confidential, but the procedures for entering and removing names are now to be clearly defined.

Fourth, the bishop has a range of five options open to him when dealing with a particular complaint:

  • No further action (i.e. rejection of the complaint)
  • Warning on the record
  • A conciliation procedure
  • Imposition of a penalty by mutual consent
  • Formal investigation by a tribunal

Fifth, there is a range of possible penalties that can be applied, including:Deposition from Holy Orders

  • Prohibition from exercising any functions either for a specific time or indefinitely
  • Removal from office
  • Resignation by mutual consent
  • Revocation of license
  • Injunction
  • Censure
  • Conditional discharge

The procedures apply to all clergy, including bishops and archbishops, although for a bishop the ordinary tribunal (one legally qualified president, one clergy member, and one lay member) would be replaced by a Vicar-General's court including another bishop. They also apply to all clergy, both those with freehold and those holding only a license. There is a specific clause excluding any possibility of proceedings against someone for their (secular) political opinions.

 There is also a draft code of practice, not part of the legislation itself, and not mandatory in the portion quoted below, which, despite the exclusion of doctrinal issues already explained, already contains some references to doctrine that excited comment. It says:

Doctrinal Belief

 The Church of England is a credal church. Without the potential of discipline for doctrinal irregularities, this would not be possible. The Declaration of Assent relates to this, and commits all clergy to a standard of doctrinal conformity.

This will always be a sensitive area, for the Church of England is a broad church, encourages theological exploration and research (which at times implies the temporary expression of unorthodox views in the pursuit of understanding truth) and is permanently involved in the hermeneutical debate of applying timeless truth to the contemporary context.

The question that has to be resolved is what constitutes illegitimate diversity. Based upon the Canberra Statement, recent ecumenical agreements (Porvoo, Meissen, Fetter Lane) allow for a measure of accepted diversity.

Discipline in this area should be rare and exceptional. But there must be, by definition, boundaries of permissibility (e.g. atheism, denial of the doctrine of the Trinity or the doctrine of the Incarnation would be beyond the boundary.)

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