Clergy Discipline

The following paper is based on a briefing written by Ian Stubbs, vicar of St George, Stalybridge, for the "Sea of Faith in the Churches" (SoFiC) group in February 2000; we include it here with two further updates.


The Church of England is in the process of revising its procedures on professional misconduct and ecclesiastical discipline. This was the recommendation in a report by the Legal Aid Commission, ‘The Ecclesiastical Legal Aid System’ (GS 1028).

Under the present disciplinary arrangements (Ecclesiastical Jurisdiction Measure 1963), cases to do with morality, unbecoming conduct and neglect of duty are dealt with in the first instance by the Consistory Court (the only court at diocesan level). A few cases only since 1963 have reached trial in this court. In respect of cases to do with doctrine, ritual and ceremonial a new court was established, The Court of Ecclesiastical Cases Reserved, covering the whole Church of England. This requires a court with two high court judges and three diocesan bishops with appeal to three Lords of Appeal and two bishops in the House of Lords. It has not been used. There are 44 unofficial disciplinary systems that are ad hoc and liable to modification without notice or consultation. Anthony Freeman was subject to one such in the Diocese of Chichester.

Steps In Legislation

Recommendations were brought to the General Synod in November 1996 in a Report, Under Authority. This report made a number of key assumptions, namely:

These were approved with the exception of the recommendation 11.13(d) regarding "teaching, preaching, publishing or professing doctrine or belief incompatible with that of the Church of England as expressed within its formularies". An amendment was passed to leave these matters to the present arrangements. On a show of hands the voting was 185:168 and following a division into houses, by 222:208.

An Implementation Group was set up, chaired by Alan Hawker, Archdeacon of Swindon.

The Group presented a draft Ecclesiastical Jurisdiction (Discipline) measure (GS 1347) and a draft Amending Canon No 24 (GS 1348) to General Synod in July, 1999. It also expressed the view that the present (1963) measures for dealing with incompatible doctrine or belief are not satisfactory and should be brought into line with the new proposed arrangements. The House of Bishops agreed with this but (GSMisc 570) advised that doctrine and belief should be left out of the present legislative process and that their House would appoint a group to examine how offences of a doctrinal nature could be dealt with under the new arrangements. The bishops would bring a report in due course but in the meantime the passage of the present legislation on other matters of clergy professional and personal conduct would not be hindered.

A draft Amending Canon No 24 (GS 1347Y) to the main Measure (GS 1347A) and to the Amending Canon (GS 1338A) was scheduled for discussion by the General Synod during the February 2000 sessions. This proposed a new title ‘The Clergy Discipline Measure.’

The new proposals can be thought of as a move towards more modern industrial tribunals. The proposal is that the new disciplinary courts will be known as the Bishop’s Disciplinary Tribunal. They are intended to be transparent, simpler, more easily understood and fairer. A single procedure ensuring due process would be applied in all dioceses, with the normal standard of proof being the "balance of probabilities" as in other civil proceedings. The bishop would have a range of five options for proceeding with a complaint: rejection of the complaint, a warning on the record, a conciliation procedure, imposition of a penalty by mutual consent, or formal investigation by a tribunal. Possible penalties could include deposition from holy orders, prohibition from exercising any functions, removal from office, resignation by mutual consent, revocation of license, injunction, censure or conditional discharge. The procedures would apply to all clergy, including bishops and archbishops, and including both freehold and licensed clergy. Other clauses define the procedures for entering and removing names on the Archbishops’ Caution List (although the list itself remains confidential), and specifically forbid proceedings against clergy for their secular or political opinions.

A draft Code of Practice was also prepared, although adherence to it will not be mandatory. Notwithstanding the general exclusion of doctrinal matters, the draft Code of Practice contained the following relevant text:

Doctrinal Belief

Bishops’ Group

A study group to examine questions of doctrine, ritual and ceremonial was then established under the chairmanship of Mark Santer, Bishop of Birmingham, which advertised for comment and submission.

SoFiC Response

In April 2000, the SoFiC group wrote to the new Clergy Discipline (Doctrine) Group to contribute to their deliberations on this issue. After making several points about the nature of belief and doctrine, they suggested that:

"...there are two circumstances in which charges of a doctrinal offence might be appropriate. These are:

i) where a person's declared intention is to attack the Church or the Gospel in order to destroy it. (This should be distinguished from a challenge in order to reform or strengthen the Church.)

ii) where a person insists on teaching, as the official policy or doctrine, something which is clearly contrary to the official policy or doctrine. (This should be distinguished from challenging some aspect of current policy or doctrine with the intention of reforming or strengthening it.)"

(The full text is here)

Update Since February 2000

In November 2000, the Synod gave final approval to the Clergy Discipline Measure (which by then excluded cases on doctrine, ritual and ceremonial) by an overwhelming majority. However, the new measures must be approved by Parliament before they can come into effect; this has not yet happened.

The Clergy Discipline (Doctrine) Group is now chaired by the Bishop of Chester, the Rt Rev Peter Forster, and has not submitted a report. The Telegraph reported on 20 July 2002 that conservatives and liberals in the group were deadlocked over what constituted an offence.

Related to the question of clergy discipline are questions concerning the rights of clergy as employees, which has received attention from the Department of Trade and Industry during the past year. Clergy have traditionally been regarded as "called by God" rather than employed by a terrestrial institution, and thus did not have access to the protections afforded by secular employment law. The DTI closed its consultation on 11 December 2002; on the same day, the Archbishop’s Council acknowledged the need to change the employment status of clergy, and announced that they would initiate an internal review of the question. They asked that the Government take no further action on the matter until the internal review had been completed. In responding to this announcement, the third-party-sector union Amicus welcomed the admission that the current status of clergy needs to be changed, but expressed concern that the internal study would be used as a way of further delaying progress.

Update July 2004

The report of the Clergy Discipline (Doctrine) group came before Synod in 2004 and was narrowly rejected.

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