Disciplining the Clergy

A committee of the General Synod, under the chairmanship of Canon Alan Hawker of the diocese of Chichester, is currently examining ways to reform the Ecclesiastical Jurisdiction Measure of 1963, which provides the statutory basis for the consistory courts of the Church of England. Reform is much needed, as those attending the recent Lincoln trial discovered. Although the system is only just over 30 years old, it retains a cumbersome, expensive and criminal procedure for dealing with clerical discipline, which most bishops sensibly choose to avoid using at all costs.

No doubt there are a few miscreants in clerical collars who prefer to keep things that way. Better to have an obsolete court which can not be used, they might reason, than to have a reformed procedure which can and will be used. Fortunately there are very few such offenders at large. Neglect of duty is a more widespread problem. What can be done about the priest (or bishop) who does not live in his parish, but in a neighbouring diocese, returning only to carry out essential tasks before returning “home”?

The Church does need, however, some means of enforcing an essential discipline, which includes not only matters of personal morality, but liturgical practice, and orthodoxy in the teaching office which is part of the ordained ministry. At present almost anything goes, in almost every diocese. Not only is there not the will in liberal quarters to maintain any sort of common life, there is not the means to do so. The freehold gets the blame for getting in the way of enforcing episcopal authority, when in fact it is the lack of a fair disciplinary system which is the problem.

The problem lies in defining what is “fair”. Bishops have been encouraged, largely by the Anglo-Catholic tradition, to think of themselves as having an authority and a freedom of action which even popes would blush to claim for themselves. In administering the law there is a constant temptation to make it up to suit the circumstances of the case, or worse, the private and arbitrary whims of the individual bishop. To be fair, any new system of discipline must be removed from the office of the local diocese, to be administered by a national tribunal. It would be appropriate for the same tribunal to hear complaints against bishops in the same way as any other cleric.

It would greatly improve the disciplinary system if candidates for an appointment were to be interviewed by a properly constituted diocesan panel, after being proposed by the patron, with power to take up references and to make a formal recommendation to the bishop whether or not to accept the candidate, then fewer of the hopeless cases who reply to every advertisement in the church press would slip through the net and bring about disarray and scandal in the parishes. The right of patronage remains an important check against the creation of a monochrome and conformist Church, but the duty of making appropriate appointments is essential if patronage is to survive.

The reform which matters perhaps most of all does not lie within the remit given to Canon Hawker and his committee. There is growing up in the Church of England a deep dissatisfaction with the way in which the episcopal ministry is exercised, and without reform of the episcopate itself, the question of clergy discipline will remain peripheral. The expansion of episcopal numbers was hailed as bringing leadership and pastoral care ever closer to the rank and file of the Church, and there is much to be said for smaller dioceses and closer personal relationships.

What has happened however is not the division of dioceses, but the growth of a higher caste of clergy, which remains as detached in many cases from the life of the diocese as the remote figures who governed the Church a century ago, ex-dons, headmasters, and the like. In a democratic age, their appointment remains almost as shrouded in mystery as it was when Queen Victoria took an active hand in their selection. They lack the moral authority of being chosen by those they are appointed to serve.

The Church needs bishops to be leaders, who speak with the true authority of the gospel, who teach the Christian faith authentically and with personal commitment to those whom they serve. Without such leadership, chosen and accepted by the people of God, all other forms of ecclesiastical discipline, which depend for their acceptance on faith rather than law, will inevitably be less effective than they ought to be, and the drift in doctrine and morality will continue.