It used to be said of the Road Traffic Act that, by the time you climb into your car and turn the key in the ignition, you will have committed at least one offence and probably more. The motorist who wants to avoid breaking the law has to be very careful indeed. But everyone can obtain a copy of the statutes on motoring law. The motorist always has the option of going to court to contest it.

A clergyman who wishes to remain on the right side of the ecclesiastical law will have a rather more difficult, if not impossible task. Most of the law concerning the Consistory Court was codified in 1963 in the Ecclesiastical Jurisdiction Measure, which is now under review by the General Synod. But the Measure is more about the Court than about listing offences, although it is refreshingly clear about adultery, or divorce, or fathering a child out of wedlock. (Nothing as yet about mothering a child out of wedlock…)

The Measure refers to offences of ritual or doctrine and provides a special procedure for trying these, but it does not state what these offences might be. To begin to find out one will need to read first of all the canons of the Church of England, a relatively short but not altogether unambiguous exercise. What, for example, are the opponents of women priests to make of Canon A4, which requires everyone to accept that they are ‘lawfully ordained…and ought to be accounted both by themselves and others, to be truly…priests’? When will the first priest face prosecution for denying such a proposition?

If the inquirer then turns to the section of Halsbury (the lawyer’s bible) which deals with ecclesiastical law, he will find a whole variety of offences listed. Most of these are case law, the result of judgments given in particular trials. Some are so obscure as to defy comprehension. However, if accused of any of these the cleric still has the right to a lawyer and a trial.

Much more disturbing for the clergy is the existence of what is known as the ‘Lambeth List, actually a ‘caution list’ kept at Lambeth and Bishopthorpe. In answer to a question asked at last November’s General Synod, some details of the list were given, and the priest who asked the question was informed that the list exists in two parts. The first is a list of all those who have been ‘formally censured under the Ecclesiastical Jurisdiction Measure, or have signed a Deed of Relinquishment’. This is fair enough, since the parties concerned have been through a due process of law. More worrying though is that the Synod was informed of a second category, those ‘clergy under pastoral discipline not covered by the Ecclesiastical Jurisdiction Measure’.

This list includes the names of clergy added by the Archbishops ‘on the recommendation of diocesan bishops.’ By definition their ‘offences’ are not covered by the Measure’. They are simply there because their diocesan bishop has chosen to put them there. Such ‘offences’ can include a dispute with the bishop about the parsonage house; or a complaint made against a chaplain by a third party; or even, in one recent case, taking part in media coverage of a claim to have been unfairly dismissed. Those who are listed are informed of the fact, but are given no hearing at which to protest their innocence or interpretation of events. Nor is there a right of appeal, only the right to ‘make representations if they consider their name should be removed from the list.’

The List is used ostensibly to guard against known offenders being offered appointments to which they are not suited, ear even entitled. All right thinking churchgoers will recognise the necessity of Part One of the List. But ‘pastoral discipline’? In modern churchspeak, the word ‘pastoral’ is generally used to achieve the opposite of its natural meaning. If is difficult to see what is pastoral about maintaining a register of clergy who have committed no known ecclesiastical offence, have been given no right to proper hearing., and have no right of appeal on a judgment against them.

The General Synod is looking again at the whole question of clergy discipline. One of the most urgent tasks before it will be to ensure that justice for the clergy is a known quantity, impartial and administered by an independent body. Ignorance of the law is no excuse, runs the old legal motto. In the case of the Lambeth List it is possible inadvertently to commit an offence before it exists.