Canon Law: Grace and Order in the Church

Fr Jonathan Redvers Harris LL,B, LL.M (Canon Law)
Thank you, Mr. Chairman. Ladies and gentlemen, (Right Reverend Father) and Reverend Fathers, we have all heard of canons – and not just those chapters of distinguished-looking clerics who can he seen from tine to tine in cathedral stalls. ‘Canon’, literally a ‘rod’, ‘bar’ or ‘rule’, has cone to mean ‘rule’ in the sense of norm, and so we have the Canon of Scripture, the Canon of the Mass, and indeed Canon Law. But what is canon law, why is there canon law, and how is canon law relevant to these John Keble Conferences in our preparations for the Third Millennium of Our Lord?

I shall cone hack to the last question at the end, hut the main thrust of this address is really taken up with the central question of why: why is there canon law at all, why do we have it, why do we need it?

Lawyers presentations barely get under way without some definition of terns, so before your eyes have had even a chance to glaze over I do not see why a canon lawyer should be an exception. It is just to mention a point of possible confusion – or perhaps to introduce one – for you nay have heard some refer to canon law while others speak of ecclesiastical law. Among Roman Catholics generally – though there are some exceptions – I think it is fair to say that the preference is to speak about canon law, and their teachers and practitioners of this discipline are known as canonists. In the Church of England, the word canonist is little known, and here as a very general guide you can probably get away with understanding canon law as the internal ordering made by the Church for herself, while ecclesiastical law is often used to refer to all regulation for the Church, including all regulation made by the state as well – which in a Church still ‘by law established’ is quite considerable. So it is probably to be expected that Roman Catholics have their Canon Law Society while Anglicans in this land, for the past ten years, have had their Ecclesiastical Law Society. But, please, do not worry about it; the terms are sometimes used interchangeably, and there is much to be said for simply speaking about ‘church law’. (Doe, The Legal Framework of the Church of England, 1996, p.16)

But to get on with our central question: why canon law at all? Surely we live under grace, not law. Did not the Apostle teach us that ‘the written code kills but the Spirit gives life’? (2 Cor.3.6). Or, as we all heard recently in the Christmas Gospel, ‘the law was given through Moses, but ‘grace and truth cane through Jesus Christ’ (John 1.17). And surely the Christian faith is about forgiveness and reconciliation, or – in today’s language – about ‘affirming people’ and ‘being positive’. What place does the Church have for negative, legalistic and inflexible laws? People are starving out there – dare I say even perhaps going to hell out there – while canon lawyers discuss the authorised vesture of ministers or the Vacation of Benefices Measure (as amended in 1993). So runs the popular ‘problem’ of canon law. True, canon law in the Church of England has been enjoying something of a renaissance in recent years, but it may be a long time before this discipline takes its place alongside other venerable subjects such as Myers-Briggs personality tests, courses in the use of overhead projectors, racism awareness studies units and compulsory liturgical dance – all of which were the stuff of theological college life when I escaped some years ago. To put the problem in a nutshell: how can a Church founded on God’s unconditional love, grace and forgiveness – how can such a Church have legalistic rules, laws which prohibit and restrict, and sometimes regulations which have penalties or sanctions?

Now, there are several quick responses we could make to this. We could try to explain the false antithesis between Law and Grace. We could stress that St Paul also says that ‘the law is holy and the commandment is holy and just and good’ (Romans 7.12). We could point out that legalism can actually be good; in the making of law, in the interpretation and enforcement of law, legalism can make for certainty, stability and justice (Twining & Miers, How To Do Things With Rules, p.195ff). We could indicate that being so-called negative is only to set boundaries to encourage the positive; ‘Do not walk on the grass’ is likely to have more effect than ‘Do stay on the path’. And we could say that it is not the purpose of law to forgive; the law certainly can provide for a pardon, which is a legal action towards a wrongdoer because of mitigating circumstances, but it is beyond the capacity of law to forgive, for forgiveness involves a change in attitude – overcoming resentment or bitterness upon a wrongdoer’s repentance – and the law, quite simply, has not the ability to have an attitude, let alone change it.

But, so deep-rooted is this popular feeling and reaction to canon law, and so widespread the ignorance – occasionally even amongst archdeacons and bishops – that we have to do better than this. We need a more thorough-going defence, an apologia for canon law. And that is largely the burden of this address.

Our answer has to go back to our very roots, when ‘in the beginning God created heaven and earth’ (Genesis 1.1), when by word of command, by word of legislation we could say, God created the world and when by word of legislation he commanded man to go forth and multiply. This is the starting point for Garth Moore in his highly readable Introduction to English Canon Law. For in the beginning we learn of God taking an earth that was ‘without form, and void’, and out of it creating something ordered, structured and ‘good’. The same Spirit which moved on the face of the deep in the beginning is the Spirit which infused the Corinthian Christians with spectacular gifts and wondrous signs; yet, still insists the Apostle, this should be no recipe for a babble of charismatic chaos, for ‘God is not a God of confusion hut of peace’ (1 Corinthians 14.33). God is a God of order, and that is the foundation stone of canon law.

And that is only the beginning – the beginning of God’s calling as co-creators a people who would express his covenant-love in juridical form in the Old Testament. There was, I gather, an ancient rabbinic saying about Moses and the golden calf, to the effect that while the people down below were engraving an image which brought then death, God on high was engraving on tablets a written code which would bring them life (Bruce, New Century Commentary on 2 Cor. 3.6). And so we have all those noes’ in eight out of the Ten Commandments which we still struggle to teach to our confirmation candidates – part of the Moral Law, a Law which is the path of life because it is a Law which reflects something of the nature of the living God who binds himself to his distinctive people.

But then we need to move to another mountain – at least if we accept St. Matthew’s account – a Mount on which another Law-giver sits down and in a memorable Sermon expounds the ordering of God’s society. Whether or not we understand Jesus as a ‘New Moses – and some of the scholars seem cautious about this – here is One who escaped in his infancy a massacre of the innocents, who fled to Egypt and came through the waters, now announcing that he has come, not to abolish the law and the prophets, but to fulfil them (Matthew 5.17). Certainly he gives us all those great antitheses – ‘You have heard that it was said… But I say to you’ – but in so doing he shows that he is fulfilling the law, giving it its true meaning, restoring the spirit, peeling back man’s added layers. And, yes, certainly Christ comes as the Epiphany ‘new wine’ (John 2.1-11) and indeed gives us a ‘new commandment’ (to love one another as he does us, John 13.34), but there remains an essential continuity with the Old Testament people of God who have now cone to be seen as the ‘Israel of God’ as St. Paul calls us (Galatians 6.16). Central to his own mission we have not two suggestions, not even two exhortations, but two dominical commands – ‘Do this in remembrance of me’ (Luke 23. 19b), and ‘Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit’ (Matthew 28.19). And the Church is given the power – focused in her ministers to bind and to loose (Matthew 16.19, 18.18, John 20.23), and this binding and loosing – to ‘declare forbidden’ and to ‘declare allowed’ – is seen by some commentators and canonists as having a wider, legislating sense, rather than being confined to confession and absolution. Again, there is this continuity with the Old: a legislative authority is needed as much in the New Covenant as in the Old. And this right of the Church and the continuity of the legislative authority from the Old is the starting point for the 1947 Canon Law Report, chaired by Cyril Garbett Archbishop of York (p.3),

We see this legislative authority in action in the earliest of the New Testament writings, with St. Paul in his First Letter to the Corinthians not being frightened to go beyond the words of the Lord (‘I say, not the Lord’, 7.12ff) and to provide instruction for married couples, allowing for a believer and non-believer to separate, although not necessarily leaving the way open to remarriage) or, for another example, take the Apostle’s detailed regulation for conduct in public worship at the Lord’s Supper (ch.1l) or about the use of charismatic gifts (ch.14). And then a more formalised style of decision making is presented to us with the Council of Jerusalem in the Acts of the Apostles (14.26-15.35). There, a specific question of circumcision for the Gentiles at Antioch was referred to the apostolic assembly and a conciliar formulation on this point was given in a published juridical decree (see, Coriden, Introduction, p.11; Alesandro, General Introduction to the Code, Commentary, p.1). The subsequent acceptance of this decree by the wider Church amounts to the earliest description of what came in later centuries to be seen as the canonical doctrine of reception – a subject on which I can claim greater ignorance than most, having tried to explore it in my own canon law Master’s dissertation. Suffice it say, for the moment, that the doctrine of reception – by which a doctrinal formulation is evaluated by the entire Church as to its consistency with apostolic faith – has, of course, particular relevance to our circumstances, especially given its prominent place in the Reports leading up the ordination of women legislation and its explicit enshrinement in our present Act of Synod. But I shall trespass no further on Fr. David’s subject for this afternoon.

Now, ever since the Church’s earliest days, she has had to struggle to maintain discipline within herself. The freedom which the faithful have in Christ, is not an excuse to let your hair down, as the Christian women of Corinth found literally when St. Paul reminded them to keep their hair covered – whether a form of braided hair piled up on top on whether it was a veil – whatever that cultural expression of ‘headship’ was – rather than identify themselves with the loose locks of the harlot (1 Corinthians 11). Right order, good governance and godly discipline: these are the concerns of canon law, and it is instructive to consider the foundational brushstrokes painted in for us by the New Testament’s teaching on church discipline.

The gospel accounts have little to tell us about church discipline. There are those verses in St. Matthew (18:l5ff) which begin, ‘If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault… ‘ Certainly this passage refers to witnesses and to evidence, but really this is to do with the personal addressing of a wrong, and it does not take us very far.

No, it is in the Epistles that we discover the New Testament basis for church discipline. And discipline in the church, we find, has had a two-fold purpose right from those early days: first, to restore the wrongdoer, through education and repentance, into full communion with the Body of Christ; and, secondly, when this proves impossible, to protect the good order of the Body at large by cleansing it of impure leaven

The first – restorative and educative – purpose of discipline is seen in excommunication, which is how St. Paul’s expression ‘I have delivered to Satan’ has been understood. And among those so declared excommunicate by the Apostle, we read of Hymenaeus and Alexander, in First Timothy, and the purpose, he makes clear, is ‘that they may learn not to blaspheme’ (1 Tim 1:20). Similarly, we read that among the Christians of Thessalonica there were idlers and busybodies – times have not changed much – (2 Thessalonians 3.11). If any of these refuse to respond to the Apostle’s admonition, then his readers are enjoined to ‘have nothing to do with him, that he may be ashamed’ (v.14). Maybe this is an early example of impaired communion?

And then there are the Apostle’s instructions on discipline to the Corinthians where the sexually immoral brother is, he says, ‘to be removed from among you’ and delivered ‘to Satan for the destruction of the flesh’ (1 Corinthians 5.2 & 5) – again, evidently intending some form of excommunication, and probably involving exclusion from the Eucharist, since the brethren are ‘not even to eat with such a one’ (v.11). And the purpose of the action: again, his restoration at least in ultimate terms, ‘that he may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus’ (v.5), and, meanwhile, to keep the church pure and holy from impure leaven (v.7ff).

I have dwelt in some detail on these disciplinary texts because this brings us back to the charge so often levelled at the Church: that she is always saying ‘No’, prohibiting, denying, being negative. Not so, even in matters of so-called excommunication, the Church’s law is simply declaring in official language what the wrongdoer has already done in breaking or seriously disrupting his unity with the community of the faithful (see Green, Code Commentary, p.894). In other words, people effectively excommunicate themselves and the Church simply declares that to be so. If we can for a moment leap forward some two millennia, we ought, on this point about excommunication, to note that in the Roman Catholic Church it is only one of a number of sanctions or penalties, the point of such sanctions, the present Roman rules tell us, being to repair scandal, to restore justice and to reform the offender (Canon 1341). Much turns on the attitude of the wrongdoer and his continuing state. Likewise, in the Church of England, although excommunication barely features, it is referred to in Canon B38 – that is, there is to be no church burial service for anyone who has been declared ‘excommunicate for some grievous and notorious crime and no man testify to his repentance’ (showing that excommunication is dependent upon the state of the wrongdoer’s heart).

But this 2000-year leap from biblical sources to present systems of canon law in the Western Church is a little cheeky. What I have been trying to show is that, from this scriptural basis, from these beginnings of divine law, we can at least discern the foundational principles of the systems of canon law in our churches today. Nonetheless, in all fairness and for the sake of completeness I ought to say just a few words about how canon law has become what it has. So a very brief historical summary.

In her early centuries the Church’s legal formulations took the form of decisions from regional and provincial councils, rulings from various Fathers of both East and West, and from writings such as the Didache. These legal rules we can crudely summarise as canons’ and they were supplemented by ‘decretals’ – letters from the Bishop of Rome who, by the end of the fourth century, was being asked by individual bishops to settle specific questions. Although responding to particular questions these decretals came to have wider recognition in the Church generally. In this, the law of our own Anglo-Saxon Church shared much in common with Western Europe.

The next centuries saw the age of canon law collections – collections of conciliar canons and papal decretals – such as the one brought to these islands by the first Norman Archbishop Lanfranc (1072). Then in the twelfth century came the great collections of Ivo of Chartres and of Gratian, and Gratian’s Decretum of c.1140 is generally recognised as one of the great pinnacles of canon law history, as the first really thoroughgoing attempt at trying to synthesise the various and sometimes divergent rulings from different strands of church law. Indeed, the twelfth and thirteenth centuries were something of a ‘golden age’ for canon law in Western Europe, and along with Gratian’s Decretum there were the three great papal codifications (Gregory IX, 1234; Boniface VIII, 1298; and Clement V, 1317) which, taken together made up the recognised authoritative Canonical Corpus of the time. Stating the matter very crudely, this with some local variation, was the canon law of the English Church right up to the Reformation.

We are all of us familiar with the constitutional changes of the English Reformation, but, from a canon law perspective, research has indicated that much actually continued in the administration and practice of church law without interruption. There was, however, a vital change of understanding in the status of the pre-Reformation church law. And, in typical lawyers’ fashion, it all seems to turn on one little proviso to one of Henry VIII’s statutes (if you are interested in this sort of thing it is in s.7 of the Submission of the Clergy Act of 1533). In fact, this provision appeared in several statutes at that time, and it is important because it gave continuing force to the mediaeval canon law, until a new code was completed and as long as it was not repugnant to the royal prerogative. This is something which the 1947 Archbishops Report picks up – that the earlier canon law still continued as the law of the Church, not so much because it had papal authority but rather because it had been long observed in England (p.46 Report).

Now, although the Convocations promulgated the Canons of 1603 and their replacement of 1964 and 1969, none of these codes were sufficiently comprehensive to amount to the codification envisaged in the Reformation legislation. So Henry VIII’s proviso still holds good, as Dr. Eric Kemp maintains (1 Ecc. L.J. 1987/88 (1,2) 5 at p.10)- as he has said, ‘behind our present canons, therefore, stands the ancient canon law of the church’. The pre-Reformation consistent canon law of Rome still survives having been incorporated at the Reformation. Since 1969, of course, Convocations’ law-making powers have been vested in General Synod and this body has added to or amended our now loose-leaf canons with great frequency.

Now, as for the Latin Church, things took a different course, with the counter-Reformation Council of Trent 1545-63 and its decrees, interpreted by its own Congregation. This centralised legislative structure essentially directed the Roman Church for some 300 years. Eventually Vatican I 1869-70 resulted in the first single codification for the Latin Church. Beginning in 1903, thirteen years later in 1917 came the first Code – modelled on the codified civil law systems of continental Europe. The present Latin Code of canons in 1983 followed the results of Vatican II, but more of that later.

So much for our brief history lesson and apologies to any who found it so crude and superficial as to be of any use. I was simply trying to get from those biblical texts to today’s systems of canon law, and to help any who are unfamiliar with canon law to gain some idea of its historical context.

But all of which I have spoken about thus far has been an effort to supply some sort of defence for canon law. It has been largely in theological terms, and that should not surprise us because canon law is a bizarre discipline standing, as many say, at the intersection of both law and theology. But we have, I hope, already begun to see that canon law is not always the nasty horrible negative ogre of popular imagination. Yet that is just the beginning, for we can go on and explore the positive aspect of canon law further.

You see, one of the problems for canon law is that people tend to view it as though it were criminal law, in terms of punishment and offences, rather than like, say, the law of wills or company law, which is there to enable you to do something. So, we might say that canon law is there to facilitate, to enable, to help the life of the Church. Referring again to the 1947 Canon Law Report, the members of the Archbishops’ Commission say that: “The Church has, in fact, authority to make only such rules as will further its purpose as an institution for the help of men in their following of our Lord, and which will prevent anything creeping into its life that may hinder it from performing its proper functions”. (p.4, emphasis supplied). This quotation is doubly interesting as it acknowledges both the positive and the negative. (An example, in modern tines, of the ‘negative’ role of canon law in preventing that which may hinder its mission, could be the prohibition on such occupations, habits or recreations of a cleric as do not befit his sacred calling C26(2), while an example of the ‘positive’ aspect of canon law can be found in the almost-pastoral exhortation of Canon B20(3) to choose chants, hymns, anthems and settings, which are ‘appropriate’ not only for the solemn act of worship but also for that congregation.)

In a similar vein, but using different language, Pope John Paul II when promulgating the present Code of Canons for the Latin Church in 1983, said that the Code was not intended as a substitute for faith, grace, charisms and charity in the life of the Church, but, he says: “On the contrary, its purpose is rather to create such an order in the ecclesial society that, while assigning the primacy to love, grace and charisms, it at the same time renders their organic development easier in the life of both the ecclesial society and the individual persons who belong to it” (Code, Commentary, p.xxv. )

This facilitating, helping, enabling notion can be illustrated in English canon law by thinking about the rights it protects. Some people, some clerics, have a very negative view about the legal duty to baptise, to marry and to bury. But look at it the other way round – for students of law know that to every duty there attaches a right – and what we are talking about here is the right of parishioners to the ministrations of their church. Grandmothers do not, I know, need advice on egg-sucking but in pastoral terms I find this the better approach. Tell people of their rights and entitlements, rather than create hoops for then to leap through like circus dogs, and they may prove a little more receptive to what you then have to hand on about the nature of baptism or marriage.

Or take the so-called ‘parson’s freehold’. Of course there are some, perhaps sometimes too many, rotten apples in the barrel, but the freehold is not really about protecting lazy, incompetent and self-indulgent clerics. Legally, in fact, it is more accurate to see it as being in the nature of a trust – a trust in which the parson holds his ecclesiastical office, and the benefice property, for the benefit of the parishioners. In the history of the English church the independence of the clergy has been a rich and colourful vein, and often it has been the parish priest with his freehold who has stood up for his people – sometimes against the dark forces of the diocese and, in these monochrome days of grey-suited vicars, we need some healthy individuality which stands up to appraisal, assessments and all the rest of the functionalist agendas which inform clergy development officers (but I must resist riding a favourite hobby horse . . . ). A freehold which facilitates.

Someone who certainly was not a grey-suited monocleric was Garth Moore, both a lawyer and a priest, who with the immortal Lord Bishop of Chichester, has done much for canon law in our Church. But he saw, as an ecclesiastical judge, that canon law should facilitate. And especially in the matter of the Reservation of the Blessed Sacrament. None of you here today will need reminding of the words of Article XXVIII – which say that ‘the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper was not by Christ’s ordinance reserved…’ Quite right, argued Moore in a case in 1958, it does indeed say that, but as the Articles of Religion are to be interpreted in a literal and strict grammatical sense this need not cause us any difficulty, since many other lawful things were not ordained by our Lord (Bishopswearmouth v. Adey [1958] 3 All ER 441). Moore admitted in that case that the strongest argument against Reservation was the rubric directing consumption of the elements immediately the service had ended; but rubrics, he reminds us, are liberal guideline – drafted by churchmen for churchmen – and the mischief against which the rubric was directed was the profaning of the consecrated elements. Of particular relevance to the present point of canon law as facilitator, Moore then argued the doctrine of necessity; we need reservation, he said, because of the large parishes and few priests in the twentieth century, which may at least justify reservation for the visitation of the sick (Bishopswearmouth and SS. Peter & Paul Leckhampton [1967] 3 All ER 1057). In the event, his use of ‘necessity’ in this imaginative way was overtaken by the new rubric in Series II which has found its way into the ASB 1980, allowing for reservation by requiring the consumption only of consecrated elements ‘not required for the purposes of communion’ – not just that particular communion.

Canon law facilitates and enables. Moving on, we can be a little more adventurous and say that canon law is about ecclesiology. That is, the doctrine and life of the Church are spelt out juridically in a structured, ordered form. Naturally this is seen more clearly in the Latin Code where the earlier 1917 Code was really reflecting the secular legal theory with its headings of general norms, persons, things, procedures and penalties’, and the model of the Church it reveals was one of the ‘perfect society’, as if the Church were parallel to the State. The Second Vatican Council 1962-65 changed all that, with its emphasis on Church as communion, the importance of service, of collegiality, and most especially, the participation by all the faithful in Christ’s three-fold office as Priest, Prophet and King. The 1983 Code took the insight of Vatican II that the people of Cod is unique and the headings and groupings of canons reflect this three-fold office. Two of the Code’s Books are literally entitled the Office of Sanctifying and the Office of Teaching (Books 4 and 3 respectively which cover, under sanctifying, the liturgical and sacramental life of the Church, and, under teaching, the magisterium, catechetical instruction and education). The third office – of governance or ruling – is taken up in the remaining books, touching as it does on a number of aspects such as the hierarchical structure of the people of Cod (Bk II cc.330-367) and the use of sanctions). The Latin Code in both its structure and content expresses juridically the ecclesiology of the Roman Church.

In the Church of England this is more of a task for here the canon law is not completely codified but rather is drawn from a number of sources – statutes (both Acts and Measures), common law, ancient canon law consistent with the Reformation or subsequently changes, canons, Acts of Convocation and, later, of Synod… I suppose the opening canons of our loose-leaf collection are a good starting point. Al: ‘The Church of England, established according to the laws of this realm under the Queen Majesty, belongs to the true and apostolic Church of Christ’ Undoubtedly an important part of our Church’s ecclesiology is the sovereign place of monarch – the supreme authority in both ecclesiastical and civil matters (A7). It is only under her that the Church is governed by its own hierarchy of senior clerics (A6). Canon A2 goes on to say how agreeable the 39 Articles are and urges no difficulty in their being accepted to with a good conscience by all members of the Church of England. And so the Articles too give us some understanding of the Church’s view of herself, Article 19 telling us that ‘the visible Church of Christ is a congregation of faithful men in which the pure Word of God is preached…’, and then in Article 21 we learn that ‘General Councils may not be gathered together without the commandment and will of Princes. . . ‘ These glimpses give us an ecclesiology of a commonwealth identified with the Church of England, an ecclesiology of a national Church, which doubtless sound somewhat strained in today’s climate.

When we understand canon law as the juridic expression of the Church herself, then we realise that canon law is not just another branch of law, like shipping law, matrimonial law or the law of contract. Of course canon and ecclesiastical lawyers have to learn the crafts of legal draftsmanship, the rules of evidence and the need for a structure of courts – for canon law, like the visible Church, has to operate within the world, and it is only to be expected that the canon lawyer will take from the civil or secular lawyer the tools for his divine trade.

But, that said, canon law is analogous. Coriden, a leading Roman Catholic canonist, says quite bluntly, ‘Canon law is law only by analogy’ (Canonical Doctrine, 50 Jurist (1990) 58) – and others agree with him (Urresti, (1967) 8 Concilium (3) 10,13. And this is the ecclesiology point. Because canon law serves a different sort of society – a heavenly society, a supernatural society, whatever language we may use, but nonetheless ‘a society in a sense analogous to civil society’ (Urresti). Just take some of the marks of the Church. She transcends the limitations of space and tine. She is to be a sign to the world of the unity and reconciliation which God wills for all his creatures. She is to be a means of making known the mystery of God’s purposes – and, indeed, of being herself an expression of the mystery of the ‘one-flesh’ union with Christ. Try putting those facets into legal terms.

We can go even further and understand canon law as being incarnational and sacramental – if those terms have not been too overworked. For canon law, as we have seen, is about enabling grace – it particularises grace. I like the expression ‘the handmaid of grace’, although I cannot find its origin. One Roman canonist has spoken of the ‘specific dynamism of grace’ from which is derived the ‘particularity of ecclesial juridic order’ (Gerosa, Concilium 185 (1986) 54,55). Just as in the scandal of the Incarnation the transcendant God becomes confined to a particular time, place, and person, so canon law dares to make particular, juridical and identifiable that which passes all understanding.

Occasionally, canon law is concerned with internal matters, what Romans call the ‘internal forum’ – matters of conscience, making windows into men s souls – and the clearest example here is that part of the Latin Code concerning the seal of the confessional. But generally, and naturally, canon law’s concern is with the external forum – the outward ordering of the visible community of the faithful. Here we become most conscious of a sacramental aspect of canon law, its concern with the outward and visible, signifying inward and spiritual grace.

Although – dwelling for one moment on the Latin Code’s provisions about the confessional – here is a good example of canon law functioning as the handmaid of grace. The penitent, certainly, is placed under obligation to make confession, but in this essential duty he is protected by rights, so that the forgiving grace of God can be experienced sacramentally by the whole people of God without fear of the priest abusing the knowledge. It is the canonical norms here which foster and strengthen the lives of the faithful (see Canons 843, 960, 983ff & 1388).

In English canon law the provisions surrounding the Holy Eucharist give us a good example of grace administered through legal formulations. Interestingly, the Book of Common Prayer’s title for the Eucharist begins with the words, ‘The Order for the Administration of the Lord’s Supper. . . ‘ Grace needs administering. Consider a celebration of the Holy Eucharist. Where should it take place? Not in a private home, unless for the sick, Canons 840 & 37, reflecting the ‘public’ principle that we do not operate behind closed doors. When and how frequently should it be celebrated? At least every Sunday, on all Feast Days and Ash Wednesday: B14. What form of service should be used? A duly permitted one, from the Prayer Book or the ASB and we cling, and the Additional Curates Society Publications Department clings, to those variations of non-substantial importance which we are permitted under 85. Who should preside at the celebration? An episcopally-ordained priest within the Church of England or one whose orders are recognised and accepted by the Church of England: 812 and Cl. What of the elements to be consecrated? Leavened or unleavened bread of the best and purest wheat flour that conveniently may be gotten (not rich tea biscuits), and the wine the fermented juice of the grape ‘good and wholesome’ (not home-made rhubarb wine), B17. And the vesture of the celebrant? Anything from the ‘customary vestments’ to choir habit with scarf and hood, B8, and you might be able to get away with a black preaching gown in the pulpit for although not mentioned in our Canons it has the authority of many centuries’ usage. And then who is to be admitted to the Eucharist? The confirmed of the Church of England, those ready and desirous of confirmation (that is helpful where a lady bishop may be laying on holy hands), those good-standing communicants of other trinitarian churches, those render admissible by General Synod regulations (for example, if it decided to admit children), and, lastly, those who are in immediate danger of death: B15. Then, of course, there are those who may in extreme instances be excluded – the ‘notorious offender’ , previously the ‘notorious evil liver’ – which is nothing to do with that seasonal over-indulgence. If the priest thinks that someone should be excluded ‘by reason of malicious and open sin without repentance’ then that is a matter for the bishop, but if it is a case of ‘grave and immediate scandal’ then the priest must exclude him and report it to the bishop within seven days: B16. All these canons, which at first sight may seem to hedge about the Holy Eucharist with so many rules and regulations, are in fact needed if that administered sacrament is truly to be a means of grace.

Time, you will doubtless be glad to hear, bids that soon I stop, but in our closing reflections it is worth noting that canon law only seems to loom large in some people’s minds when there is a particular predicament or difficulty. In the course of this past year of parish duties I can remember having to check the position when there is a suicide pact – popular in Houghton Regis – and the parties involved appear to have died of sound mind and therefore may seem on the face of it not be eligible for a Church funeral, or there was the time when a family wished to disinter, as increasingly they do, cremated remains from what may have been a consecrated part of a local authority cemetery, or the age-old one of people moving away having applied for their banns of marriage to be called but before they have actually been called, or there was the visiting cleric at our deanery synod who, talking about divorce and remarriage’, told us that an Ad Clerum from his diocesan bishop enjoyed greater authority that Regulations under an Act of Convocation… All these, of course, are matters for canon law. Yet we would be making a profound mistake if we were to see canon law as having importance only when we encounter a so-called ‘problem’, something useful on the shelf for time of need like a diocesan directory. No, canon law, as I hope I have been able to show, is with us all the time, needed by us all the time. Canon law has to be always here for it underpins, regulates and orders the entire outward visible expression of the Church’s life, in all sacramental and pastoral actions, however complex and however simple, as well as in all the naturally more juridical areas, like faculties.

Finally, as to these Keble Conferences. Part of the purpose of these gatherings is that by studying together these themes we may in some small way be preparing for our future together in Christ, that by a renewal in the faith of our forebears we ourselves may be better equipped to carry it forward into the next millennium. For the past year, we have been urged to dwell on the theme of Christology, and some of us are doubtless still following this through with Lent courses around the suggested studies. But this year, and into the next, the theme is Ecciesiology. That is precisely, as I have tried to show, where canon law comes in. It has been said that canon law is ‘applied ecclesiology’ (Fr. Robert Ombres, cited by Hill in Ecclesiastical Law, 1995, p.2). But, above all, canon law is the handmaid of grace.