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ECCLESIASTICAL LAW: An Introduction

The more observant will have noticed that there has been a health scare this year. The Pandemic has affected all areas of our lives. Even the ivory towers of Ecclesiastical Law have felt chill winds blow around their ankles, to mix metaphors.

The COVID-19 response by the State with regard to the Church has arguably been consistent with its response to all aspects of society, that is, chaotic, inscrutable, last minute and confusing. The National Church has risen to the challenge of matching the Government’s efforts.

Lockdown meant that all Churches were closed at very short notice. The sacraments were suspended for the first time since the reign of King John (his response was to consider making Islam the state religion. There has been no indication from Buckingham Palace that this solution has been considered). All priests were banned from entering their own Churches. This message appeared not to have been shared with the Government, who granted an exemption for those leaving one’s house to ‘Ministers of Religion’ to travel to their ‘Places of worship’. As these places of worship were now locked, presumably the Ministers involved were to stand outside them. As a substantial number of priests in the Church of England also live within a very few feet of their Churches this appeared to be an exemption with few material benefits. Further confusion was caused by the Archbishop of Canterbury, during an interview on Easter Day, ‘clarifying’ the ban on priests entering their own Churches by stating that this was ‘merely guidance’. This clarification must have been a surprise to the Bishop and clergy of the Diocese of Rochester. The Bishop had threatened any of his priests who entered their Churches with action under the Clergy Discipline Measure.

A letter before action was issued by Christian Concern against the Government’s decision to close the Churches. The rules were subsequently relaxed, but the Government took the decision that late on Saturday night would be a good time to make that announcement. Clergy made their opinion of that thoughtful decision clear on Social Media. Despite the relaxation of the rules, it has been announced that Christian Concern intend to continue their action. We await the progress of this litigation with interest.

The hearings in IICSA continued, with no end in sight. We will have to watch this space to see their final conclusions, no date has yet been set for these to be published and evidence taking continues at a stately pace.

A new Designated Officer was appointed this year just in time for the Clergy Discipline Measure to be subject to an excoriating analysis by the Sheldon Hub. The analysis showed that the measure has been criticised as being ‘not fit for purpose’ by all who have had encounters with it. That this response coincides with 27 senior clergy being subject to investigations is a matter for analysis after the dust has settled. A review of the whole system has been announced by the Ecclesiastical Law Society, chaired by the Bishop of Bristol.

The investigation of matters subject to the Clergy Discipline Measure was criticised robustly by a tribunal in the case of The Revd William Bulloch where allegations of adultery were dismissed. In the case of The Revd Nathan Ntege the Tribunal rejected the argument that marrying 475 couples over a 4 year period was missional, not to say evangelical, particularly as there had been no remittance of any of the marriage fees totalling £60,000. Failures in his accounting practice as a result of such hard work were also rejected.

The Bishop of Lincoln remained suspended (the first Bishop to be suspended since Archbishop Grindal in 1577). His case comes to be considered by the new Archbishop of York, whose enthronement (the first to be conducted by Zoom) occurred shortly before it was revealed that he had also made ‘errors’ in reporting allegations of clergy abuse that are strikingly similar to the matters that the Bishop of Lincoln is accused of. It will be interesting to see how the case progresses.

A new Dean of the Arches, Morag Ellis QC, was appointed to universal acclaim.

The Faculty jurisdiction has continued to function even in these strange times; appropriately the most notable were to do with graveyards. The Chancellor of the Diocese of Bristol conducted a Consistory Court by Zoom; In re the exhumation of Peter Hudd [2020] Ecc Bri 4. The ‘Black Lives Matter’ campaign caused the removal of two gravestones in the Diocese of Chichester which were deemed offensive; Re St. Margaret Rottingdean [2020] ECC Chi 4 and the removal of the vandalised gravestone of a freed slave who had been buried in a graveyard in the Diocese of Bristol. More controversially in Re St. Giles Exhall [2020] ECC Cov 1 the Chancellor refused to allow the Irish Gaelic words “In ár gcroíthe go deo”, meaning “In our hearts forever” to be engraved on the stone without a translation, as it would be incomprehensible to most people visiting the churchyard, and might be misconstrued as a slogan or political statement. This was a decision which managed to unite the Guardian newspaper, the Irish Times and the Bishop of Coventry, but perhaps not in the way that the Chancellor had expected.