Published online by Cambridge University Press: 02 May 2017
Society has historically viewed suicide with hostility and fear. For centuries this hostility was reflected in the English civil law, which condemned suicide as homicide, and in the Church's position towards suicide victims, which historically considered suicide to be a mortal sin. Under the current canon law, set out in Canon B 38, it is the duty of the minister to bury all parishioners, those who die in the parish, or those entered on the electoral roll of the parish according to the rites of the Church of England, except for (among others) those who ‘being of sound mind have laid violent hands upon themselves’. This canon has come under increasing scrutiny in recent years as society's attitudes towards suicide have become more tolerant. As a result, General Synod recently voted that this canon should be amended. This article explores the development of the law relating to suicide victims in order to understand the Church's current position. It then considers the shortcomings of the current canon law and reviews the position adopted by the Roman Catholic and Methodist churches. Finally, it examines the proposals for changing Canon B 38.
4 Office for National Statistics, ‘Suicides in the United Kingdom, 2014 registrations’, <https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/birthsdeathsandmarriages/deaths/bulletins/suicidesintheunitedkingdom/2014registrations>, accessed 15 April 2016.
5 Williams, Suicide and Attempted Suicide, p 19.
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8 Murray, Suicide in the Middle Ages, vol II, pp 93–96; Church of England, Ought Suicide to be a Crime? (London, 1959)Google Scholar.
9 I am grateful to the Revd Jonathon Wright for pointing out this example.
10 See Church of England, Ought Suicide to be a Crime?, pp 42–44.
11 Murray Suicide in the Middle Ages, vol II, p 97.
12 Church of England, Ought Suicide to be a Crime?, p 42.
13 Lecky, W, History of European Morals from Augustus to Charlemagne (London, 1886), p 212Google Scholar; Macdonald and Murphy, Sleepless souls, p 17; Lecky, History of European Morals, p 212.
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15 The Church of England, Ought Suicide to be a Crime? p 44.
16 Murray, Suicide in the Middle Ages, vol II, p 101.
18 Lecky, History of European Morals, p 218.
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26 Anderson, Suicide in Victorian and Edwardian England, p 272.
27 M'Naghten  UKHL J16 per Lord Tindal CJ.
28 Anderson, Suicide in Victorian and Edwardian England, pp 282–311.
29 Suicide Act 1961, s 1.
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32 Macdonald and Murphy, Sleepless Souls, p 19.
33 Book of Common Prayer, available at <https://www.churchofengland.org/prayer-worship/worship/book-of-common-prayer.aspx>, accessed 14 September 2015.
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36 Burial of Suicide Act 1823, 4 Geo 4, c 52.
37 Burial Laws Amendment Act 1880, 43 & 44 Vict, C 41, s 1.
39 Interments (Felo de se) Act 1882, 45 & 46 Vict, c 19.
40 Anderson, Suicide in Victorian and Edwardian England, p 276.
42 Background note from the Secretary General to General Synod in relation to the Private member's motion: Canon B 38, 22 October 2014 (GS 1972B).
43 Church of England (Worship and Doctrine) Measure 1974, s 6(2) and Sch 1(2).
44 Canon B 38(2).
45 Hill, Ecclesiastical Law, p 175.
46 Canon B 38(2).
47 Background note from the Secretary General, 22 October 2014 (GS 1972B).
48 Private member's motion: Canon B 38, brought by Revd Mike Parsons (GS 1972A).
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51 Law Commission, Mental Incapacity, Report No 231 (1995), <https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/228896/0189.pdf>, accessed 20 November 2015.
52 For example, see The Queen on the application of Mrs Diane Pretty v Director of Public Prosecutions and the Secretary of State for the Home Department  UKHL 61.
54 Canon 1176 §2.
55 C Kerin, ‘Christian burial problems’, (1955) 15 The Jurist 252–282 at 259.
56 Canon Law Society of Great Britain and Ireland, The Canon Law: letter and spirit (London, 1995), p 672Google Scholar.
57 See Canon 1176 §2.
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61 Constitutional Practice and Discipline of the Methodist Church (Peterborough, 2005), vol I, p iii, <http://www.methodist.org.uk/ministers-and-office-holders/cpd>, accessed 27 October 2015.
62 I am indebted to the Connectional Team of the Methodist Church in Britain for their assistance and guidance in obtaining this information.
63 The comments on Draft Amending Canon 36 are available at <https://www.churchofengland.org/about-us/structure/churchlawlegis/legislation/inprogress/submissions-made-to-revision-committees>, accessed 20 September 2016.
64 A detailed analysis of the Revision Committee's conclusions can be found in GS 2029Y, <https://www.churchofengland.org/media/3858267/gs-2029y-report-of-the-revision-committee.pdf>, accessed 7 February 2017.
65 The proposed amendments to Canon B 38 were originally included with proposed amendments to Canon B 8, as Draft Amending Canon 36, but they were later separated and the proposed amendments to Canon B 38 were incorporated into Draft Amending Canon 37.
66 As set out in Appendix I of GS 2029Y, emphasis added.
67 General Synod Draft Amending Canon No 36, Explanatory Memorandum, <https://www.churchofengland.org/media/2529374/gs_2029x_-_draft_amending_canon_no.36_explanatory_memornadum.pdf>, accessed 9 February 2017. This explanation was also expanded by the Revision Committee Report.
69 Diocese of Manchester Office for Worship, ‘Guidelines for Christian funerals, cremation and burials’, June 2011, <http://www.catholicnh.org/assets/Documents/Parish/Guidelines-FuneralsCremationBurials.pdf>, accessed 9 February 2017.
71 I am indebted to the Connectional Team in the Methodist Church of Britain for their assistance and guidance in obtaining this information.