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The English Canon Law Relating to Suicide Victims

  • Charlotte L Wright (a1) (a2)
Abstract

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.

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1 Williams, M, Suicide and Attempted Suicide (London, 2001), p xiii.

2 Parsons, M, Suicide and the Church: a pastoral theology (Cambridge, 2010), p 5.

3 Linsley, K, Schapira, K and Kelly, T, ‘Open verdict v. suicide: importance to research’, (2001) 178:5 British Journal of Psychiatry 465468 .

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.

6 Williams, Suicide and Attempted Suicide; Hillman, J, Suicide and the Soul (Woodstock, CT, 2011); Macdonald, M and Murphy, T, Sleepless Souls: suicide in early modern England (Oxford, 1990); Murray, A, Suicide in the Middle Ages, vol II (Oxford, 2000); and Anderson, O, Suicide in Victorian and Edwardian England (Oxford, 1987).

7 Hill, M, Ecclesiastical Law (Oxford, 2001), p 176; Doe, N, The Legal Framework of the Church of England: a critical study in a comparative context (Oxford, 1996).

8 Murray, Suicide in the Middle Ages, vol II, pp 93–96; Church of England, Ought Suicide to be a Crime? (London, 1959).

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 212; Macdonald and Murphy, Sleepless souls, p 17; Lecky, History of European Morals, p 212.

14 Macdonald and Murphy, Sleepless Souls, p 17.

15 The Church of England, Ought Suicide to be a Crime? p 44.

16 Murray, Suicide in the Middle Ages, vol II, p 101.

17 Seabourne, G and Seabourne, A, ‘The law on suicide in medieval England’, (2000) 21 Journal of Legal History 2148 at 23.

18 Lecky, History of European Morals, p 218.

19 Murray, Suicide in the Middle Ages, vol II, p 168.

20 Ibid , p 178.

21 de Bracton, H, Bracton on the Laws and Customs of England, ed and trans Thorne, S (Cambridge, MA, 1968) p 423.

22 Seabourne and Seabourne, ‘Law on suicide’, p 23.

23 Pollock, F and Maitland, F, The History of English Law before the Time of Edward I (Cambridge, 1895), p 488.

24 Bracton, Bracton on the Laws and Customs of England, p 424.

25 Groot, R, ‘When suicide became felony’, (2000) 21 Journal of Legal History 120 at 13.

26 Anderson, Suicide in Victorian and Edwardian England, p 272.

27 M'Naghten [1843] UKHL J16 per Lord Tindal CJ.

28 Anderson, Suicide in Victorian and Edwardian England, pp 282–311.

29 Suicide Act 1961, s 1.

30 Stephen, J, A History of the Criminal Law of England (London, 1883), vol III, p 105.

31 Murray, Suicide in the Middle Ages, vol II, pp 181–182.

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.

34 Anderson, Suicide in Victorian and Edwardian England, p 270.

35 Wheatly, C, A Rational Illustration of the Book of Common Prayer of the Church of England (London, 1845), p 462.

36 Burial of Suicide Act 1823, 4 Geo 4, c 52.

37 Burial Laws Amendment Act 1880, 43 & 44 Vict, C 41, s 1.

38 Ibid , s 13.

39 Interments (Felo de se) Act 1882, 45 & 46 Vict, c 19.

40 Anderson, Suicide in Victorian and Edwardian England, p 276.

41 Ibid , pp 276–277.

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).

49 <http://thelawdictionary.org/unsound-mind>, accessed 2 November 2015.

50 See Mental illness’ in Marcovitch, H (ed), Black's Medical Dictionary (42nd edition, London, 2010).

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 [2001] UKHL 61.

53 Canon 1176 §1, <http://www.vatican.va/archive/ENG1104/__P4A.HTM>, accessed 25 October 2015.

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 672.

57 See Canon 1176 §2.

58 Canon Law Society, Canon Law, p 672.

59 Beal, J and Coriden, J, New Commentary on the Code of Canon Law (New York, 2000), p 1412; Canon Law Society, Canon Law, p 672.

60 Ibid , p 673.

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.

68 Liturgy Office England & Wales, Order of Christian Funerals (London, 2006), p 1.

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.

70 Methodist Church of Britain, Methodist Worship Book (Peterborough, 1999), p 448.

71 I am indebted to the Connectional Team in the Methodist Church of Britain for their assistance and guidance in obtaining this information.

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Ecclesiastical Law Journal
  • ISSN: 0956-618X
  • EISSN: 1751-8539
  • URL: /core/journals/ecclesiastical-law-journal
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