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Twentieth-Century Revision of Canon Law in the Church of England

  • Canon Peter Boulton (a1)


This study describes and evaluates the Church of England's revision of its canon law in the twentieth century, concentrating on the period from 1939 to 1969. By way of introduction it should be said that this assessment is but part of a larger study which proceeds on two planes of comparison. In the larger study, revision by the Church of England is laid horizontally alongside another Anglican revision carried out as a result of disestablishment of the Church in Wales in 1920, and also the two revisions of Roman Catholic canon law leading to the promulgation of the Codex luris Canonici in 1917 and 1983. Vertically, the history of the revision of English canon law over the previous four hundred years gives some idea of what needed revision, and the difficulties in carrying it out under the constraints of being an established church. In this article, however, only the process of revision by the Church of England in the twentieth century is discussed.



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2 Wood, E. G., The Regal Power at the Church: or. the Fundamentals of Canon Law (Cambridge. 1888: Westminster, 1948). p vi.

3 Paul, H.. A History of Modern England (London, 1904)(5 vols), II, 394.

4 The new Archbishops' Commission acknowledged its debt to its predecessors: The Canon Law of the Church of England, being a Report of the Archbishops' Commission on Canon Law (London, 1947). p. 87 (hereafter referred to as the Canon Law Report).

5 The Report declared: ‘the law of public worship in the Church of England is too narrow’, and ‘the system of ecclesiastical courts has broken down’.

6 The Archbishops' Commission on Church and State, chaired by Lord Selborne. reported in 1916.

7 Bell, G. K. A., Randall Davidson (London, 1935)(2 vols): ‘I am sure there is a great deal to be said before we can decide that such a committee should go seriously to work’.

8 Rejection in 1929 drew from both Provincial Houses of Bishops (supported by the Lower Houses) a Statement of Principles to be followed during the present emergency and until further order be take: see Riley, H. and Graham, R. J. (eds.). Acts of the Convocations of Canterbury and York 1921 1970 (London, 1971). pp 6568.

9 Bullard, J. V. and Bell, H.C. (eds). Lyndwood's Provinciate (London, 1929). p xiv.

10 Quoted in Bullard, Canon J. V., Standing Orders of the Church of England (London, 1934)(written in 1929). pp v, vi.

11 Convocation of York, Report of the Joint Committee on the Oath of Canonical Obedience (1934), no 414.

12 York Journal of Convocation, 7 06 1934, pp 2629 at p. 29; Report of the Joint Committee on the Oath of Canonical Obedience (1934), no. 414, Appendix, pp xxiv–xxvii (see Riley and Graham, p 14).

13 Archbishops' Commission on Church and State (1935)(Lord Robert Cecil), p 93.

14 Riley and Graham, p 14.

15 Bishop G. Chase of Ripon; Deans E. Mimer-White and E. G. Selwyn; Archdeacon C. J. Grimes; Canon E. W I. Hellins; Canon-Professors C. Jenkins and R. C. Mortimer; Prebendary A. J. MacDonald; and the Revd P. Ward.

16 The Hon Sir Harry Vaisey; Chancellor F. H. L. Errington and Mr E. F. Jacob. Later, Professor A. Hamilton-Thompson and Chancellor W. S. Wigglesworth were added.

17 Smyth, C., Cyril Forster Garbett. Archbishop of York (London. 1959). p 370.

18 Canon Law Report. Introduction, p viii.

19 Matt 18 18; Matt 16:19 and 19: 28; Luke 22 28–30 and 10:16; 1 Cor 11; Acts 15.

20 Hooker, Of the Lawes of Ecclesiastical Polity (1594). III. 1 and 8.

21 Canon Law Report, p 85.

22 Canon Law Report, p 98.

23 Crockford's Clerical Directory 1953—54 (Oxford, 1954), pp xii. xiii.

24 Chronicle of the Convocation of Canterbury, 19 January 1960, pp 9, 10.

25 Iremonger, F. A., William Temple (Oxford, 1948). p 357.

26 Welsby, P. A., A Histony of the Church of England 1945–1980 (Oxford, 1984), pp 4144. Welsby became a proctor in the Canterbury Convocation four years after Fisher's retirement, by which time most of the canons had received the royal assent. The remainder, promulgated in 1969, being more controversial, took up a large amount of his first five years, perhaps leaving him with a one-sided view of the whole project. In Hastings, A., A History of English Christianity 1920 1985 (London, 1987), pp 150, 151. 439, only two sentences are devoted to the revision process, whereas the Roman Catholic Code of 1917 merits a full page of his racy account of the period.

27 Welsby, p 42.

28 Chronicle of the Convocation of Canterbury, 20 May 1947. p 35.

29 Chronicle of the Convocation of Canterburv, 20 May 1947. p 34; Welsby. p 42.

30 Chronicle of the Convocation of Canterbury, 21 May 1957, p 8.

31 Chronicle of the Convocation of Canterbury, 19 January 1960, p 9.

32 Chronicle of the Convocation of Can terhury, 10 January 1960, p 9. He reminded us that Psalm 23 in the Book of Common Prayer is headed ‘Dominus regit me’.

33 Pureell, W., Fisher of Lambeth; A Portrait from Life (London, 1969), p 206.

34 Carpenter, F. F.. ‘Canons and Character’ in Theology 63 (1960) 397 402 at p 402.

35 Ramsey, M.. Canterbury Pilgrim (London, 1974). p 174.

36 York Journal of Convocation. January–February 1960. p 133.

57 See Gray, D.. ‘The Revision of Canon Law and its Application to Liturgical Revision in the Recent History of the Church of England’ in The Jurist 48 (1988) 638652, where the full story is told by my friend Donald Gray, Canon of Westminster and one-time member of the Liturgical Commission.

38 Canon Law Report, pp 215–223.

39 Ramsey, A. M.. The Gospel ami the Catholic Church (2nd edn)(London. 1956). chs 7 and 8. and The Glory of God and the Transfiguration of Christ (London, 1949). chs 9 and 13.

40 Ramsey, M.. Canterbury Pilgrim, pp 9, 10: ‘The Canterbury pilgrim rejoices to have seen the Church of England use its powers for liturgical reform in recent years in such a way as to help people with greater understanding to do the liturgy and to be the Church.’

41 Riley and Graham, p 14.

42 Submission of the Clergy Act 1533, s 3.

43 Chronicle of the Convocation of Canterbury. October 1947. p 182.

44 Chronicle of the Convocation of Canterbury, 11 May 1954, p 3.

45 Canon Law Report, p 88.

46 Kemp, E. W., An Introdoction to Canon Law in the Church of England (London, 1957), pp 81. 82.

47 Those on marriage, for example, were affected by the Marriage Act 1949 and the Matrimonial Causes Act 1957.

48 Chronicle of the Convocation of Canterbury, 1 October 1958, p 250.

49 Chronicle of the Convocation of Canterbury, 28 April 1959, pp 157161. and 29 April 1959, p 231.

50 Riley and Graham, p III.

51 York Journal of Convocation, 10 October 1956, pp 243245.

52 Synod, General, Report of Proceedings, 5 November 1970. pp 74, 75.

53 GS 254.

54 GS 254, paras. 11. 12. Cf Synod, General, Report of Proceedings, 30 June 1975, p 321.

55 R v Ecclesiastical Committee of the Houses of Parliament, ex parte The Church Society (1993) The Times, 4 11, CA; R v Archbishops of Canterbury and York, ex parte Williamson (1994) The Times, 9 March. CA. Earlier the Court of Appeal had rejected appeals over the ratification of Canon C 4, stating 'there is no jurisdiction in the Court to enquire into the legislative processes of the General Synod any more than the legislative processes of Parliament: Brown v Runcie (1991) The Times, 20 February, CA. affirming (1990) The Times, 26 June.

56 Middleton v Crofts (1736) 2 Atk 650; Bishop of Exeter vMarshall (1868) LR 3 HL 17.

57 Canon Law Report, App II, pp 69, 70.

58 Dispensation in Practice and Theory (London, 1944).

59 This is at present carried out by the Legal Advisory Commission of the General Synod but with no authority or personnel to prepare revisions or additions to the canon law, or to consider wider interfaces between such matters as law and ecclesiology.

60 Riley and Graham, pp 132. 133.

61 See the Canon Law Report, p 86 and note 1.

1 The untimely death of Canon Peter Boulton on 17 November 1998 robbed the Church of England of a dedicated priest and canonist, whose service to the governance of the Church and the functioning of the Ecclesiastical Law Society was immeasurable. As a tribute to him, and with the consent of his widow, the Society here publishes an abridged version of a dissertation submitted by him to the Cardiff Law School as part of the LL. M. in Canon Law, entitled ‘Revision of the Canon Law of the Church of England’ (University of Wales. Cardiff. 1996). The dissertation, which builds on a paper given by Oswald Clark in 1992, has been edited by Norman Doe, Mark Hill, and Robert Ombres OP.

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Twentieth-Century Revision of Canon Law in the Church of England

  • Canon Peter Boulton (a1)


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