Sunday, 7 May 2017

Who can Excommunicate?

From "The Pilot", 1968 comes this, an interesting historical ramble. 

Some Church Customs Explained
By S.G. Thicknesse

Who can Excommunicate? (By Bell, Book and Candle)

England still retains the skeleton of what, before the Reformation, was a body at times so powerful that it threatened to form a separate State within the State of England. This was the Estate of the Church which until the death-blow dealt in the time of Henry VIII had managed to maintain, in Convocation, its own system of clerical taxation (which indeed it only surrendered in the time of Charles II) and its own system of law-making, and through the country at large, its own law-courts, punishments, appointments and appeals. (Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, was murdered for upholding the exclusive right of the Church courts to try accused clerks whatever their offence.)

The thousands of English clerics and members of religious orders-indeed everyone subject to Church discipline-in some formidable sense owed their first obedience not to the local king but to the Church and to its head on earth, the Pope in Rome.

It was to the papal court and not to the supreme royal court of England that the final appeals were carried from the network of English Church courts. Of all the sanctions which the religious authorities wielded none was more feared than excommunication, except only the anathema, which devoted the offender to eternal perdition. This excommunication, then as now, could be pronounced with bell, book, and candle.

In such a case in the twelfth century, the book from which the sentence of excommunication was read was shut, the candle was dashed to the ground and extinguished, and the bell was struck, with the words `Do to the book, quench the candle, ring the bell'. From that time until if ever he obtained absolution, the excommunicated person was shut out from the sacraments and from all Christian fellowship and so, it was believed, from all hope of salvation.

Where participation in religious rites was required by civil law, such excommunication carried with it also civil penalties, sometimes the most severe. At the Reformation the power of excommunication was retained in the English bishops. The king, however, absorbed into his person all the old powers of the Pope as head of the English Church. From then on, therefore, all appeals from any Church sentence, including excommunication, were to be made to the king or to his delegates.

If a sentence of excommunication were upheld, the excommunicated person would still suffer the civil penalties of being unable to hold a benefice, to practise as an advocate or attorney in the courts, to be admitted as a witness, or to receive Christian burial, as he would to-day. Further penalties, whereby such a person if unrepentant could even be arrested and imprisoned by the sheriff, were abolished in the reign of George III.

But the English tendency has constantly been to limit peculiar authority. English common and statute law even before the Reformation claimed to bind every citizen whether layman or cleric. It also steadily decreased the number of citizens who could be touched by Canon law. Once it was all `clerks'; to-day it is only those members of the Anglican Church who are in holy orders, and, with reservations and in a very specialized field of duty, churchwardens.

As late as 1860, cases of laymen brawling and otherwise committing nuisances in the church or churchyard were removed from the jurisdiction of the Canon law. The law-making functions of the Convocations have been severely restricted ever since the Act of Submission of the Clergy (1533-4), and for centuries Convocations dissolved themselves as soon as they had met.

The Canon law continued to be employed in ecclesiastical courts, but these now meet but rarely and for business of diminished importance, as defined in the nineteenth century in the Ecclesiastical Jurisdiction and Church Discipline Acts.

The ancient Archdeacon's court is now virtually defunct. The Consistory court of the bishop, with the bishop or the chancellor of the diocese as president, may still try and penalize clergy convicted, for example, of immorality, and in extreme cases the bishop could excommunicate.

Most of the court's modern business, however, is concerned with faculties and church fabric. Although the courts of the two Archbishops-Canterbury's supreme court of the Arches, and the Chancery court at York-have, besides, a good deal of appellate jurisdiction, the final appeal is to the Privy Council.

Robert Gray  (Bishop of Cape Town)

In a notable case of appeal, in 1865, against a sentence of excommunication, pronounced by Bishop Gray as Metropolitan of Capetown against Bishop Colenso of Natal, the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council argued that Bishop Gray had acted ultra vires and reversed the sentence.

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