England revives heresy trials

Published September 1, 1999


A more outward-looking, confident and united Church of England was promised by the newly formed Archbishops’ Council, a cabinet for the church, but General Synod also saw a return to hostilities between lay people and the House of Bishops.

And heresy trials for clergy are to be reintroduced to try to rid the church of its reputation “for believing anything or nothing.”

For the first time in more than 150 years, clergy who err on doctrine may be tried by a closed tribunal.

The General Synod agreed to the proposal by bishops to include offences against “doctrine, ritual and ceremonial” matters in new streamlined structures for disciplining clergy.

The last heresy trial was of the Rev. A. Gorham in 1847, when the bishop of Exeter accused him of being unsound on the doctrine of “baptismal regeneration.” Mr. Gorham did not agree that at baptism a person is cleansed of original sin and born again into Christ.

Since then, clergy and bishops have been able to deviate from doctrine without fear of punishment, giving the church a reputation for being loose on doctrine.

A code of practice drafted by the bishops says that clergy who profess atheism or deny the doctrine of the Trinity or the Incarnation should be disciplined.

The new legislation will replace the cumbersome Ecclesiastical Jurisdiction Act of 1963, which has been used only three times and never for heresy. The consistory courts of the 1963 Act are seen as outdated and expensive and will be replaced by tribunals to be held in private. The judgments will be made public.

The tribunals, based on the industrial model, are intended to be cheaper, quicker and to protect the church from the embarrassment of a public trial.

Ven. Robert Reiss, Archdeacon of Surrey, argued against heresy tribunals, saying they would unleash “evil spirits” into the church. He dismissed a claim by bishops that such trials would be rare. Many people who thought that they had “the greater grasp on doctrine” would bring complaints against vicars with whom they disagreed.

Ian Garden, a barrister, questioned the bishops’ decision to replace the criminal verdict of “beyond reasonable doubt” with the civil one of “on the balance of probabilities.” He said: “Only when the standard of proof is fixed can we be assured of fairness.”

The Archbishop’s Council, which was formed in response to £800-million losses in property speculation by the Church Commissioners in the 1980s, returned with its first report to the General Synod after only six months of work.

The council brought its priorities and vision for the church for discussion and, despite a hammering in the press, it found a welcome from the vast majority of synod members. Its priorities include an expansion in church schools, a focus on youth evangelism, and a major review of the working conditions of clergy.

For the first time the church is armed with statistics and the views of ordinary churchgoers. Focus groups in 18 dioceses have helped the church to decide its own priorities. The research shows churchgoers think the church has been putting its energies into the wrong things. They want church leaders to spend less time on subjects like homosexuality, and even politics, and more time on spreading Jesus’ message and giving a moral lead.

The focus groups compared the church to an ostrich with its head in the sand. The animal they wanted the church to be was more like a lion, “Aslan-like, but not tame;” or a colony of ants, “all working together to build things.”

The Archbishop of Canterbury said that there was a big gap in understanding between the national church and the local level. But many synod members, initially suspicious of the navel-gazing element implied by holding focus groups, welcomed the intention to take the views of lay people seriously.

But there was an outbreak of hostilities between the bishops and the House of Laity over doctrinal issues. Over the last few years of the General Synod, conservative evangelical laity and the House of Bishops have clashed over a number of doctrinal issues.

The issue in question at July’s meeting in York was a phrase in the Nicene Creed. The bishops insist that the wording “was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary” is a more accurate translation than the relatively new phrase “by the power of the Holy Spirit he became incarnate of the Virgin Mary.”

The newly appointed Bishop of Liverpool, James Jones, one of the church’s leading evangelicals, opposed his colleagues on the basis that “by the holy Spirit” was a more biblical phrase to differentiate between the roles of the Holy Spirit and Mary in the Incarnation.

Bishop Jones said the church had always done its own revision on the work of Nicea. The Holy Spirit, he insisted “is not a begetting partner but a living power. Clarity at this point is a priority, in maintaining the distinct role of Mary and the Holy Spirit.

Although the bishops succeeded in this debate, there are fears of a further rebellion when the creed and eucharistic prayers come back for final approval. That could see the measure founder without the necessary two-thirds majority in the House of Laity. If so, the church could find itself without an agreed modern language version of the creed in its long-awaited new liturgies, Common Worship.

The next session of synod in November will see one of the most important debates since a 1992 decision to ordain women to the priesthood. A private member’s motion by the church’s first woman archdeacon, Judith Rose, will ask the House of Bishops to consider legislation allowing women to be consecrated bishops.

The bishops are keen to resist any precipitate moves in this direction. They fear it will split the church. They prefer to leave such a controversial decision for a time when the church has more experience of women’s ministry and women have more experience of priestly ministry. Andrew Carey is deputy editor of the Church of England Newspaper.

With files from the Daily Telegraph


Keep on reading

Skip to content