The Memo: Ecclesiastical law: The rules that govern the established church

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Ecclesiastical law: The rules that govern the established church

Isaac Hickford – 27 February 2023

In 2022, data taken from the UK census showed that 46.2% of the population of England & Wales identified as Christian - 5.5 million fewer than a decade ago. If you were one of the 22.2 million people that selected ‘no religion’, this might not seem particularly significant. But it was the first time since records began that the percentage of the population identifying as Christian fell below half. Whichever side of the fence you sit, the Church of England (the established church in the UK and largest of the Christian denominations) is an institution of immense influence. In 2018, the Church of England as a collective whole was reported to have an annual income three times the size of Oxfam, making its combined elements one of the largest charities in the UK. For an institution of its size, it might not come as much of a surprise that there’s a significant amount of legal oversight that goes into its work in England. But as an area of practice, it probably isn’t something you’re likely to come across at university or law school.

“Ecclesiastical law effectively covers every bit of law that affects the Church of England as an established church,” Lee Coley, partner at Stone King and Registrar for the Dioceses of Leicester and Bristol tells us. Diocesan registrars like Coley are solicitors who function as legal advisors to the Diocese (something resembling a constituency or area that local churches are grouped into). “In one sense, ecclesiastical law is about governance, about how clergy are authorized and ordained in the Church of England, from a local level up to the diocesan level, and even the General Synod” Coley explains, “but it’s exceptionally broad, it covers everything from the use of church buildings to clergy discipline and safeguarding.”

The General Synod is the Church of England’s legislative body (its own parliament) which has been delegated authority by the UK Parliament to pass its own laws (where they concern only the Church): “There is a legal structure there that has to be administered by the bishops and registrars,” Coley tells us, “and within that legal structure, there’s a whole host of things we have to adhere to.” The process for appointing office holders within the church, for example, are statutory processes that require Registrars like Coley: “Whilst I have an administrative role in that process, I’m generally not a decision maker. But it's a fascinating process to witness and be a part of.” The challenge, Coley explains, “is at the point of interaction between church law and structures, and secular law.” Whether it’s GDPR or charity law, there’s plenty of overlap between the Church’s practices and the laws that govern institutions in the UK: “To take one example from the last couple of years, there were legal requirements around the ventilation of public buildings that a lot of churches had to work out how to navigate during COVID,” Coley adds.

“On the other side of ecclesiastical law is clergy discipline,” Mark Ruffell, barrister at Pump Court Chambers, Chancellor of the Diocese of Gloucester and occasional panel member of the Clergy Disciplinary Tribunal points out. For members of the clergy who have got themselves into hot water, the tribunal “functions as a professional disciplinary tribunal where the Church effectively acts as the regulator” Ruffell tells us. Where accusations have been made, barristers like Ruffell are brought in, “sometimes to present the case for, in this case, the prosecuting authority (the Church), but also to defend the accused clergy.” Where accusations are proved, “it’s a process of regulating their ability to practise as a vicar. It’s the Church saying: ‘if this accusation is proved, this person shouldn’t be practising’,” Ruffell adds. And, as Coley clarifies, “this obviously interfaces very closely with local authority organizations like the police.”

So, what do aspiring lawyers need to get into this area of practice? “I think the first thing to say is that you don't need to have any personal faith,” Coley explains, “of course, there has to be a resonance with the underlying purpose of the Church, or at least a sympathy with it, because you will be working with a lot of people that do have a personal faith, although Registrars have to be communicant members of the Church of England.” As is always the case, exposure to this type of work will inevitably stand you in good stead: “Get in touch with the registrars for the diocese where you live, because they may well be able to help,” Coley adds, “One of the problems with this area of law is that it's not particularly well known outside of the people that do it. But there is information out there with dioceses and the Ecclesiastical Law Society good places to start.”

Lee Coley is also a trustee of the Ecclesiastical Law Society, which offers a range of resources including journals, lectures and a YouTube channel available to students.

Mark Ruffell is chancellor of the Diocese of Gloucester and deputy chancellor of the Diocese of Winchester. An occasional panel member of the Clergy Disciplinary Tribunal, Mark has also represented clergy in several clergy disciplinary cases.