Canon law

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Canon Law

This article by Lawrence Hibbs was first published in the 1998 Annual Bulletin of La Société Jersiaise


Of all the dry subjects Canon Law must be the driest. That surely must be the view of anyone who has bothered to consider the matter. Yet such a view is mistaken for, although on the face of it Canon Law seems to be the opposite of that freedom of the spirit enjoined upon Christians, when given more serious consideration, it turns out to be a veritable guardian of that freedom.

As someone has pointed out, "properly perceived, Canon Law is the Layman's charter; for it is the body of ecclesiastical law administered by authority in matters of faith, morals, and discipline”.

In England in these days, Canon Law is the proper concern of the General Synod and new Canons are promulged from time to time, (such as those recently concerned with the ordination of women and the conduct of worship).

In Jersey the Canons still in force are those authorised by King James I in 1623.

History of Canon Law

In general

This body of law grew up very gradually. Its beginnings are to be traced to the practice in the early and universal church (before the great Schism of 1054, the final separation of the Western and Eastern Churches) of convening general councils to settle matters of uncertainty or dispute regarding the practice and discipline of the church, and to the issuing from time to time of ad hoc pronouncements for the guidance of the faithful.

Side by side with councils, the decrees of influential bishops were another source of ecclesiastical legislation and special attention was paid to Papal decrees.

In the middle ages a decisive stage was reached when Gratian issued his Decretum in 1140) This collection of decrees became the basis of Roman Catholic Canon Law and,with supplementary legislation, enjoyed authority in that church until the present century.

In England

As far as the Church of England was concerned, generally speaking, until the reform of the 16th century, Roman Canon Law was as binding in England as it was on the Continent, and it was supplemented by the local provincial decrees of Canterbury. These were issued in 1433 as the synodical constitutions of the province in William Lyndwood's ‘’Provinciale".

Following upon the Reformation and the break from Rome, a book of Canons for the Church of England was passed by the Convocation of Canterbury in 1604, and by the Convocation of York in 1606. This is the principal body of canonical legislation enacted by the Church of England since the Reformation until the present century.

Among the many subjects with which they deal are the conduct of divine service, the administration of the sacraments, the duties of the clergy and the care of the churches.

In 1939 the Archbishops, of Canterbury, Cosmo Gordon Lang, and of York, William Temple, appointed a Canon Law Commission under the chairmanship of the Bishop of Winchester, Cyril Garbett, to "consider the present status of Canon Law in England”.

This was undertaken, one suspects, because the Canons were more honoured in the breach than in the observance; or were simply ignored. This work of revision, initially delayed by the outbreak of war, continued through the middle years of the present century and was largely carried through due to the drive and energy of Geoffrey Fisher, Archbishop of Canterbury, 1945-61.

Eventually, the Canons of the Church of England were promulged (authorised for use) by the Convocations of Canterbury and York in 1964 and 1969, respectively, (at which time I was a member of the Convocation of Canterbury representing the clergy of the diocese of Winchester).

Responsibility for the Canons thereafter fell upon the General Synod which was formed in 1970. These are the Canons in force in the Church of England at the present time and are amended or added to as circumstances demand.

In Jersey

The Island, whether under the spiritual jurisdiction of the Bishop of Coutances or, later, the Bishop of Winchester, was until the Reformation subject to the Canon Law of Christendom, the church of the whole of western Europe.

There then ensued a period of turmoil when presbyterianism and episcopacy vied for supremacy in the Island. It was partly in order to bring peace and unity to the church and people of the Island "for the good government of the said Island in Causes Ecclesiastical" as the preamble to the Canons puts it, that it was thought necessary to have a special set of Canons for the Island.

There was also, of course, the fact of Jersey's geographical position. The English Channel was much more of a barrier to communications in the 17th century than it is today; though, even today, to those living and working in Winchester, the Island and its people sometimes seem remote.

In the early part of the 17th century Jersey must have been even more cut off from the Bishop and Diocese of Winchester, hence the wide-ranging authority accorded to the Dean. It was easier for the Bishop to say 'you get on with it' than to risk a stormy passage by boat.

A further reason why the Island was accorded its own body of Canon Law might lie in the desire of the church leaders, here as in England, to have Canons suitable for a church no longer under Papal domination. Having broken away from the Roman Catholic Church of the West, the Church both in England and in Jersey may well have been desirous of having a body of Canon Law suited to its new independence. For whatever reason, it was thought good for the church and people of the Island to have a body of Canon Law by which to order its affairs.

In the end the strength of personality of Dean Bandinel, Rector of Saint Brelade, the determination of the Governor, Sir John Peyton, and the authority of the Crown combined to overcome the objections of the Protestant party, led by the Calvinistic Rector of Saint Mary, Samuel de la Place, and by the Rector of Saint John, Daniel Brevint.

Canons approved

Eventually, in 1623, the Canons and Constitutions Ecclesiastical for the Isle of Jersey were ratified, confirmed, and approved. It is good to think that in all the controversy surrounding the establishment of these Canons, the moderating voice and influence of the saintly Bishop of Winchester of the time, Lancelot Andrews, is to be heard counselling Christian love and tolerance.

In the event, this body of Canon Law consisting of 58 paragraphs is, after nearly 400 years, still the official body of Canon Law for the Church in the Island. A booklet containing an English translation was published in 1909 with an introduction by the then Dean, The Very Reverend Samuel Falle.

The publisher's preface implies that the original canons were written in French and lodged in the first book of the records of the Ecclesiastical Court. It seems that the first translation into English is found in Peter Heylyn's Survey of the Channel Islands of 1656 and, later, in the 1694 and 1734 editions of Faile's Account of the Island of Jersey. Dean Falle’s publisher used the version in the Rev Edward Durell's 1837 edition of Falle.

In the preamble to the Canons it is envisaged that "Additions or Alterations as Time and Occasion shall justly require" may be made. As far as I am aware the only 'alterations' have been in interpretation and not in substance. Thus, for example, Canon 14 states" and the Originaries (sic) or Natives of the Island shall be preferred before others to the Ministery (sic)”.

This meant that only priests of Jersey origin, or who were native born, were eligible for 'preferment' (in the technical sense of an ecclesiastical appointment) to one of the 12 rectories. So it was that once things had settled down after the Occupation (1940 - 45) in the 12 ancient parishes, nine of the rectors were natives, one, myself, was an originaire and two, Watson at Saint John and Wallis at Saint Peter, were Ministres Desservants.

Shortage of clergy

The shortage of clergy, Jersey-born or of Jersey origin, became so acute, however, that at the very end of the 1940s the interpretation of the word 'preferment' was altered to allow the modern sense of "to choose or select before others" to prevail. Thus the door was opened for the appointment of non-natives to the rectories.

The Rev Montague Wallis who, for some years, had been Ministre Desservant at Saint Peter, was then instituted and inducted as Rector on 27 October 1949. The first priest from outside the Island was John Ward-Booth, who was appointed to Saint John in 1951. Fifty years on only one Rector is a native - Anthony Hart, at Saint Mary. Although as late as 1946 incoming rectors were presented with a copy of the Canons, the provisions were largely ignored or, at worst, ridiculed.

The sensible provisions such as those dealing with the care of the Church and Church¬yard and the duties and demeanour of ministers were taken for granted. The former states: "They (the churchwardens) shall have care to keep the Church in good repair and the Churchyards well fenced; and to see that all things appertaining to the Church, the Administration of the Word of God and Sacraments, be provided and maintained from time to time; such are a Bible ... the Book of Common Prayer ... a Book of Parchment to register the Christnings (sic), Marriages and Burials, a decent table to administer the Holy Supper, with a Carpet to cover it during Divine Service ... and shall also provide the Bread and Wine for the Sacrament ... all this, out of the Rents and Revenues of the Treasury of the Church”.

Canons 13-19 "Of Ministers" include such provisions as "The Ministers, every Sunday after the Publick Morning Prayers shall expound some place of Holy Scripture; and in the Afternoon shall handle some points of the Christian religion contained in the Catechism”.

Also "Every one of the Ministers shall be careful to shew that decency and gravity of Apparel which becomes his Profession”.

The most often quoted, and ridiculed, Canon was Canon 35 concerning the duty of Churchwardens who, "During Divine Service on the Sunday shall search places suspected of Gaming, and riotous Practices; and having the Constable to assist them, shall also search Taverns and tippling Houses”.

Need for reform

As with law in general, so with Canon Law, where the Law is ignored or ridiculed, it must be reformed. So the impetus to revise the Canons of 1623 gradually gained ground in the counsels of the church until eventually the Legislation Committee, under the chairmanship of Advocate William Bailhache, began the work of revision at the beginning of the present decade and presented the completed draft in April 1997, to the relevant authorities, among them the Bishop of Winchester, the States of Jersey and the Deanery Synod.

Steps taken

At the outset the committee was faced with a problem; should it try to write a body of Canon Law for the Church in Jersey for the 21st century, bringing the 1623 Canons up to date, or should it take into consideration 'The Canons of the Church of England' which, as we have already noted, were revised in the middle of this century and are being added to continually?

In the event the Committee decided to use the English Canons as a basis for its work, while bearing in mind those elements in the constitution of the Church in Jersey which are 'peculiar' and sanctified by both custom and usage. Among these are the position of the Dean, the functioning of the Ecclesiastical Court and the relationship between Church and State in the 12 ancient parishes.

This last is still seen by many people in the Island as being of particular value, for in it is enshrined a unique compact whereby all parishioners have certain rights in respect of baptism, marriage and burial in their parish church, in return for which they contribute through the rates to the upkeep of the fabric of the parish church and rectory.

In many instances the English Canons are applicable to the church in Jersey without much amendment. These include the Canons dealing with the administration of the sacraments, the conduct of services and the relations with other churches.

A very great deal of time and energy has gone into this revision. The question remains: "Was it a waste of time?" Naturally, being a member of the committee, I would answer "No". I am encouraged to make this reply when I reflect on how much time and energy was consumed by the commission which revised English Canon Law and by Archbishop Geoffrey Fisher under whose leadership the Canons were adopted for general use.

The Church of England is noted (or notorious - according to one's point of view) for its comprehensiveness and for its willingness to allow a great freedom to its clergy and laity in the interpretation of both doctrine and morals. This should not preclude, however, a body of Canon Law which can act as a guide and reference point - "For the good government of the said Island in Causes Ecclesiastical" as the preamble to the Canons of 1623 puts it.

So, far from placing a yoke on the necks of the Island clergy and laity, the Canons when finally promulged, should set them free for more effective service because the objective's of the church and the means of achieving them are both clearly defined.

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