I feel slightly fraudulent doing this, because my sort of ecclesiastical law is practised in the London Beth Din (a recognised Tribunal under the Arbitration Acts) and differs from the Court of Appeal in only a few ways. Firstly, beards are not mandatory in the Court of Appeal. Secondly, in my experience the Court of Appeal doesn’t consume diet Coca-Cola by the crate. Thirdly, the Court of Appeal do not expect you to join them in religious services and finally no Court of Appeal Judge has yet stood at the entrance to the RCJ for the specific purpose of wishing me a safe journey home. However, Ecclesiastical Law normally means the Consistory Courts and – if you’re really lucky – the Court of Arches (in the basement of which the famous case of Flanagan v Allen was litigated).
This all stems from the fact that when the secular authorities decided that they should be in charge of burning people alive for heresy, seeing how much of someone you could remove from their body before they actually died and generally keeping the population levels down so that the Black Death didn’t have to work too hard, the Church got all sulky. Accordingly a deal was done and Church Courts retained jurisdiction over the clergy. The ecclesiastical powers that be came to the view that if all the really interesting punishments were going to be taken away from them they weren’t going to be stuck with pathetic stuff like sticking someone’s head between two pieces of wood and inviting the community to take pot shots at them with whatever came to hand. Rather, they would let God decide.
It consequently became of some importance to be able to assert that one was a clergyman and thus claim ‘benefit of clergy’. This was done by reading – it being felt that the average non-clerical Englishman was far too busy practising archery, rioting, getting drunk and killing Frenchmen to do poncey things like learning to read. Consequently men asserting a clerical qualification would read a set verse from the Bible. If they did this successfully they got the ‘benefit of clergy’. This did not mean that they were then entitled to go into the orphanages and interfere with the children – a misconception that proved difficult to eradicate amongst some communities. It meant that the Church would discipline them rather than the State – usually by a little light whipping coupled with a description of the torments of hell and – much feared – a twice-daily sermon.
This only applied to men. Women who could read the Bible were obviously witches and were dealt with appropriately.
The Church was also in charge of saying that you could not divorce your spouse because God had apparently made it clear that you should remain with someone who made you miserable and/or to whom you were no longer committed because it showed you how serious it was to be married – or something like that. The only way to get round this was to be King, have lots of money, a huge army and a disinclination to permit anyone to tell you what to do. God would then understand your position and would back off.
Nowadays the Church takes the view that what God really, really wants is that no one should be offended or made to feel in the slightest uncomfortable. Divorce is no longer a problem because God currently wishes everyone to have whatever they want. Ecclesiastical Law is now about decommissioning Churches, deconsecrating graveyards and exhuming the odd body. However, it is also about how you get rid of your Vicar when he or she has offended his or her congregation. This offense can be caused in traditional ways – usually involving extra-marital activity – or in new ways – such as by ministering to a conservative parish and asserting that Richard Dawkins’ essential idea is spot on although he could express himself less confrontationally.
Advantages: it provides a way of reconciling one’s profession and one’s beliefs. The atmosphere is gentle and gentlemanly. The Courts are relatively informal and the work tends to be more or less straightforward (can a telephone mast be erected in the Church car park?) or particularly interesting (can the fiftieth eye-witness to the Dean’s dalliance with the Organist’s wife kindly step into the witness box and tell us everything she saw and then everything she conjectured?). There is work around: almost anything can be ‘unbecoming a clerk in Holy Orders’ and because God does not want anyone to be offended, by anything, ever, the standard of offence is whatever Sir Bufton Tufton wishes it to be. Think your Curate looks better in green and that pink vestments are taking it a bit far? Your Bishop is waiting for your complaint.
Disadvantages: you are expected to be a member of the Church (Chancellors of Dioceses must be communicants), which may be a problem if you spend most Friday 13ths offering Wiccan sacrifices and dancing naked round an old oak tree. It can be dull and, eventually, the small-minded manoeuvrings which bedevil small communities will start firstly to bore and then to depress you. Voicing the view that God may have other things to worry about will make you more unpopular than Dawkins. Your plumber will expect salacious stories of what happened when the Canon met the Organist’s wife (hurr, hurr, what ‘appened to his shot then?) and will treat you to his views about how the Church is too soft/harsh/trying to be trendy/out of date. Professionally, few will hear of you and when you apply for advancement they will wonder why you became becalmed in this rather recondite area of law.