England Revives Heresy Trials: Survey Shows Desire for Moral Leadership, except on Sex

By Carey, Andrew | Anglican Journal, September 1999 | Go to article overview
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England Revives Heresy Trials: Survey Shows Desire for Moral Leadership, except on Sex

Carey, Andrew, Anglican Journal


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 The consistory courts of the 1963 Act are seen as outdated and expensive and will be replaced by tribunals to be held in private.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 [pounds sterling] 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.

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England Revives Heresy Trials: Survey Shows Desire for Moral Leadership, except on Sex


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