The Guardian has reported that the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, is thinking of alternative ways to legislate for women bishops if the Church of England’s General Synod refuses to vote for them on Monday. One of the options under consideration is for the Lords Spiritual (i.e. the bishops who sit in the House of Lords) to introduce a bill to permit the consecration of women bishops.Such a course of action would be highly unusual, but not unprecedented. After all, Parliament has been intimately involved with the Church of England since the original break with Rome in the sixteenth century. It was Parliament that declared Henry VIII to be ‘Supreme Head’ of the Church in 1534, and it was Parliament that abolished the royal supremacy in 1554 at the behest of his Catholic daughter Mary I. When the throne passed to Elizabeth I, Parliament duly restored the royal supremacy in 1559 (though instead of being ‘Supreme Head,’ Elizabeth and her successors would merely be ‘Supreme Governors’).
The Church of England had its own legislative bodies in the form of the Convocations of Canterbury and York, but they would be gradually sidelined over the course of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries as Parliament claimed more and more authority over the Church (for a detailed discussion of why Convocation become impotent, see Loch 2010). Matters reached a head in the reign of Charles I when MPs bitterly protested the policies pursued by Archbishop Laud of Canterbury and other divines. John Pym, MP for Tavistock, spoke for many of his colleagues when he claimed that Parliament should play a key role in the governance of the Church:
And howsoever it is alleged that the Parliament are not judges in matters of faith, yet ought they to know the Parliaments have confirmed acts of General Councils, which have not been received until they have been so authorized; and Parliaments have enacted laws for the trial of heretics by jury. The Parliament punished the Earl of Essex for countenancing of heretics; and there is no Court can meet with this mischief but the Courts of Parliament. The Convocation cannot because it is but a provincial Synod, only of the jurisdiction of Canterbury, and the power thereof is not adequate to the whole Kingdom; and the Convocation of York may perhaps not agree with that of Canterbury (Notestein and Relf 1921, 21).
Parliament’s control over the Church reached its zenith after 1717 when the Convocations of Canterbury and York were effectively suppressed following the Bangorian Controversy (although they would continue to be summoned along with Parliament, they would not be allowed to transact business).
But by the nineteenth century, the idea that Parliament could function as the church’s legislature was becoming increasingly untenable. The Sacramental Test Act 1828 (9 Geo. 4 c. 17) allowed Dissenters (i.e. non-Anglican Protestants) to sit in Parliament, while the Roman Catholic Relief Act 1829 (10 Geo. 4 c. 7), and the Jews Relief Act 1858 (21 & 22 Vict. c. 49) did the same for Roman Catholics and Jews. Finally, the Oaths Act 1888 (51 & 52 Vict. c. 46) allowed people who professed no religion at all to sit in Parliament. Needless to say, the idea that legislators who weren’t Anglican or even Christian could have a say in how the Church was run was highly problematic for many in the Church.
The revival of the Convocations of Canterbury and York represented a step toward greater autonomy for the Church, but it was a small step. Although the Convocations could provide a forum for the bishops and the clergy to debate issues, the laity were totally excluded from their deliberations. Also, the Convocations were hamstrung by the fact that their power to make canons for the Church had little practical effect. In 1736, the Court of King’s Bench ruled in Middleton v. Crofts (26 E. R. 788) that the church’s canons could only bind the clergy since they had never been confirmed by Parliament. In other words, John Selden wasn’t far off the mark when he wrote:
We have nothing so nearly expressed the Power of a Convocation, in respect of a Parliament, as a Court-Leet, where they have a Power to make By-Laws, as they call them; as that a Man shall put so many Cows or Sheep in the Common; but they can make nothing that is contrary to the Laws of the Kingdom (Selden 1689, 37).
Selden’s latter point is particularly significant. Since Parliament had been in charge of the Church for so long, much of its life was regulated by statute law, and the Convocations were powerless to amend or repeal Acts of Parliament.
To make matters worse, Parliament had less and less time for ecclesiastical legislation. As the Archbishops’ Committee on Church and State observed in 1917:
The congestion of secular business alone is very great, and it appears increasingly unlikely that any Government, brought into power under modern democratic conditions, and overwhelmed with matters that call for legislative action, will have leisure for detailed consideration of church questions (Archbishops’ Committee 1917, 29).
Between 1880 and 1913, 217 church-related bills were introduced into the House of Commons, but only 33 were passed, and 162 were never even discussed (Archbishops’ Committee 1917, 29).
The aforementioned Committee on Church and State recommended that a new Church Council comprised of bishops, clergy, and laity be given the power to legislate, including the power to amend or repeal Acts of Parliament, and it also recommended that the Council should eventually take over the Convocations’ power to make canons. However, the Church’s legislative power would be subject to a veto by Parliament and the Crown. Measures and canons passed by the Church Council would be referred to a standing committee of the Privy Council, which would then advise the King whether or not to grant Royal Assent. Canons could receive Assent as soon as the committee had reported, but measures would have to wait 40 days in order to give either House of Parliament the chance to block it by resolution (for the full details of these proposals, see Archbishops’ Committee 1917, chs. 5 and 6).
Although the National Assembly of the Church of England was established by the Church itself, Parliament had to give it the power to legislate, and so the Archbishop of Canterbury, Randall Davidson, introduced a bill to that effect in the House Lords. It received broad support from both peers and MPs, though its second reading was opposed in both Houses. When it reached the House of Commons, the provisions relating to the scrutiny of ecclesiastical legislation were amended. The committee of Privy Counsellors was replaced by a joint committee of both Houses of Parliament, and the legislature’s oversight was strengthened by providing that measures could only receive Royal Assent if they were approved by resolutions of both Houses. However, measures could only be approved or rejected in toto; Parliament could not amend them in any way. The amended bill ultimately became law as the Church of England Assembly (Powers) Act 1919 (9 & 10 Geo. 5 c. 76) on December 23, 1919.
There were some significant limits on the Church Assembly’s power under this new regime. It could not make pronouncements on matters of theology (that function was reserved to the bishops), and the ancient right to legislate by canon remained with the Convocations of Canterbury and York. For the next 50 years, the Church had a rather curious system whereby its legislative power was divided between the Convocations and the Assembly. By the late 1960s, this arrangement was looking increasingly impractical, and the Synodical Government Measure 1969 (1969 no. 2) transferred most of the Convocations’ functions to the Church Assembly and renamed that body the ‘General Synod.’ The Convocations were not abolished though, and they still form the basis of the General Synod’s House of Bishops and House of Clergy (they also meet every once and a while to consider business referred to them by the Synod).
Parliament’s role in scrutinizing ecclesiastical legislation is not an exercise in rubber stamping. That was vividly demonstrated in 1927 and 1928 when the House of Commons twice refused to approve changes to the Book of Common Prayer that had been proposed by the Convocations and the Church Assembly. More recently, the Churchwardens Measure 2001 (2001 no. 1) and the Church of England (Pensions) Measure 2003 (2003 no. 2) were initially withdrawn and resubmitted to Parliament after the Ecclesiastical Committee expressed concerns about their provisions (see the Written Answer of Sir Stuart Bell, Second Church Commissioner, at HC Deb, 30 January 2006, col. 15w).
Despite the fact that Parliament has delegated its power to legislate for the Church to the General Synod, it remains permissible for Parliament to legislate for the Church, with or without the consent of the General Synod. However, a convention has arisen that Church matters should generally be handled by the Church itself, though there have been exceptions to this rule, such as the City of London (Guild Churches) Act 1952 (15 & 16 Geo. 6 & 1 Eliz. 2 c. xxxviii) and the Church of England Convocations Act 1966 (1966 c. 2).
With any luck, the General Synod will resolve the lengthy and acrimonious dispute over women’s place in the Church on its own. But if it can’t, Parliament may have to get involved in order to save the Church from itself.
Archbishops’ Committee on Church and State. 1917. Report. London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge.
Loch, Jason A. 2010. “Convocation and the Royal Supremacy.” Master’s thesis, University of Wisconsin–Madison.
Notestein, Wallace and Frances Helen Relf, eds. 1921. Commons Debates for 1629. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota.
Selden, John. 1689. Table-Talk: Being the Discourses of John Selden, Esq. London: E. Smith.