When The Queen Appoints Your Parish Priest

In addition to appointing the Church of England’s senior ecclesiastics, the Queen appoints several hundred parish clergy scattered throughout England. As with many things in the United Kingdom, the rules governing the Crown’s parochial patronage are complicated to say the least.

When England’s monasteries were dissolved under Henry VIII, the Crown was a major recipient of their parochial patronage.[1]  While the alienation of Crown lands over the years has reduced the number of benefices in the Sovereign’s gift, there are still about 650 left. The exercise of the Crown’s parochial patronage is divided between the Queen and the Lord Chancellor.[2] If the benefice is valued at more than £20 in ‘the Queen’s book,’ the appointment is made by the Queen acting on the advice of the Prime Minister; if the value is under £20, the Lord Chancellor makes the presentation in the Queen’s name.[3] ‘The Queen’s Book’ refers to the Liber Regis by John Bacon,[4] which is essentially an edited version of the valuation of English and Welsh benefices carried out under Henry VIII. In other words, the value of a benefice in the 16th century determines whether the Queen or the Lord Chancellor makes the appointment in the 21st century.

Letters Patent making a presentation to a Crown living, courtesy of the Rev. James Mustard.

In practice, this distinction is purely nominal since the same team in the Cabinet Office handles both types of benefice. While the Crown’s role in other ecclesiastical appointments has become largely formal in recent years, the Church Appointments Team in the Cabinet Office continues to play a substantive role in selecting candidates for Crown benefices. Although they seek input from the parish and the diocese, the Church Appointments Team ultimately decides which candidate is presented, though their choice must be approved by representatives of the relevant parochial church council.

Separate from all this, the Queen exercises parochial patronage by virtue of her position as Duke of Lancaster.[5] According to the Duchy of Lancaster’s website, there are 42 such livings, though none of them actually fall within the County Palatine of Lancaster. Presentations to these benefices are not handled by the Cabinet Office. The preliminary work is done by the Chaplain of the Queen’s Chapel of the Savoy, though as with Crown livings, there are also consultations with the PCC and the relevant bishop. It appears that the actual presentation is made by the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster on the Queen’s behalf.[6]

Additionally, the Queen enjoys special rights of patronage during the vacancy of a diocesan bishopric.  By longstanding custom, the Sovereign is the custodian of the bishopric’s temporalities during the sede vacante period.[7] In modern times, the Crown invariably presented candidates chosen by whichever bishop was exercising spiritual jurisdiction within the vacant see, and section 2 of the Vacancies in Suffragan Sees and Other Ecclesiastical Offices Measure 2010 placed this arrangement on a formal footing. While sede vacante patronage is still legally vested in the Queen, presentations are now made by acting bishops in Her Majesty’s name without the need for Letters Patent from the Crown.[8]

The Crown used to enjoy further rights of patronage, including the right to present when both the normal patron and the archbishop of the province had failed to present a candidate as well as the right to fill any ecclesiastical office rendered vacant by a promotion to a diocesan see. But the former was abolished by section 31 the Patronage (Benefices) Measure 1986, while the latter was abolished by section 3 of the Vacancies in Suffragan Sees and Other Ecclesiastical Offices Measure 2010.

In 2007, the Governance of Britain Green Paper raised the prospect of the Government playing a reduced part in  filling Crown benefices as part of a wider overhaul of the relationship between Church and State.[9] In the end, the Church was content to allow the Cabinet Office to continue its role. However, the General Synod legislated to give representatives of the PCCs of Crown benefices the ability to veto candidates for presentation.[10]  

[1] The monasteries’ parochial patronage generally derived from their extensive landholdings.

[2] This division of labor between the Monarch and their chief minister is quite old. As early as the reign of Edward III, the Lord Chancellor can be found making presentations to less-valuable benefices in the Crown’s gift. See Edmund Gibson, Codex Juris Ecclesiastici Anglicani, vol. 2, (London: J. Baskett, 1713), 803-804.

[3] Roman Catholics and Jews are barred by law from advising the Sovereign on ecclesiastical patronage (see section 18 of the Roman Catholic Relief Act 1829 and section 2 of the Lord Chancellor (Tenure of Office and Discharge of Ecclesiastical Functions) Act 1974). If a Prime Minister or Lord Chancellor should fall into either of those categories, then they would designate someone else to advise the Monarch.

[4] It seems Bacon’s work is actually a plagiarized version of John Ecton’s Liber Valorum et Decimarum.

[5] When the Duke of Cornwall (i.e., the heir to the throne) is a minor, the Sovereign also makes presentations to livings in the Duke’s gift.

[6] While some sources speak of the Chancellor ‘advising’ the Queen on the Duchy’s ecclesiastical patronage, others (including the Duchy’s own website) suggest that he acts on the Her Majesty’s behalf. If the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster is a Roman Catholic or a Jew, then the Clerk of the Duchy Council would act in their stead. See HC Debates, 24 May 1976, cols. 28-29.

[7] At one time, the temporalities included the bishopric’s estates. This led certain monarchs (particularly Elizabeth I) to keep bishoprics vacant for long periods of time in order to siphon off their revenues. Nowadays, diocesan estates are vested in the Church Commissioners, so patronage is the only part of the temporalities that the Crown can exercise.

[8] Interestingly, section 2(3) of the Measure states that “Her Majesty may give notice in writing to the relevant bishop for the diocese whose see is vacant within twenty eight days of that vacancy arising that she wishes to exercise her right of presentation to any office where this section applies and, where any such notice is given, subsection (2) shall not apply.” To my knowledge, this power has never been used.  

[9] See especially paragraph 64.

[10] This put Crown benefices on the same footing as other benefices under the Patronage (Benefices) Measure 1986.   

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