The Convocations Of The Clergy And Parliament

In honor of the fact that my thesis on the Convocation of Canterbury and the Royal Supremacy is now ten years old, I thought I’d do a short post on the relationship between the Convocations and Parliament.

Starting in 1226, the clergy had taxed themselves in their provincial councils. Edward I attempted to streamline things in 1295 by incorporating the lower clergy into Parliament. He did this by requiring bishops to bring their cathedral deans and archdeacons with them to Parliament, along with elected proctors representing their cathedral chapters and diocesan clergy (the chapter would send one proctor, while the diocesan clergy would send two). This was analogous to the way that the clergy had been represented in provincial synods since 1283.

Although clerical proctors for provincial councils were distinct from clerical proctors in Parliament, expediency meant that the same men were often chosen for both roles. But they often found their parliamentary duties burdensome, and from 1340 onward, the attendance of clerical proctors in Parliament ceased to be mandatory.[1] However, the bishops’ writs of summons still ordered them to bring clerical representatives with them until 1969 (in 1965, a proctor in Convocation attempted to claim a seat in the Commons but he was rebuffed).

While the clergy were no longer a regular component of Parliament, kings could still order the archbishops to hold provincial councils/Convocations for the purpose of granting subsidies. While the clergy initially bristled at the idea of being summoned by royal authority, a compromise was eventually worked out whereby the king would order the archbishop to summon a council under his own authority.[2] The ghost of this compromise survives to the present day. Although the Submission of the Clergy Act 1533 established that archbishops could only convene provincial councils at the Crown’s request, this is done by a royal writ addressed to the archbishops, who then take steps to call new Convocations.[3]

While the Convocations were legally distinct from Parliament, it became customary to summon them together in order to ensure that the Crown’s financial needs could be met as expeditiously as possible. This link was further strengthened by the fact that, from the reign of Henry VIII onward, the subsidies granted by the clergy in Convocation needed to be confirmed by Acts of Parliament. Eventually, the practice of having Convocation meet alongside Parliament hardened into a constitutional convention, and when the Convocation of Canterbury made new canons following the dissolution of the Short Parliament in 1640, it provoked considerable outrage.

The link with Parliament continued even after Archbishop of Canterbury entered into a gentlemen’s agreement with the Lord Chancellor in 1664 to allow the clergy to be taxed directly by Parliament. However, since the Crown no longer needed to rely on the Convocations for money, they could be easily sidelined if they ever became too much of a thorn in the government’s side. Indeed, between 1717 and 1852, the Convocations were only allowed to transact formal business even though they still continued to be summoned and dissolved alongside Parliament.

The Church of England Convocations Act 1966 finally untethered the Convocations from Parliament. Unfortunately, they didn’t have much of a chance to capitalize on this newfound freedom since the Synodical Government Measure 1969 transferred most of their powers to the General Synod.

[1] For a discussion of clerical proctors, including their role after 1340, see Phil Bradford and Alison K. McHardy, eds., Proctors for Parliament: Clergy, Community and Politics c. 1248-1539, 2 vols., (Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 2017).

[2] For a discussion of this dispute, see James Wayland Joyce, England’s Sacred Synods (London: Rivingtons, 1855), 260-271.

[3] While 14th century clergy objected when archbishops included the text of the royal writ in their mandates summoning Convocations, that has been de rigueur since the Reformation.  

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  1. Pingback: Why Did The Convocations Lose The Power To Tax? | A Venerable Puzzle

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