Faith and reason: Theatrical trials of an ecclesiastical court

An outdated law was applied this week at the last ever session of the traditional consistory court. Andrew Brown was there to witness why charity and justice make poor bedfellows
Click to follow
The Independent Online
What a delight to discover that the Church of England has got something right! The trial last Thursday of the Rev Edward Glover for - as the Sun had put it - revving up a parishioner with a bonk in his Volvo would have convinced anyone that the traditional consistory court system is a disaster, and that the reforms proposed by Canon Alan Hawker's working party really are reforms, and not just changes.

The trial itself was pure theatre. It was held in the 13th-century throne room at Bishop Auckland, a room in which not just the windows, but even the doors are pointed at the top. Thirty or forty prince bishops looked down from the walls at twenty journalists, two members of the public, and five observers who had some business there: one man had come from North Wales, where another trial on a similar charge is due; a magistrate who had sat on the Hawker commission had come to watch; one woman had come to to represent the interests of Mrs Orpen, the poor lunatic who had brought all this about.

The judge's title crammed more pomp before his name than you would have thought possible. He was the Worshipful, the Rev Canon Rupert Bursell QC, seated on the Bishop's throne beneath the arms of the palatinate, a sword crossed with a shepherds crook to show that even our ancestors appreciated the importance of keeping out the Scots.

He spoke with enormous care and scrupulousness. All he did was to explain why he was allowing the prosecution to withdraw its case. As a judge, he might have wanted to apportion blame; as a Christian, he seems to have felt this wrong. The evidence he walked the lawyers through made it quite clear that Mrs Orpen was a mentally ill woman who had perjured herself at least once in her pursuit of Mr Glover. These facts had not been hard to establish. She claimed he had made her pregnant: enquiries at the hospital revealed not only that she had never been pregnant at the time in question, but that she had been told so at the time. This had no effect on her beliefs. A further psychiatric enquiry showed that she was suffering from a delusional disease, which the judge was too kind-hearted to specify.

In fact he was kindness to a fault. No one, in anything he said, could be blamed for anything. The Sun, which first published her complaints, was not, he said, to be blamed in any way. Really? If the same allegations had been brought against a politician, or a newspaper owner, or even a doctor, would they not have been checked a little more thoroughly? Every journalist has to deal with lunatics; and I like to think that journalists who write about religion have to deal with more than their fair share. Surely they are not that hard to spot.

Equally, the Judge said, no blame could be attached to the Bishop, nor to his "examiner", the official who concluded that there was a prima-facie case to answer. And it is true that the prosecutor in the case, Canon Michael Perry, hugged Mr Glover after his acquittal and Mr Glover appeared to hug him back. But, we were told by Mr Glover's counsel as she rehearsed her reasons for not pressing on with the case, grave discrepancies in Mrs Orpen's evidence had emerged even at the stage of the preliminary examination.

The judge and the defence both accepted that the prosecution had behaved correctly. Indeed, by sharing experts with the defence, so far as possible, they had collaborated to keep the costs of the show down. Even so, it is difficult to believe that there are not in other dioceses other bishops and other examiners who would never have let the case get that far.

The Hawker Comission aims to eliminate all such inconsistencies. There will be a single, national system, independent of diocesan quirks. It will also eliminate one of the oddest features of last week's trial: the fact that the prosecution could not, in law, withdraw its case before the trial started, even though the expert evidence obtained as soon as they started to research the case had blown it up months ago. Under the new system, the expert examination would be made before the decision to prosecute.

Still, the trial was not a wholly ignominious end to the ecclesiastical jurisdiction measure. The ponderous drama of the law was, in the end, successful. It is in fact pleasing that the last trial of a clergyman for adultery under the old law should have ended without either whimper - or bang.