POLEMIC; No way to ensure godly behaviour

The Dean of Lincoln is on trial in a bad court, argues Stephen Trott
Click to follow
Whatever the eventual verdict in the Dean of Lincoln's case, the consistory court in which he is accused of adultery is itself on trial as a means of dispensing justice. How can it be right for a Christian community to deal with matters of moral or ecclesiastical discipline by means of criminal proceedings which have the same force as a Crown Court trial?

This is not to say that the church should be soft on matters of personal morality, or serious breaches of church law. One of the drawbacks of the present system is precisely that it has become largely unworkable, except as a threat to induce resignation. Many of us in the church believe that a more effective system of discipline is needed, to ensure that biblical standards are upheld and to produce a more professionally minded clergy. The church has to be seen to practise what it preaches, and it is judged by most of the population according to its treatment of sinners within its membership.

The present system is unsatisfactory in a number of important respects as a means of ensuring godly conduct by the clergy, not least because it applies only to the clergy, who form a very tiny percentage of the church's members, although the same moral standards are to be expected of every Christian.

The consistory court continues to exercise an archaic criminal jurisdiction over the clergy in such matters, with most of the trappings and solemnity of a Crown Court. But by any reasonable standard, it deals with transgressions which are not criminal offences. If the clergy commit a criminal offence, they are quite properly dealt with, like everyone else, in the criminal courts. Even though exemplary behaviour is expected of the clergy, the charge of "conduct unbecoming a clerk in holy orders" is a matter of moral and professional discipline, not one of criminality.

Nor does the consistory court command complete respect as an impartial judicial system. It is the bishop's own court, in which he appoints the judge, called the chancellor. The bishop hears both parties before proceedings take place, and he decides whether or not there should be a trial. He may authorise the complainant to institute charges against the accused, and if the accused consents, the bishop may himself pass sentence without a hearing in court. If the accused is found guilty by the court, the bishop is likely to be involved in the subsequent sentence, and may unfrock those who are deprived of their office. It is undesirable, as a matter of justice, for the bishop to have such an intimate involvement in the trial, from the beginning to the end and beyond. A person facing a criminal trial is entitled to expect the highest standards of impartiality.

The answer is to set up a national tribunal, well away from the politics and personalities of a local diocese. Such a tribunal could still have power to correct or punish those who fall short of the standards expected of Christian ministers. It would ensure anonymity in cases of sexual misconduct, removing the often prurient publicity generated by a criminal trial in open court, which can be damaging to both parties whatever the verdict. An independent conciliation and arbitration service could assist to dispose of some cases without formal proceedings.

Some cases arise out of loss of vocation, and if a fund were available to assist with early retirement, this would be a better option both for them and for the church.

The present court is too cumbersome, expensive and generates too much scandal to be practical. The church needs a court which it can actually use, confident in the knowledge that justice can be done, and be seen to be done.

The writer is rector of Pitsford with Boughton, Northamptonshire, and is a member of the steering committee of the MSF union, clergy section.