Church Courts During the Regency Era

The church courts in Britain controlled the behavior of their clergymen. Yet, what all was involved? What were the “powers” of the bishop of each diocese?

The bishop had to ordain all clergymen. His approval was required for anyone who was presented a living. The bishop was the judge dealing with all aspects of marriage. They probated wills. The bishop or his representative were required to visit the churches within his diocese and hear any complaints of defamation, scold, blasphemy, and sacrilege, as well as other offenses for which a legal remedy was not openly apparent. This procedure was referred to as the “bawdy court.” The bishop’s power was limited to a. public scolding in church or excommunication. Most of the bishop’s power was over the church procedures and progress and the clergymen who ran the churches.

Governed by canon law, not the law of the land, the church courts had to right to try clerics for any number of violations. Each diocese had two types of church courts. The first was the “consistory” court which dealt with issues from the whole diocese and was presided over by the bishop.

Ecclesiastical courts not only placed clerics on trial. The courts also took on the duty of handling cases between “injured parties” if they were of a MORAL nature. Ecclesiastical courts addressed situations of accusation of a being a drunkard, swearing, attacking a cleric, gambling, especially during church services/mass, expressed heretical views, slander, leant money at interest, beating one’s wife, perjury, conducting business/trade on a Sunday, eating meat on a fasting day, not paying one’s tithes to the church, dissolution of a marriage based on claims of consanguinity or non-consummation, or a personal case against a cleric.

Ecclesiastical courts heard many cases related to fornication, adultery, homosexuality, prostitution, bigamy, bastardy, and incest. Anything dealing with “sex” were considered canon law.

These courts also oversaw some facets of a person’s will, especially if there were issues affecting the church or bringing it into dispute.

The other was the “archdeaconry court.” Its power covered only the archdeaconry and was presided over by the archdeacon.

If that last sentence went “over your head,” permit me an attempt to clarify. An archdeaconry is a legal division of a diocese for administrative purposes within which the archdeacon exercises an ordinary jurisdiction. The essential nature of the role has been described as ‘being a good steward so that others are freed to be the worshipping, witnessing and ministering. The legal responsibilities of the archdeacon can be found in this short PDF.

An archdeacon is a senior clergy position, below the bishop. Archdeacons serve the church in part of a diocese by taking particular responsibility for all buildings, the welfare of clergy and their families and the implementation of diocesan policy for the sake of the Gospel. An archdeaconry is their territorial division; these vary in number according to the size of the diocese and in a few, mainly English, cases an assistant (Suffragan) Bishop will also stand in as Archdeacon. [“The chapter”. Gloucester cathedral.]

They are usually styled “The Venerable” rather than their usual clerical style of “The Reverend.” In the Church of England the role can only be held by a priest who has been ordained for at least six years. (This rule was introduced in 1840. The rule stating they be in priest’s orders was enacted in 1662.) [Cross, FL, ed. (1957), The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, London: Oxford University Press, p. 79.] In the Church of England, the legal act by which a priest becomes an archdeacon is called a collation. If that archdeaconry is annexed to a canonry of the cathedral, they will also be installed (placed in a stall) at that cathedral, in practice working largely in the chapter offices.

In some other Anglican churches, these men can be deacons instead of priests; such archdeacons often work with the bishop to help with deacons’ assignments to congregations and assist the bishop at ordinations and other diocesan liturgies. The Anglican ordinal presupposes (it is policy by default) that every Archdeacon helps to examine candidates for ordination and presents the most suitable candidate(s) to the ordaining bishop. [Archdeacons]

“For many, being tried in a church court was preferable to being tried in any of the other courts, especially for murder, since the church courts could not order capital punishment. The number of men in the church was vast. As well as monks and parish priests there were also chaplains and chantry priests scattered about the country. It’s been estimated that two percent or more of the male population was a cleric.

“A man could “prove” he was a cleric by reading a text from the Bible, which was not such an easy test as you might think. The literacy rate was low, but it was higher than two percent.

“Whilst the church courts did not have the death penalty, they did have some imaginative punishments. They issued fines or ordered the guilty party to be whipped. Most of the punishments were carried out in public.  Sometimes it was to make an offering in church in front of the whole of the parish, or to stand in a white sheet by the door of the church, being passed by other parishioners as they went in and out of the church to mass. The ultimate punishment, of course, was excommunication.

“The highest church court was the Convocation where the worst crimes committed by clerics were tried. For a cleric, the worst punishment was usually being defrocked.” [A Writer’s Perspective]


About Regina Jeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and historical romantic suspense.
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