General Synod: Burial of suicides, vesture

Legislative business scheduled for discussion by General Synod for the morning of Saturday 8 July includes the First Consideration of Draft Amending Canon 36, on which there is a particularly helpful Explanatory Memorandum: this explains [2]

  1. Draft Amending Canon No. 36 makes amendments to Canon B 8 (Of the vesture of ordained and authorized ministers during the time of divine service) and Canon B 38 (Of the burial of the dead).

2. The General Synod called for this legislation to be introduced when it passed two private members’ motions, one – in relation to Canon B 38 – in February 2015 and the other – in relation to Canon B 8 – in July 2014.

Whilst the joint consideration these two disparate issues might be an administrative convenience, the common factor is provided in Hamlet, i.e. they are both “More honour’d in the breach than the observance”’. The proposed changes are not designed to address any significant mischief or radical development in ecclesiastical law; with such a pedigree, such changes do not give the impression of a heavy legislative timetable in Synod. The Amending Canon will require a two-thirds majority in each House of Synod for Final Approval because it constitutes a provision “touching … the services or ceremonies of the Church of England or the administration of the Sacraments or sacred rites thereof”. Nevertheless, if leaving aside the inevitable trivial treatment that this proposal has attracted in the media, the Amending Canon does introduce a degree of clarity to these issues.

Amendments to Canon B 8

Canon B 8 relates to vesture during divine service: at Holy Communion (paragraph 3); at Morning and Evening Prayer on Sundays (paragraph 4); and at the Occasional Offices (paragraph 5). An earlier post reported on the House of Bishops Consultation in February, (GS Misc 1133) and of the 78 responses received, 59 were in favour of making the forms of vesture specified in Canon B 8 optional rather than mandatory. However, we noted the comments of the Archbishop of York who said:

“…the truth is this: the canon is already very, very permissive. So when you are amending it from mandatory to occasional, look carefully at what it is you are amending”

The scope of Canon B 8 in its present form is explained in the Secretary General’s Background Note to the Consultation GS 1944B. As noted above, the Amending Canon introduces a degree of clarity, but in doing so has necessarily introduced a degree of prescription on when alternative forms of vesture may be worn:

  • The general provisions of paragraph 2 of the Canon are amended “to make it clear that that paragraph is concerned with the situation where the minister proposes to change the form of vesture that is used in a church or chapel from one of the forms of vesture specified in the Canon to another specified form. It is not concerned with the situation where the minister is proposing not to wear any of those forms of vesture, which is provided for in other amendments”;
  • Paragraph 3 is amended so that the minister need not wear a surplice or alb with scarf or stole at the Holy Communion if the minister considers, after consulting the parochial church council, that adopting some other form of dress would benefit the mission of the Church in the parish.
  • The amendment to paragraph 4 relaxes the already flexible provisions relating to Morning and Evening Prayer on a general basis: if the minister considers, after consulting the parochial church council, that adopting another form of dress would benefit the mission of the Church in the parish.
  • With regard to the Occasional Offices, paragraph 5 is amended so that the minister may adopt a form of dress other than a surplice or alb with scarf or stole as may be agreed with the persons concerned.
  • In addition, a new paragraph is inserted after paragraph 5 which imposes a requirement that where a minister adopts a form of dress other than vesture of a form specified in the Canon: i] the form of [dress] adopted must be seemly; and ii] must not be indicative of a departure from the doctrine of the Church of England.

We noted our earlier post that whilst Amending Canon 36 is not incompatible per se with Amending Canon 34, read together they appear to be sending out mixed messages. Amending Canon 34 has now been incorporated into the law of the Church, and was formulated through a long process of consideration and discussion. Underpinning its changes to Canons C 8, E 6 and E 8 is an assumption that along with the other provisions on safeguarding, it is not acceptable for clergy, or readers or lay workers who do not have authority to officiate, or are prohibited or suspended from officiating, to vest in a church or a chapel for divine office.

Amendments to Canon B 38

The background to the amendments to Canon B 38 was discussed in our post CofE services after suicide in January 2015. The Private Members Motion from which this originated merely sought to a change in the Canon to permit “those who have taken their own life, whatever the circumstances, to be buried in accordance with the rites of the Church of England”. Through Amending Canon 36, Canon B 38 is amended to remove the current exception which prevents the normal burial service (i.e. the Order for the Burial of the Dead in the Book of Common Prayer or the Funeral Service in Common Worship) being used in the case of a person who committed suicide while of sound mind, or a person who died without being baptized, and removes the reference to those who have been declared excommunicate [paragraph 2]. The latter is otiose since within the Church of England, there has been no legal mechanism for declaring a person excommunicate since the Ecclesiastical Jurisdiction Measure 1963 came into force on 1 March 1965.

However, the proposal introduces a conscience clause for situations in which the minster cannot in good conscience conduct the normal burial service. In these circumstances, the minister must notify the bishop and must use a form of service prescribed or approved by the bishop; that service “must not be contrary to, or indicative of any departure from, the doctrine of the Church of England in any essential matter”. The conscience clause relates solely to the form of service used for suicides, and there is no change to the minister’s duty to bury any deceased parishioner.

The Amending Canon will be introduced under s 1(1)(b) Church of England (Worship and Doctrine) Measure 1974 rather than a Measure which specifically authorizes the making of an amending canon with the desired effect.

Cite this article as: David Pocklington, "General Synod: Burial of suicides, vesture" in Law & Religion UK, 5 July 2016, http://www.lawandreligionuk.com/2016/07/05/general-synod-burial-of-suicides-vesture/

2 thoughts on “General Synod: Burial of suicides, vesture

  1. Pingback: Apart from a big fight over homosexuality, what else is happening at General Synod? - TLG Christian News

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