Church defections and the CountMeOut campaign

Since June 2009, the CountMeOut campaign has provided a web-based facility for those who  wish formally to leave the Roman Catholic Church, which it states was initiated “largely as a response to the child abuse scandals, enabling those who no longer felt they were members of the church to formally remove themselves”. However, on 8 August 2013 it announced that it would cease operations with immediate effect. In a Press Release it explains

“[t]he campaign was based on a ‘Declaration of Defection’ which could be downloaded from the website and sent to one’s local parish. The result was an annotation in the baptismal register confirming that the person had defected. In late 2010, became aware of a change to Canon law which effectively removed this option. “

The 2010 changes to the 1983 Code of Canon law referred to by CountMeOut relate to the point at which Pope Benedict’s Motu Proprio, Omnium in mentum, became effective.  This addressed two issues: one concerning the sacrament of holy orders in relation to deacons and the other defection from the faith.  As a result of the latter, after 9 April 2010 defection as formerly provided for in Canons 1086, 1117, and 1124 no longer had any canonical effect.

Until then, these Canons provided specific exemptions in relation to marriage which had proved problematic since the introduction of the 1983 Code.  The notification actus formalis defectionis ab Ecclesia catholica (2006), described these exemptions as distinct from the more conventional “virtual” forms of “notoriously” or “publicly” abandoning the faith [1].  This document also identified the “three-step process” on which the campaign’s “Declaration of Defection” was based.  Now that this exemption has been removed, all who have been baptized or received into the Catholic Church continue to be bound by merely [2] ecclesiastical laws under Canon 11 (CIC), i.e. semel baptizatus semper baptizatus

Subsequently CountMeOut focused on alternative formal means to leave the church, such as the declaration of an “act of apostasy” and subsequent latae senteniae excommunication, relying upon Canons 751 and 1364 §1 (CIC).  However, renunciation of the Christian faith is a direction few wished to follow, but a total of 16 acts of apostasy were formulated and sent to the Archdiocese of Dublin in June 2011.  In addition to rejecting these 16 acts of apostasy, the group was informed a fundamental error in this approach – excommunication does not mean that a person is no longer a member of the church.  Furthermore, as we discuss below, in common with ordination to holy orders, baptism once performed cannot be undone, or as it is sometimes described in the Roman Catholic Church, it makes ‘an indelible mark on the soul’.

The Archdiocese of Dublin has proposed to set up a register of those who have expressed a wish to defect but stipulates that this will have no consequence in Canon law, to which the campaign notes “[renders] it effectively meaningless to the Church”, [emphasis added].


In an earlier Press Release, the campaign stated that “many who defect via do so as a means of protest and will be less concerned with its canonical significance”.  Aside from such people, it identified three groups are potentially affected by the change in the law: those who defect in order to join another Church; those who defect, marry and then subsequently re-join; and those for whom the canonical significance of the act is important, whether or not they believe in it themselves.  It also noted the parallel issue in Germany concerning payment of the Church tax – Kirchensteuer – which we have covered in an earlier post. In this case an annotated baptismal certificate was sometimes requested, and this provided a financial incentive formally to register defection.  However, in other cases such a need is more questionable.

The traditional view of Trinitarian baptism, certainly in the West, is that it is a once-for-all and irreversible sacramental act: once it’s done, it’s done and there’s no going back. And not even Roman Catholics rebaptise converts who have already been baptised by the pouring-on of water accompanied by the Trinitarian formula: still less do Anglicans or the Free Churches.

The Quaker partner in this blog was baptised as an Anglican and is now a member of a Society that simply does not include baptism in its portfolio. But so what? If you don’t believe in the efficacy of baptism in the first place, why would the fact of having been baptised present a problem? And the point about wishing to have one’s departure recorded in order “to join another faith/religion” simply won’t wash: no-one would suggest even in England – let alone in Ireland where there is constitutional separation of Church and State – that one needs the formal permission of the denomination of one’s baptism in order to leave it for another.

The suspicion must be that the people who signed up to CountMeOut were somehow niggled or upset at being in some parish baptism register; but why couldn’t they just shrug it off and walk away? Since all a register does is to record what happened in a particular place at a particular time, it seems slightly strange to want to undo history. It also seems an odd way to “[t]ake a stand for church-state separation” as advocated on the masthead of CountMeOut communications.

David Pocklington and Frank Cranmer

[1] Canons 171, § 1.4°; 194, § 1.2°; 316, § 1; 694, § 1.1; 1071, § 1, 4° and § 2

[2] i.e. “laws that impose obligations, command or forbid, and those which subjects of the law are bound; not laws that confer rights or divine laws that bind everyone”.

4 thoughts on “Church defections and the CountMeOut campaign

  1. The easiest way to leave the Roman Catholic Church is to join another one & become a regular communicant there. There are plenty of us who’ve done it; in fact it would be interesting to know if the traffic from Rome to C of E is greater than the much-reported traffic in the other direction!

  2. Thank you for your comments, Catherine. Perhaps there is someone within the CofE who has access to these data? Alternatively one might seek out a friendly MP to ask an appropriate PQ. In a response to a question of Christopher Chope (Christchurch) (Con), on how many former Roman Catholic priests have sought ordination in the Church of England since 2005, Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con), informed the House [HC Hansard HC: 1 Mar 2011 Col. 163]

    “Figures held by the Archbishops Council show that in the past five years 14 former Roman Catholic priests have sought to be received into ordained ministry within the Church of England. As there is also discretion at diocesan level for acceptance into the ministry, not all candidates are centrally recorded, so the national figure is likely to be higher.”

    Of interest the article in British Religion in Numbers, (BRIN), How Typical was Thatcher? on the statistics associated with those leaving/switching religious affiliation, written shortly after the death of Baroness Thatcher.

    Traffic in the opposite direction appears to be collated and reported by the Roman Catholic Bishops’ Conference, here.

  3. The fact is that most people just don’t bother and simply carry on with what they’re used to. I did bother because once I’d come to the conclusion that the doctrine of the Trinity was an inadequate answer to a question that should never have been asked in the first place, I simply couldn’t in good conscience carry on any longer reciting the Nicene Creed. So my only options were the Friends or the Unitarians.

    I have a strong suspicion (of which I will be very happy to be disabused) that about one in ten Anglicans believes as little of the Nicene Creed as I do: but it doesn’t worry them like it worried me. I guess the habits of mind you acquire reading law – if you’re serious about it – mark you for life, for good or ill.

  4. “The suspicion must be that the people who signed up to CountMeOut were somehow niggled or upset at being in some parish baptism register; but why couldn’t they just shrug it off and walk away? Since all a register does is to record what happened in a particular place at a particular time, it seems slightly strange to want to undo history. ”

    Because the whole thing is bloody creepy as is some bunch of hocus pocus charlatans seeking to lay claim to you?

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