Age-related milestones in the church

Further to Frank’s review of the retirement age in the Methodist Church and the recent ONS ad hoc release “What is life like for an older person today?” it is pertinent to consider the legislation governing the age-related milestones of other beliefs, and that applicable within the Church of England, the Church in Wales and the Roman Catholic Church is summarized below.  Whilst it is difficult to make absolute comparisons between the criteria employed by different faith groups, such information prompts a consideration of the present-day relevance of these apparently arbitrarily-decided points in a person’s life, which invariably have a substantial impact on the individual concerned.

Church in Wales

Chapter VIII of the Constitution of the CiW concerns the retirement of bishops and other clergy for which two criteria are specified: the age of 65, at which clergy may retire; and the age of 70, at which they must retire.  With regard to the laity however, there is a 75 year-old age restriction on membership of a number of bodies and committees of the Church in Wales which was passed by Governing Body in September 1964: this applies to churchwardens and sub-wardens, lay members of the Governing Body, Representative Body and various other committees.

At the September 2012 meeting of the Governing Body, a Private Members’ Motion calling for this 75 year age restriction to be lifted was defeated: the provisions relating to churchwardens are in contained in Chapter IVC of the CiW: Regulations relating to Parochial Administration in the “future-proofed” format:

“14.5 Churchwardens shall be ineligible for re-election or re-appointment on reaching the age at which membership of the Governing Body ceases.”

Church of England

As might be expected the position in the Church of England is not straightforward: the minimum age limits for bishops, priests and deacons is defined within the Canons, whereas the maximum age for most, but not all of this group, is set by Measure. The relevant Canons are summarized below:

C2 Of the consecration of bishops:

3. No person shall be consecrated bishop except he shall be at least thirty years of age.

C 3 Of the ordination of priests and deacons

5. No person shall be made deacon, except he be at least 23 years of age, unless he have a faculty from the Archbishop of Canterbury.

6. No person shall be ordained priest, except he be at least 24 years of age, unless being over the age of 23 he have a faculty from the Archbishop of Canterbury.

7. No person shall be ordained both deacon and priest upon one and the same day, unless he have a faculty from the Archbishop of Canterbury.

8. A deacon shall not be ordained to the priesthood for at least one year, unless the bishop shall find good cause for the contrary, so that trial may be made of his behaviour in the office of deacon before he be admitted to the order of priesthood.

With regard to retirement, the Ecclesiastical Offices (Age Limit) Measure 1975 applies to those identified in section 1 of and the Schedule to the Measure: Diocesan Bishop; Suffragan bishop; Dean of a cathedral church; Residentiary canon in a cathedral church; Archdeacon; Incumbent of a benefice; Vicar in a team ministry established under the Pastoral Measure 1968; and Vicar of a guild church. In certain circumstances these clergy may continue to serve for a limited period past 70; for archbishops this is for a maximum of one year, provided that the Queen considers it desirable and authorises it.

[Update, 190404): The Ecclesiastical Offices (Terms of Service) (Amendment) Regulations 2017 came into effect on 1 July 2017 changing certain aspects of the provisions governing how clergy over 70 hold office. This is covered in our post CofE clergy over 70 – changes to terms of service which reproduced the advice of Patrick Shorrock, HR Adviser at the Archbishops’ Council, who summarized these in the National Archdeacons’ Forum: Archdeacons’ News, Bulletin no. 26 July 2017.]

Excluded from provisions of the Measure are any person who: holds an office in a Royal Peculiar; holds a residentiary canonry which is annexed to a professorship in a university; holds the office of dean of the Cathedral Church of Christ in Oxford; or any person who at the commencement of the Measure holds any office listed in the Schedule unless and until he vacates the office held by him at the said commencement. For these, separate arrangements apply.

Unlike the Church in Wales age limits relating to the laity, the Church of England only specifies lower limits: the section 1(3) of the Churchwardens Measure 2001 requires that “[t]he churchwardens of every parish shall be chosen from persons who have been baptized and: (a) whose names are on the church electoral roll of the parish; (b) who are actual communicants; (c) who are twenty–one years of age or upwards; and (d) who are not disqualified under section 2 or 3 below.”

For other laity representatives, this is determined by the criteria for Parochial Church Council membership, since this forms the primary electoral college from which deanery, diocesan and general synod members are subsequently elected. Criteria are set by the Church Representation Rules, (i.e. Schedule 3 to the Synodical Government Measure 1969, as amended) a consolidated version of which is available on line. Rule 10 determines the qualifications of persons to be chosen or elected by annual meetings, and states

  1. (1) Subject to the provisions of rule 1(4) and paragraph (3) of this rule, the qualifications of a person to be elected a parochial representative of the laity to either the parochial church council or the deanery synod are that: (a) his name is entered on the roll of the parish and, unless he is under the age of eighteen years at the date of the election, has been so entered for at least the preceding period of six months; (b) he is an actual communicant as defined in rule 54(1); and (c) he is of sixteen years or upwards.

Again, no upper age limit is set for laity representation, unlike in the Church in Wales.

British Religion in Numbers, (BRIN), states that according to the Church Times for 5 November 2010, based on a briefing from the Secretary General of the Archbishops’ Council, the average age of members of the House of Clergy rose from 49 in the 2005 Synod to 52 in 2010, and of members of the House of Laity from 53 in 2005 to 58 in 2010.

Roman Catholic Church

Admission to the presbyterate (i.e. the priesthood as opposed to the episcopate or diaconate, CCC 1536) is governed by Canon 1031 (CIC), which states

1. The presbyterate is not to be conferred except on those who have completed the twenty-fifth year of age and possess sufficient maturity; an interval of at least six months is to be observed between the diaconate and the presbyterate. Those destined to the presbyterate are to be admitted to the order of deacon only after completing the twenty-third year of age.

2. A candidate for the permanent diaconate who is not married is not to be admitted to the diaconate until after completing at least the twenty-fifth year of age; one who is married, not until after completing at least the thirty-fifth year of age and with the consent of his wife.

3. The conference of bishops is free to establish norms which require an older age for the presbyterate and the permanent diaconate.

4. A dispensation of more than a year from the age required according to the norm of §§1 and 2 is reserved to the Apostolic See.

and Canon 1032 continues

1. Those aspiring to the presbyterate can be promoted to the diaconate only after they have completed the fifth year of the curriculum of philosophical and theological studies.

2. After a deacon has completed the curriculum of studies and before he is promoted to the presbyterate, he is to take part in pastoral care, exercising the diaconal order, for a suitable time defined by the bishop or competent major superior.

3. A person aspiring to the permanent diaconate is not to be promoted to this order unless he has completed the time of formation.

Canons 200 to 203 provide guidance for computing when the minimum age for ordination has been reached.

With regard to the retirement of priests, Canon 538§3 provides that:

“When a pastor has completed seventy-Five years of age, he is requested to submit his resignation from office to the diocesan bishop who is to decide to accept or defer it after he has considered all the circumstances of the person and place. Attentive to the norms established by the conference of bishops, the diocesan bishop must provide suitable support and housing for a retired pastor”.

although diocesan norms may provide for voluntary retirement at 70 or earlier. [Corrected following comments of Christopher Dawson, below]

For bishops, Canon 401 concerns those who leave their office on account of age or other reasons:

1. A diocesan bishop who has completed the seventy-fifth year of age is requested to present his resignation from office to the Supreme Pontiff, who will make provision after he has examined all the circumstances.

2. A diocesan bishop who has become less able to fulfil his office because of ill health or some other grave cause is earnestly requested to present his resignation from office.

and Canon 411 extends these provisions to coadjutor and auxiliary bishops.  Last year we posted on the problems associated with the use of Canon 401 §2 where a bishop is persuaded to resign from office, but given nature of the terse announcements by the Vatican, it is uncertain whether this was on account of ill-health or other reasons.

The position of the Cardinals is critical in view of their role in the election of a pope, Canon 349,

“The cardinals of the Holy Roman Church constitute a special college which provides for the election of the Roman Pontiff according to the norm of special law. The cardinals assist the Roman Pontiff either collegially when they are convoked to deal with questions of major importance, or individually when they help the Roman Pontiff through the various offices they perform, especially in the daily care of the universal Church.”

The criteria for promotion as a cardinal are detailed in Canon 351,

1. The Roman Pontiff freely selects men to be promoted as cardinals, who have been ordained at least into the order of the presbyterate and are especially outstanding in doctrine, morals, piety, and prudence in action; those who are not yet bishops must receive episcopal consecration.

2. Cardinals are created by a decree of the Roman Pontiff which is made public in the presence of the College of Cardinals. From the moment of the announcement they are bound by the duties and possess the rights defined by law.

With regard to retirement, Canon 354 provides that cardinals who preside over dicasteries and other permanent institutes of the Roman Curia and Vatican City and who have completed the seventy-fifth year of age are asked to submit their resignation from office [but not from their position as Cardinal] to the Roman Pontiff “who will see to the matter after considering the circumstances”.  These curial retirement ages were introduced in 1970 through the motu proprio of Pope Paul VI[1] Ingravescentem aetatem, which also specified that cardinals over the age of 80 would cease to be papal electors as members of the conclave.  This cut-off was modified by St John Paul II in 1996 through his Universi Dominici Gregis which required a cardinal to be under 80 at the commencement of the sede vacante thus making the composition of the conclave less susceptible to manipulation through choice of its start date.

The conclave of March 2013 that elected Pope Francis was comprised of 115 of the 117 eligible Cardinals, and of these electors 48 had been elected by St John Paul II, thus indicating the potential influence of the current pontiff on his successors. As of 23 September 2014, there are 210 Cardinals in total, of whom 113 are under age 80, and of those 113, 36 were appointed by St John Paul II, 61 by Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI, and 16 by Pope Francis.  The next Cardinal to reach 80 will be Tarcisio Bertone, on 2 December 2014.

Apart from the reference to the Papal election in Canon 349, supra, the 1983 Code contains no other provisions relating to the election of the Pontiff, and this is mainly dealt with in Universi Dominici Gregis, as modified by the Normas nunnullas of Benedict XVI. Until Pope Benedict XVI announced his resignation on 11 February 2013, it was accepted that the pontiff would not resign and no upper age limit was stipulated in the Canons or elsewhere[2].  Although the Code of Canons includes provisions for such an eventuality, Canon 332 §2 and Canons 187 to 189, most of the associated provisions are directed at the election of a new Pope following the death of his predecessor. Some modifications were made in Normas nunnullas, but there still appear to be some lacunae yet to be addressed. These issues are considered in greater detail in our posts Papal resignation and canon law and Election of new pontiff: events during the sede vacante and extensively in the blog of Roman Catholic Canon Lawyer Dr Edward Peters.


An indication of the somewhat arbitrary nature of such age limits was given in an interview given by Pope Francis to La Vanguardia newspaper and reported in The Tablet. He is quoted as saying that prior to election as Pope, he had planned to leave the archdiocese at the end of 2012 and had already submitted his resignation to Benedict XVI when he turned 75: he also indicated that he will “retire ‘like Benedict’”. The ability for such retirement is likely to remain the personal decision of the pontiff alone, as it would otherwise compromise supreme papal authority, Canon 331.

For bishop and priests in the Roman Catholic Church and elsewhere, a distinction is made between optional and mandatory requirement, although operational issues such as a shortage of clergy may reduce the freedom to exercise the “optional” provision.

For the laity, the specification of an upper age limit such as that in the Church of Wales is unusual, although when considered in their role as electors, there are parallels in the age restrictions placed on Cardinals.  Whilst some might suggest that the Church of England should consider a maximum age for membership of General Synod, there are no such restrictions on parliamentarians – except for Lords Spiritual.


[1] The beatification ceremony for Paul VI is scheduled for 19 October 2014, after which he will the the Blessed Paul VI.

[2] When Pope Benedict XVI resigned on 28 February 2013, he was the first pope to relinquish the office since Pope Gregory XII in 1415.

5 thoughts on “Age-related milestones in the church

  1. With respect to the comment:

    “With regard to retirement, the 1983 Code sets a mandatory retirement age for priests at 75, and whilst diocesan norms of a diocese may provide for voluntary retirement at 70 or earlier, a shortage of priests in a particular area may require them to remain until 75.”

    This is not quite the full story. Canon 538 §3 states:

    “A parish priest who has completed his seventy-fifth year of age is requested to offer his resignation from office to the diocesan Bishop who, after considering all the circumstances of person and place, is to decide whether to accept or defer it. Having taken account of the norms laid down by the Bishop’s Conference, the diocesan Bishop must make provision for the appropriate maintenance and residence of the priest who has resigned”

    The 1983 Code does not impose a mandatory retirement age on all priests, merely that parish priests are to offer their resignation at seventy-five.

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