The wider issue of deposition from Holy Orders came to mind as a result of a report on the BBC website on 12 January about the case of one Guy Bennett, formerly a vicar in Oxted, Surrey, who was jailed for nine months in 1999 for indecently assaulting three girls and (it would appear) deposed from Holy Orders, but who had nevertheless been photographed in 2008 wearing a clerical collar. Ms Lucy Duckworth, who in 2008 had made a complaint of sexual abuse against Bennett for which he was not prosecuted, raised Bennett’s alleged conduct with the Archbishop of Canterbury who replied, in part, as follows:
“Regrettably, although we can ban someone from ever officiating at worship and wearing robes for worship, or passing themselves off as a priest in good standing, we cannot prevent them from using the the title ‘the reverend’ or even wearing a clerical collar … anyone is able to wear such dress, providing they do not do so for illegal purposes. It is not contravening any law unlike, say, dressing as a police officer.”
Which surely must be correct. In principle, you can call yourself whatever you wish. And if you want to wear a dog-collar no-one can stop you: all you need is a black shirt and a piece of white plastic. Moreover, the circumstances in which doing so might be “for illegal purposes” must be very limited: presumably what the Archbishop had in mind was someone pretending to be a cleric in order to commit some kind of fraud – probably financial, or possibly marriage-related. But laypeople wear cassocks and other bits of quasi-clerical kit for all sorts of perfectly legitimate reasons: David still does (he sings in his church choir), Frank used to do so when he was an Anglican (he was a reader).
In short, there’s nothing very “clerical” about a lot of clerical dress at all – and certainly not something under the control of the Churches, none of which any longer has any kind of criminal jurisdiction enforceable against the world at large. But all that, sadly, is little comfort to a victim of clerical sexual abuse who sees her or his abuser still wearing clerical garb even after being inhibited for life.
Underlying all this, however, is a more profound issue of religious law: can a cleric be “deordained”?
Laicisation and deposition from Holy Orders
The Church of England
In relation to the Bennett case, the Revd Neil Patterson wrote in the Church Times (£) on 23 January that:
“Under the 1963 Ecclesiastical Jurisdiction Measure, s.50, bishops did have the power to depose clergy from Holy Orders after sentence of deprivation. When the 2003 Clergy Discipline Measure was passed, this power was not included, as I understand it, in deference to ecumenical opinion that Holy Orders are indelible. But this was a Measure of the General Synod, and what the Synod has done it can undo…”
S 50 EJM 1963 reads:
“When a censure of deprivation is pronounced on any priest or deacon the bishop of the diocese may by sentence without any further legal proceedings depose him from Holy Orders and the sentence of deposition shall be recorded in the registry of the diocese:
Provided that before deposing him from Holy Orders the bishop shall serve on the priest or deacon concerned and on the provincial registrar of the relevant province a written notice in the prescribed form of his intention so to depose him and within the period of one month from the date of such notice the said priest or deacon may appeal to the archbishop of the relevant province or, if the diocesan be the archbishop, to the archbishop of the other province in such manner as may be prescribed and the diocesan shall not proceed so to depose him until the time for the making of such appeal has passed or, in the event of an appeal being made, unless or until it shall have been dismissed.”
If the version of EJM 1963 on the legislation.gov.uk website is to be believed (which, admittedly, is always a slightly dangerous assumption), s 50 is still in force even though it was not expressly included in CDM 2003. It certainly doesn’t appear to have been repealed by the later Measure: see Schedule 2 (Repeals).
On the other hand, what deposition from Holy Orders means in theological and/or ecclesiological terms is difficult to determine, given that section 53 EJM 1963 states that
“Where by virtue of anything done under this Measure an archbishop, bishop or other clergyman is deprived or deposed his incapacities shall cease if he receives a free pardon from the Crown, and he shall be restored to any preferment he previously held if it has not in the meantime been filled” [emphasis added].
Which seems to suggest that a deposed cleric is still in some sense “in Holy Orders”: merely inhibited from their exercise.
The Roman Catholic Church
The most immediately-relevant Roman Catholic provisions are Canon 290 CIC on Loss of the clerical state, which is the canonical (and thus juridic) position. This states:
“290 Once validly received, sacred ordination never becomes invalid. A cleric, nevertheless, loses the clerical state:
1. by a judicial sentence or administrative decree, which declares the invalidity of sacred ordination;
2. by the penalty of dismissal lawfully imposed;
3. by rescript of the Apostolic See which grants it to deacons only for grave causes and to presbyters only for most grave causes.”
In addition, the Catechism of The Church, Article 6, The Sacrament of Holy Orders, 1583 states:
“It is true that someone validly ordained can, for grave reasons, be discharged from the obligations and functions linked to ordination, or can be forbidden to exercise them; but he cannot become a layman again in the strict sense, because the character imprinted by ordination is for ever. The vocation and mission received on the day of his ordination mark him permanently” [emphasis added].
So on that basis, “once a priest, always a priest” even if you’re doing a whole-life sentence for mass murder. For an expert analysis by a specialist in Roman Catholic canon law (which I am not) see Catholic Priests Who Become Non-Catholic Ministers by Cathy Caridi JCL.
The Orthodox Churches
The Orthodox position seems to be rather different. Dr (Basil) Alfred Herbert Ernest Osborne, formerly Bishop Basil of Amphipolis (under the jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarch) and before that of Sergievo (under the jurisdiction of the Moscow Patriarchate), retired in late 2009 and in 2010 successfully requested a return to the lay state in order to marry for the second time: in Orthodoxy, priests may be married but bishops may not – and Dr Osborne had been a widower when consecrated bishop. Professor Constantine Scouteris of the School of Theology of the University of Athens sums up the Orthodox position like this:
“… the canonical data leave no doubt that a defrocked priest or bishop, after the decision of the Church to take back his priesthood, returns to the rank of the laity. The anathematized or the defrocked are in no way considered to maintain their priesthood. The canonical tradition that in the case of his ministerial rehabilitation this person is not re-ordained does not imply a recognition that he was a priest during the period of his punishment. It simply means that the Church recognizes that which had been sacramentally performed and the grace of ecclesiastical ministry is restored upon his assignment to an ecclesial community with no other sacramental sign or rite.”
On that basis, it would appear that an unfrocked Orthodox cleric is indeed “deordained”.
The Reformed and Free Church traditions
The situation in other Churches is less easy to determine, not least because of their widely-differing understandings of the nature of ordained ministry.
The Methodist Church, for example, states in its Standing Orders that it holds firmly to the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers and that the presbyterate and diaconate are particular offices within the Church, rather than their members being qualitatively different from the laity:
“Presbyters have a principal and directing part in these great duties but they hold no priesthood differing in kind from that which is common to all the Lord’s people and they have no exclusive title to the preaching of the gospel or the care of souls. These ministries are shared with them by others to whom also the Spirit divides his gifts severally as he wills … The Methodist Church holds the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers and consequently believes that no priesthood exists which belongs exclusively to a particular order or class of persons but in the exercise of its corporate life and worship special qualifications for the discharge of special duties are required and thus the principle of representative selection is recognised”: see Constitutional Practice and Discipline of The Methodist Church vol 2 s 2.4.
In the Church of Scotland, it is possible for a minister or deacon to demit status and return to the laity; and anyone who does so may subsequently be reinstated by resolution of the General Assembly. Helen Percy, for example, applied unsuccessfully in 1999 to be reinstated as a minister after having demitted status: the events leading to her demission are set out in the judgments in Percy v Board of National Mission of the Church  ScotCS 65 and Percy v Board of National Mission of the Church of Scotland  UKHL 73. She was not, however, applying to be ordained a second time.
Similarly in the United Reformed Church:
“A person whose name has been deleted from the Roll of Ministers of the United Reformed Church and who remains a member of the United Reformed Church has the privilege and responsibilities of that membership, but not those of a minister of Word and sacraments, and should refrain from all activity which may lead others to believe that he/she is acting as a minister of religion. However, should that person be re-instated to the Roll of Ministers, he/she would, on being called to a pastorate, need to be inducted to that pastorate, but not ordained, since ordination is not repeatable” [The Manual Schedule E.5]
A tentative conclusion
Among avowedly-Protestant denominations is particular, the suspicion must be that practice varies. In the URC, for example, the wording of The Manual would suggest that the orders of a minister not on the Roll are in suspension. The Western view, generally, seems to be “once ordained, always ordained” – there being a subtle distinction between “the clerical state” and “the character imprinted by ordination” – and this seems to be maintained by most of the historic Western denominations to a greater or lesser degree. The Eastern view is (somewhat surprisingly) different, as the recent laicisation of Dr Osborne demonstrates.