Is it an offence to impersonate a cleric? – thoughts on deposition from Holy Orders


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 website is to be believed (which, admittedly, is always a slightly dangerous assumption),  50 is still in force even though it was not expressly included in CDM 2003 [1]. 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.

Church in Wales [2]

On 7 October 2021, the Diocese of Llandaff issued a notification that following a hearing which took place on 5 August 2021, the Disciplinary Tribunal of the Church in Wales had ordered that the Reverend Nigel Cahill, formerly Rector in the Rectorial Benefice of Aberavon, be deposed from Holy Orders and expelled from the office of Cleric in the Church in Wales. The Tribunal found a charge of ‘conduct giving just cause for scandal or offence’ proved, following his conviction for two offences of making indecent images of children contrary to the Protection of Children Act 1978.

The full statement is on the Church in Wales website. As the former Archbishop of Wales, the Most Reverend John Davies explained to the IICSA (Page 58, Line 8), “If you make the distinction between being put out of office and deposed from Holy Orders, put out of office would mean your current appointment is something which you are no longer entitled to hold; deposed from Holy Orders means you are no longer able to function as a cleric”. However when pressed as to whether deposition encompassed the wearing of clerical dress, use of the title “Reverend”, and officiating at places where a Licence was not required, he stated the legal position: “For our purposes, you are no longer a cleric”, agreeing with an equivalence to the process of laicization in the Roman Catholic Church.

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.

Addendum, 22 February 2023: There is an urban myth that it is illegal for a Roman Catholic priest to wear a cassock in the street. Whilst this was the case under s26, Roman Catholic Relief Act 1829, this provision was repealed almost 100 years ago by the Roman Catholic Relief Act 1926.

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 [2001] ScotCS 65 and Percy v Board of National Mission of the Church of Scotland [2005] 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.


[1] As at 8 July 2023 at 16:47.

[2] Section on Church in Wales added 10 October 2021.

Cite this article as: Frank Cranmer, "Is it an offence to impersonate a cleric? – thoughts on deposition from Holy Orders" in Law & Religion UK, 6 February 2015,

18 thoughts on “Is it an offence to impersonate a cleric? – thoughts on deposition from Holy Orders

  1. The reason why deposition from holy orders was discontinued in the CDM was because once deposed, a cleric had no right of appeal against sentence, even if fresh information came to light which would have brought about his acquittal in a secular court.

    While a sentence of deposition (which could be administered under the EJM in private, by the bishop, with the consent of the cleric, without a trial) was devastating for anyone who wished to serve thereafter in the Church of England, it was routinely ignored by other provinces in the UK, who continued to appoint to full time ministry clerics who had been “deposed” in the Church of England.

    Deposition evidently was not taken to mean that a deposed cleric had been spiritually deprived of the charism of holy orders. It simply meant a life bar preventing the exercise of those orders in the Church of England. The CDM’s exclusion of deposition from the tariff of sentences available and its introduction of a new sentence of prohibition for life is intended both to provide for the possibility of a subsequent appeal, and a recognition that deposition can not alter the fact that the cleric concerned has been ordained to a ministry which may be put into abeyance, but can not be erased by the sentence of a court.

  2. Thank you. So is s 50 EJM 1963 still in force, or is it merely otiose though still (it would appear) on the statute book?

    And David has reminded me of the provisions of Canon C1 §2:

    “No person who has been admitted to the order of bishop, priest, or deacon can ever be divested of the character of his order, but a minister may either by legal process voluntarily relinquish the exercise of his orders and use himself as a layman, or may by legal and canonical process be deprived of the exercise of his orders or deposed therefrom.” [emphasis added].

    On that basis, even if deposition is not in the list of possible sentences under CDM 2003, presumably it hasn’t simply been expunged.

  3. Surely S 50 would still be relevant in proceedings for offences involving matters of doctrine ritual or ceremonial? The survival of the possibility of such proceedings is reminiscent of the survival of the 1603 canon on the confessional – hot potatoes where agreement on their replacement is seen as too challenging but which continue as reminders of points of strong feeling.

  4. It seems as though deposition remained on the statute book with reference to proceedings for matter of doctrine, ritual or ceremonial – but the advice given to General Synod has been that the surviving part of the EJM is not considered “human rights compliant” and can not, therefore, be used. General Synod did debate the possibility of a new Measure to provide for such trials but voted against taking it any further.

  5. David beat me to Canon C1. It seems to me that relinquishment and deposition arrive at the same place by different routes – one voluntary and honourable, and the other as a punishment. The ontological effect of ordination, being indelible, is not removed, but the juridical significance is. That is the bishop, priest or deacon in question becomes unlicensable and may not lawfully exercise ordained ministry. It follows that no bishop may validly grant such a priest a licence to minister, or transfer him/her to another jurisdiction to be licensed there.

    Why anyone in such a state, who has chosen or been sentenced to “use himself as a layman” would want to present himself in public in the guise of a priest is a complete mystery to me.

    • In answer to your last point, my guess is either to commit some kind of fraud or because he (and I bet it would be a he) is slightly unhinged. There’s a fair number of slightly nutty religious people around – and not a few of them are clergy.

  6. There are a tiny number who continue to wear clerical dress in order to commit fraud – but there are those who believe that they are indeed sacramentally priests, whatever a court has said, and continue to reflect this in the way they dress – not least if they consider that they have been unjustly removed from office. I don’t know if it still happens but the ordination service used to include the words of Psalm 110, “Tu es sacerdos in aeternum, secundum ordinem Melchisedek” (which of course refers to Jesus, not to the minister being ordained) which reinforces the sense of Canon C1, that this is a permanent charism. And there are some who have been deposed in England who have gone on to serve in Scotland, Wales and elsewhere in the Anglican Communion, unhindered by a sentence of deposition under the EJM. Again, the mass depositions without trial of large numbers of conservative bishops and clergy in the Episcopal Church USA have been ignored by the churches which they continue to serve.

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  8. In discussion of the position in the Roman Catholic Church, when quoting canon 290 you repeat number one at number two – the correct number two is ‘by the penalty of dismissal lawfully imposed’. This penalty may be imposed by way of a judicial sentence or the administrative act of the Roman Pontiff.

    • Thanks very much – I’ve changed it. It all goes to prove it’s almost impossible to read one’s own stuff on-line.


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  12. hi, I am late to the party, but is the legal position outlined above still correct, or has it been changed? Thanks v much.

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