A new chapter in the academic study of canon law in Britain

New developments in the academic study of Canon Law are summarized in this article by The Revd Russell Dewhurst

Canon law was studied at Oxford and Cambridge since at least the thirteenth century[1] until Henry VIII closed the canon law faculties in 1535. The study of civil (Roman) law continued at these universities after the reformation, however, and provided an initial training for those lawyers who would go on to specialize in canon and ecclesiastical law. By the sixteenth century, the society of Doctors’ Commons had been formed as a college for practitioners of ecclesiastical, admiralty, and related fields of law. After mid-nineteenth century changes to the matrimonial and probate jurisdictions, the society ceased to meet from 1865, and common lawyers began to practise in ecclesiastical law, but there was little opportunity for the formal academic study of the discipline. All this changed in the later part of the 20th century thanks to two new initiatives: firstly, the formation of the Ecclesiastical Law Society; and secondly, the establishment of an LLM degree in Canon Law at Cardiff University Law School by Professor Norman Doe.

With over 200 LLM graduates, the Cardiff course has done immeasurable service to Anglican canon law, to the ecumenical study of Christian law, and to the wider field of law and religion. The last LLM (Canon Law) residential took place earlier this year, with many expressions of thanks for all it delivered over more than thirty years. Cardiff University’s Centre for Law and Religion (where I am a fellow and PhD student) will continue to enrich the field through its networks and other activities.

This week, a new academic pathway is announced at St Padarn’s Institute in Llandaff, Cardiff. (Note that while its main buildings are situated in Cardiff, St Padarn’s is not affiliated with Cardiff University). St Padarn’s is a Theological Education Institution (TEI), and part of the Common Awards initiative in which TEIs of the Church of England and the Church in Wales offer higher education qualifications validated by Durham University. The new degree is an MA in Theology with a Canon Law specialism. There is also the option to study for a Postgraduate Certificate or Diploma. It is hoped that a specifically titled MA (Canon Law) may be approved during the duration of the course, in which students will be given the option to transfer to the new degree.

The teaching for the new degree will be delivered at St Padarn’s in Llandaff (Cardiff) over three three-day residentials per year. As well as teaching facilities and academic support (including a library) St Padarn’s provides ensuite accommodation and meals in the dining hall. The institute has its own chapel (Wales’ first Grade I listed post-war building), set in pleasant gardens, and Llandaff Cathedral is just a short walk away.

Modules covered in the first academic year 2024/5 will include an introduction to the sources and methods of canon law, the law of rites and sacraments, and the law of ministry.

It will be programme-led, teaching alongside the Revd Stephen Coleman, Professor Norman Doe, the Revd Dr Helen Hall, the Very Revd Dr Sebastian Jones, Professor Javier Oliva, Dr Sarah White and other specialist visiting tutors. Biographies of the experienced teaching team, and much more, can be found in the course brochure.

The teaching will build on recent developments in the field of Anglican canon law, including comparative study and the elucidation of principles, as seen in Norman Doe’s pioneering work in juridical ecumenism.

Teaching at St Padarn’s will focus on the Church of England and the Church in Wales but the law of the Roman Catholic Church and other Churches will also feature – and students will be welcome to submit essays and dissertations based on the law of other Churches. Dissertations will be encouraged to break new ground and we expect many may be suitable for publication.

As the degree (at least for an initial period) will be a canon law specialism within theology, a renewed attention on the theological sources, justifications and critiques of canon law will be characteristic of the specialism at St Padarn’s. The course will investigate how canon law can enable (and perhaps sometimes hinder) mission and ministry. Some students may choose to focus on historical matters more closely (and historical perspectives on canon law will form a part of each residential).

It is hoped that different backgrounds across the traditions of the Church of England and Church in Wales, from the Anglican Communion and from other Churches will make up the student body. The course will be of interest to clergy, lay leaders, legal practitioners, church administrators, and those academically interested by the subject matter.

Studying canon law has deepened my faith, enriched my ministry, and opened up for me a field of academic study which is both endlessly fascinating and able to benefit the Church. My fellow tutors and I look forward to meeting a new generation of canon law students at St Padarn’s!

Note: Applications for the study beginning in the 2024/5 academic year must be received by the end of July.

Russell Dewhurst

[1] Medieval canon law in England and the Province of Canterbury is one of the themes particularly being explored by the Seventeenth International Congress of Medieval Canon Law, meeting in Canterbury this July. https://sites.google.com/view/icmcl2024

Cite this article as: Russell Dewhurst, “A new chapter in the academic study of canon law in Britain” in Law & Religion UK, 4 June 2024 https://lawandreligionuk.com/2024/06/04/a-new-chapter-in-the-academic-study-of-canon-law-in-britain/.

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