United Kingdom Encyclopedia of Law     Wiki Legal Encyclopedia (BETA)
What do you need to know about law? Search in more than 1.500.000 entries

Church of England in United Kingdom

Definition of Church of England

In accordance with the work A Dictionary of Law, this is a description of Church of England : The established Church in England, of which the sovereign is the supreme head. Structurally, the Church consists of the two provinces of Canterbury and York, which are divided into dioceses, and these into parishes. For each province there is an archbishop (that of Canterbury being Primate of All England, and that of York Primate of England), and for each diocese a bishop. A suffragan bishop has no diocese of his own but assists an archbishop or a diocesan bishop. The archbishops and other senior bishops are members of the House of Lords.

The governing body of the Church is the General Synod (formerly the Church Assembly, but renamed and reconstituted by the Synodical Government Measure 1969). It consists of a House of Bishops, a House of Clergy, and a House of Laity and has legislative functions. A Measure passed by each House and granted the royal assent following a resolution of each House of Parliament has the force of an Act of Parliament. There are also diocesan synods, and certain matters require the approval of a majority of these before they can be finally approved by the General Synod. The Dioceses Measure 1978 authorizes the reorganization of diocesan structure and the creation of area synods, to which diocesan synods may delegate functions.


The state church, the Church of England as by law established, represents the tradition of a time when church and state were regarded as two aspects of one divinely ordered organism. In law every subject of the state is also a member of the Established Church, and can lay claim to its ministrations so long as he or she obeys the ecclesiastical law, which is also the law of the state. No Englishman, whatever his opinions, can be excommunicated without due process of law. The Church of England is thus theoretically coextensive with the English nation, each unit of which is legally assumed to belong to it unless proof be brought to the contrary. To state the theory is, however, to risk giving an entirely false impression of the facts. In practice the Church of England is no longer regarded as coextensive with the state; nor is nonconformity any longer, as it once was, an offence against the law.

Since the abolition of the Test Acts and the emancipation of the Catholics no Englishman has suffered any civil disability owing to his religion14; and the progress of democracy has given to the great so-called “Free Churches” a political power that rivals that of the Established Church. In the matter of the estimation of their relative strength the main grievance of the Nonconformists is that the law classes as members of the Church of England that enormous floating population which is really conscious of no ecclesiastical allegiance at all.

The Church of England, both in constitution and doctrine, represents in general the mean between Roman Catholicism on the one hand and the more advanced forms of Protestantism on the other (see Episcopacy). Though its doctrine was reformed in the 16th century and the spiritual supremacy of the pope was repudiated, the continuity of its organic life was not interrupted, and historically as well as legally it is the same church as that established before the Reformation. The ecclesiastical system is episcopal, the whole of England (including for this purpose Wales) being divided into two provinces, Canterbury and York, and 37 bishoprics (including the primatial sees of Canterbury and York). These again are subdivided into 14,080 parishes (1901), the smallest ecclesiastical units, which are grouped for certain administrative purposes into 810 rural deaneries. The sovereign is by law the supreme governor of the church, both in things spiritual and temporal, and he has the right to nominate to vacant sees. In the case of sees of old foundation this is done by means of the congé d’élire (q.v.), in that of others by letters patent.15 The bishops hold their temporalities as baronies, for which they do homage in the ancient form, and are spiritual peers of parliament.

Only 26, however, have the right to seats in the House of Lords, of whom five—viz. the two archbishops and the bishops of London, Durham and Winchester—always sit, the others taking their seats in order of seniority of consecration. Under the bishops the affairs of the dioceses are managed by archdeacons (q.v.) and rural deans (see Archpriest and Dean). The cathedral churches are governed by chapters consisting of a dean, canons and prebendaries (see Cathedral). The deaneries are in the gift of the crown, canonries and prebends sometimes in that of the crown, sometimes in that of the bishops. The parish clergy, with a few rare exceptions (when they are elected by the ratepayers), are appointed by patronage. The right of presentation to some 8500 benefices or “livings” is in the hands of private persons; the right is regarded in law as property and is, under certain restrictions for the avoidance of gross simony, saleable (see Advowson). The patronage of the remaining benefices belongs in the main to the crown, the bishops and cathedral chapters, the lord chancellor, and the universities of Oxford and Cambridge.

In spite of the fact that the Church of England is collectively one of the wealthiest in Christendom, a large proportion of the “livings” are extremely poor. To understand this and other anomalies it is necessary to bear in mind that the church is not, like the established Protestant churches of Germany, an elaborately organized state department, nor is it a single corporation with power to regulate its internal polity. It is a conglomeration of corporations. Even the incumbent of a parish is in law a “corporation sole,” his benefice a freehold; and until the establishment in 1836, by act of parliament, of the Ecclesiastical Commissioners (q.v.) nothing could be done to adjust the inequalities in the emoluments of the clergy resulting from the natural rise and fall of the value of property in various parts of the country. Even more extraordinary is the effect of the singular constitution of the church on its discipline. An incumbent, once inducted, can only be disturbed by complicated and extremely costly processes of law; in effect, except in cases of gross misconduct, he is only checked—so far as ecclesiastical order is concerned—by his oath of canonical obedience to the “godly” monitions of his bishop; and, since these monitions are difficult and costly to enforce, while their “godliness” may be a matter of opinion, an incumbent is practically himself the interpreter of the law as applied to the doctrine and ritual of his particular church. The result has been the development within the Established Church of a most startling diversity of doctrine and ritual practice, varying from what closely resembles that of the Church of Rome to the broadest Liberalism and the extremest evangelical Protestantism.


Notes and References

  1. Encyclopedia Britannica (11th Edition)

See Also

Ecclesiastical courts

Further Reading

Law is our Passion

This entry about Church of England has been published under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 (CC BY 3.0) licence, which permits unrestricted use and reproduction, provided the author or authors of the Church of England entry and the Encyclopedia of Law are in each case credited as the source of the Church of England entry. Please note this CC BY licence applies to some textual content of Church of England, and that some images and other textual or non-textual elements may be covered by special copyright arrangements. For guidance on citing Church of England (giving attribution as required by the CC BY licence), please see below our recommendation of "Cite this Entry".

Cite this entry

Legal Citations Generator

(2015, 01). Church of England lawi.org.uk Retrieved 05, 2021, from https://lawi.org.uk/church-of-england/

01 2015. 05 2021 <https://lawi.org.uk/church-of-england/>

"Church of England" lawi.org.uk. lawi.org.uk, 01 2015. Web. 05 2021. <https://lawi.org.uk/church-of-england/>

"Church of England" lawi.org.uk. 01, 2015. Accesed 05 2021. https://lawi.org.uk/church-of-england/

Agostino Von Hassell, 'Church of England' (lawi.org.uk 2015) <https://lawi.org.uk/church-of-england/> accesed 2021 May 15

Usage Metrics

721 Views. 569 Visitors.

Google Scholar: Search for Church of England Related Content


Schema Summary

  • Article Name: Church of England
  • Author: Agostino Von Hassell
  • Description: Definition of Church of England In accordance with the work A Dictionary of Law, this is a description of Church of England [...]

This entry was last updated: November 6, 2016



Recent Comments