Exploring a new approach to Church unity – juridical ecumenism
On 20th June 2019, Churches Together in England hosted a day exploring the ways in which church law, rules and conventions might converge to deepen ecumenical endeavours.
Looking at the work done so far by the Christian Law Project, we explored with English churches the set of principles with wide ecumenical convergence which have already been published, and the ways in which juridical ecumenism might contribute to our unity and mission together.
Here Bet Holmes from the International Ecumenical Fellowship tells us more about the day’s discussions…
What is jurdical ecumenism?
The day was opened by Professor Norman Doe, Professor and Director, Centre for Law and Religion, the Law School, Cardiff University.
He explained that every society, from states to tennis clubs, have their own rules and regulations, designed to facilitate and control activities. Churches have their own systems, sometimes described as “canon law”. Sometimes there are rules on ecumenism: a good example of this would be the way the Lutheran church in Norway relates to its opposite number in Sweden. These can be described as “soft” laws – yet it can be possible for a church to be ejected from the Lutheran communion. The Latin church has studied canon law for hundreds of years. Generally such laws are derived through a process from revelation, through reflection to ideas, which generate laws or norms that affect life and action. Professor Doe felt that such laws are a worthy object of study.
Ecumenism is the way in which people seek greater visible church unity. The statements of the World Council of Churches have been mostly about belief and doctrine, and less about action. Church law has been the missing link.
Previous and ongoing work
In the 1970s the Faith and Order Commission decided to study the laws of various churches to look at the differences, but unfortunately this study got nowhere as there was insufficient funding.
In 2013, Professor Doe started work on Christian Law: Contemporary Principles. He was very depressed by the failure of the Faith and Order Commission's lack of progress, as he felt there must be material uniting the different churches. He explained that the theological reasons for laws can be different, but in fact the laws themselves are similar to each other. It ought to be possible to articulate the principles. This would apply to other religions as well, as they have laws too: for instance, in 1870 the United Synagogue Act was passed. There is, however, no body competent to make laws for all Christians, and this in fact applies to all Jews or all Muslims as well.
So, in Rome of 2013, members of the Roman Catholic Church, the Greek Orthodox Church, Anglicans, Lutherans, Methodists, the Church of Sweden, the United Church of the Netherlands and the Church of Scotland met with the chief Dominican lawyer and a senior Franciscan. The question put was “Can you reconcile the systems?” There were many arguments (for example, must a penalty be just as well as legal), but in the main the answer was YES! Law can be the missing link in the ecumenical enterprise, so how can we use it to get greater ecumenical understanding?
In 2015, Church discipline and church property laws were looked at, these being very easy topics to begin with. Lawyers use maxims, we were told: “the axiomisation of the law”. A guiding idea should be that “law is the servant of the church”, together with “custom is the best interpreter of the law”.
So in 2016 the question was being examined was: “what are the principles of canon law?” – these might not necessarily be what they should be, but what actually emerges from the rules.
Rev Dr Paul Goodliff, the General Secretary of Churches Together in England, spoke of the consultation with the World Council of Churches Faith and Order Commission. This is an informal partnership, with different people talking to different groups, asking if the idea of studying Juridical Ecumenism has got legs.
Professor Mark Hill QC of the Inner Temple, who is the Chancellor of the Anglican dioceses of Chichester, Leeds and Europe, felt that this project is a builder of friendships. He pointed out that ecumenical canon law is not coercive or intended to compel doctrinal compliance between different churches. This is a grass roots study that can have benefits in broadening horizons. He reminded us that Church of England law is derived from Parliament, but that other denominations do not share this feature. But the principles appear to be the same: there is more in common than one might expect.
Paul Goodliff said that they have been looking at “natural law” and the response made by different traditions. In preparation is a document about this. What has been released already can be found via the Cambridge website (Hill/Doe).
Time for discussion
Several questions were asked, the first being the fairly obvious one: “What is a principle?” The answer was “The principle of law common to churches of Christian traditions studied is a foundational proposition or maxim of general applicability which has substance, is adduced from the similarities of regulatory systems of churches / is derived from their juridical tradition / is derived from the practices of the church universal / expresses basic theological truth or ethical value and is implicit in, or underlies, the juridical systems of churches”. In essence, principles manifest values.
The speakers were asked “what is this for?” They felt it was not just for lawyers, but that, hopefully, the Church will have something to adopt. Perhaps it would develop into a useful tool for ecumenical groups. “We smell something useful, but we don't know what it's for” said Professor Doe. Might it be useful for law reform? For law creation? Could it be useful for setting up LEPs? Is it simply a way for churches to understand each other better?
What might be areas of disagreement? An example could be the liturgy of communion, which is similar for many churches but not for all.
How much is specifically Christian? Law is about due process and fairness, so this is common to many organisations. Some cases may be driven by civil law, but British civil laws are based on hundreds of years of Christianity (as against, for example, Hinduism and the caste system).
Does personal conscience have a place? It has limited status in civil law. An example from a religious context is that during the First World War, Quakers were recognised as conscientious objectors, but some might feel for personal reasons of conscience that they ought to fight. Another example is that Baptist ministers do not baptise infants, but one who is working as a part of a hospital chaplaincy team may feel able to do so in case of an emergency.
The final question posed was, of course, how does this go forward?
I don't know, nobody knows! But I must say that I found the whole day absolutely fascinating and would wish to keep up with what is going on.
Bet Holmes (International Ecumenical Fellowship)