March 18, 2022

Now online: Richard Grey, “A System of English Ecclesiastical Law” (1743)

Richard Grey, A System of English Ecclesiastical Law (1743)

One of the most interesting topics in theology is the judicial and legislative rule of the Church; yet it is one of the least discussed. Today it is widely believed that the Church should have no judicial and legislative role at all, which indicates something of the theology behind that belief. The idea of church court or a church trial goes against most modern sensibilities. Yet, the Christian traditions such as the Anglicans do place a strong emphasis on ecclesiastical law; and by that fact they indicate a presence of their own implicit theological commitments. What does it mean to have ecclesiastical rule over something? How does it work, and what goes into those laws? What grounds its authority and juridical obligations? These are the interesting questions which illuminate the doctrine of the church implicit therein.

In the Anglican context, it is fascinating to consider the role of the church courts in people’s lives, especially contrasted with the Common Law and the other secular laws of the land. What were the subjects of the lawsuits? Were there church lawyers who made studying church law their entire profession? Did people really get tried for heresy, and punished with censures, penance, or excommunication as sometimes gets portrayed in the movies? And if so, what does it say about the corresponding doctrine of the Church? Another fascinating question is where the ecclesiastical law derived from, and its relationship with the vast body of medieval canon law compiled by Gratian? What changed or didn’t change in the Anglican ecclesiastical law in the wake of the Reformation? These questions have fascinating implications on the degree of historical continuity felt by the Anglican ecclesiastical courts, jurists, and judges.

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In this work we present one of the best and most accessible legal work written on this subject. Whereas the other legal texts were typically written for the practicing ecclesiastical lawyers, Richard Grey’s monumental System of English Ecclesiastical Law is written specifically with university students and other non-professionals in mind. Yet despite its size, it is but a fragment of an even more massive legal text, written in 1713 by Edmund Gibson, Archbishop of Canterbury and Metropolitan of All England: Codex Iuris Ecclesiastici Anglicani, or, Statutes, Constitutions, Canons, Rubricks and Articles, of the Church of England, with a Commentary, Historical and Juridical. Grey, one of Gibson’s canons and an archdeacon in the diocese of Canterbury, sought to make his prelate’s monumental text more accessible, reformulating its contexts with simplified language and a handy Question & Answer catechetical format. There you will find nearly every conceivable subject touching the life of a Christian: from the legal requirements of baptism, to laws governing the administration of the Divine Service, to the process of ordination, to ecclesiastical censures. Enjoy!

Richard Grey, A System of English Ecclesiastical Law (1743)