Keeping their faculties sharp
The historic law courts in the Church of England and the work they continue to do today:
The division between ‘church’ and ‘state’ is an interesting one for the Church of England, intertwined with the history of the Reformation and rebellion against a Pope who wouldn’t allow a certain king a divorce at his whim. As well as registering marriages and deaths, the legal arm of the Church was often called on to judge cases of slander, probate, marriage and tithes. There is still a courtroom in Lichfield Cathedral, the Consistory Court where many cases were heard – it’s on the south side by the high altar and beneath the St Chad’s Head chapel.
As one of the earliest dioceses in England, Lichfield’s influence once covered a huge swathe of the north west of the country, from Warwickshire to Lancashire. As the population grew, new dioceses were formed from within it but by the 16th century the Consistory Court still heard cases from all over Staffordshire, north Shropshire, Derbyshire and north-east Warwickshire (the latter now the dioceses of Derby and Coventry). The archives that remain from earlier centuries are now at the Staffordshire Archives and some of the stories researchers are now cataloguing from there might even make a tabloid newspaper editor blush!
There is still a Consistory Court, but its work is somewhat less salacious these days, dealing mostly with questions about changes to church buildings, churchyards and exhumations, and the judge, the Diocesan Chancellor mostly sits in front of a laptop rather than a medieval courtroom. He is linked to a team known as the Registry which has two main functions: one is to act as legal adviser to the Bishop and the other is advise clergy on canon law. It has a role in the licensing of clergy to operate in the diocese; and the system of Patronage which shares the responsibility for appointing vicars between bishop and other historically interested parties; the consecration and modification of buildings for public worship and perhaps most frequently advice on church law for baptism, marriages and burial.
Faculty Jurisdiction – decisions on more contentious plans for buildings or gravestones – are the topics which most often hit news headlines today, whether about swapping pews for chairs, adding glass and toilets to buildings or what is appropriate in a churchyard. It is the Chancellor who has to balance family wishes for a loved-one’s memorial that reflects their life and the wider need to keep the churchyard as a place of restful calm that is appropriate for Christian worship and a comforting space for mourners and the wider community, where individual memorials do not jar in the landscape and that the church members can safely maintain even when direct family are no longer able to.
Andrew Wynne is the Registrar for Lichfield Diocese
Read more about the current activity support and services provided by the Registry team at www.lichfield.anglican.org/registry and the historic goings-on unearthed in the Bawdy Courts project from the Staffordshire Archives at lichfieldbawdycourts.wordpress.com/.