Convocations of Canterbury and York
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The Convocations of Canterbury and York were of considerable importance until 1970 being the synodical assemblies of the Church of England consisting of bishops and clergy of each of the two provinces into which it is divided. By the 1969 Synodical Government Measure almost all their functions were transferred to the General Synod of the Church of England. They continue to exist, in part because their approval is still required for certain legislative proposals and in part because the House of Bishops and the House of Clergy of the General Synod are constituted by the members of the corresponding houses of the Convocations.
Each convocation has an upper house, for bishops, and a lower house, for other clergy. All diocesan bishops have a seat in their province's convocation; the suffragan bishops of a province elect a few from among themselves to join them. Most of the "proctors" (members) of the lower house are elected by the diocesan clergy from among their number, although a handful serve ex officio or are elected by special constituencies (such as universities or cathedral deaneries). Bishops and clergy are members of General Synod by virtue of their membership in one convocation or the other; thus the convocations now form a subset of General Synod and can always conveniently meet during recesses of that body (which is, indeed, the only time they do meet nowadays).
The president of each convocation as a whole is the archbishop of its province; each lower house elects for itself a speaker called the prolocutor.
Prior to 1295, the Church in England had assembled in diocesan and provincial synods to regulate disciplinary and other matters interesting the body of the clergy. Moreover the archbishops, bishops, abbots and priors used to take their place in the national council on account of the estates they held in chief (in capite) of the English Crown. But the beneficed clergy took no part in it.
The increasing frequency of royal appeals for money grants and the unwillingness of the bishops to be responsible for allowing them had brought Stephen Langton, Archbishop of Canterbury, as early as 1225, to summon proctors of cathedral, collegiate and conventual churches to attend his provincial synod, and gradually that representative principle became part of the system of Convocation. The failure of the irregular attempt of Edward I Plantagenet to convoke the clergy at Northampton led him to issue (1283) a writ to the Archbishop with a view to Convocation meeting in London in that same year, and at that meeting a "benevolence" was duly voted. The form of writ used in 1283 is still in use, and the instructions issued on that occasion by the Archbishop of Canterbury, John Peckham, still embody the existing constitution of Convocation, so that, with the exception of the disappearance of the monastic representatives, the external organization of Convocation remains unchanged.
In addition to the Baronage and Commons of the realm we find after 1295 a representative body of the beneficed clergy summoned to attend personally in Parliament, the summons being conveyed by the insertion, in the bishop's writ of summons to Parliament, of the proemunientes clause. That summons was the beginning of a new phase in the long struggle waged by the Crown on the subject of the taxation of the clergy. It was to facilitate the obtaining of money grants that Edward I endeavoured once more to unite representatives of the clergy and laity in one deliberative assembly, composed on the basis of temporal property. To have countenanced the attempt would have been to recognize the Crown's claim to tax church property, and the clergy insisted upon their constitutional right of making their money grants in Convocation. The struggle between the Crown and the clergy continued until 1337, when the Crown gave way, though retaining the proemunientes clause in the bishop's writ of summons. Authorities differ as to whether the Parliamentary proctors of the clergy sat in the Lower House or in the Upper House; most probably they sat and voted in the Lower House.
The question of the exact relation of Convocation to the newer Parliamentary representatives of the clergy is obscure; nor is the obscurity lessened by the fact that the proctors of the clergy for Convocation were frequently the same persons as the proctors of the clergy for Parliament. Two opinions have found defenders: one that the older ecclesiastical council fused with the Parliamentary representatives of the clergy; the other, that by the process of gradual decay of Parliamentary representation of the clergy, part of their rights passed to the ecclesiastical councils, thus giving rise to the historical connexion between the Convocations and Parliament. The latter view, ably advocated by Stubbs, holds the field.
The division of Convocation into an Upper - and a Lower House came about gradually, and was not formed, as is sometimes supposed, on the model of the two Houses of Parliament. In 1296 the members of Convocation resolved themselves for deliberative purposes into four groups: bishops, monastic representatives, dignitaries and proctors of the clergy. Eventually Convocation came to open with a joint session presided over by the archbishop, after which the bishops and abbots remained to deliberate as the Upper House, while the rest withdrew to deliberate as the Lower House.
The objection of the clergy to sitting in Parliament lessened their influence over that body; at the same time they secured the right of meeting when Parliament met, and that right of meeting involved the right of petitioning and to some extent of legislating for themselves. That idea of Convocation as the clerical parliament had important consequences; the right to tax church property was successfully maintained; but the clergy could neither elect nor be elected to the House of Commons, making a person in Holy orders ineligible for Westminster Parliament. At the same time the legislation of Convocation was binding on the clergy only and not upon the laity.
The Reformation period
Convocation lost its independence and saw its powers curtailed by the Act of Submission, which enacts that Convocation can only meet by royal command, and that without royal leave and licence no new canons, constitutions or ordinances may be made. This act was repealed in Queen Mary I Tudor's reign, but revived by 1 Eliz. (1558-9), and still remains in full force.
The climax of Convocation's degradation was reached when, after the Act of Supremacy (1534), Thomas Cromwell, the representative of king Henry VIII Tudor, though a layman, asserted his right to preside, a right never subsequently exercised.
The Act of Submission of Henry VIII was stringently interpreted by the judges at a committee before the Lords in Parliament as forbidding, even after obtaining royal assent, any canon either against the prerogative of the king, against common law, against any statute law or against any custom of the realm. The loss of legislative independence paved the way for the loss of taxing powers, which were finally renounced in 1665, the right of voting at Parliamentary elections being obtained in return. The power of Convocation of dealing with cases of heresy has been exercised but rarely, and then to no purpose.
It continued to be convoked at the beginning of each Parliament, but its sittings were interrupted from 1640 to 1660, to be resumed after the Stuart Restoration. In 1689, in view of the opposition of the clergy to the Toleration Act of William and Mary, no summons was issued to Convocation. The Commons, however, protested against the innovation, and their petition had its effect; at the same time Archbishop Tillotson, and to some extent his successor Tenison, met the difficulties of the situation by refusing to allow any deliberations. Convocation was summoned, met and was prorogued. Parties were formed and claims were made, insisting upon the independence of the Lower House on the analogy of the House of Commons. Atterbury led the malcontents; Wake, afterwards Archbishop of Canterbury, Kennet, Hoadly and Gibson led the defence. The question was really a political one. Toryism dominated the Lower House; Liberalism, alike in politics and theology, pervaded the Upper House. Permission to deliberate led to trouble in 1701, and prorogation followed.
The Bangorian Controversy arising out of Hoadly's sermon led to similar results in 1717. The opposition of the Lower House was worn out by repeated prorogations immediately following the opening session, and with the exception of the discussions allowed in 1741 and 1742, Convocation ceased to be a deliberative body until 1854.
The old organization having survived many earnest Anglicans of the early nineteenth century, anxious to revive the synodal life of the Anglican Church, sought and obtained the relaxation of the customary immediate prorogation. A brief session was authorized in 1854. (The example was followed by York in 1859.) The action of Convocation as a deliberative body began in 1861, when, at its own request, the Crown licensed it to amend the twenty-ninth of the canons of 1603 on the subject of sponsors, and although no result followed, new canons were passed in 1865, 1887 and 1892.
Apart from such general authorizations the Crown also possesses the right to submit definite business to the consideration of Convocation. This is done by "Special Letters of Business", a method used in 1872 and in 1907, in submitting the reports of the ritual commissioners to its consideration.
The House of Laymen, which first met in connexion with the Convocation of Canterbury in 1886 (York, 1892), is an assembly unknown to law. The two Convocations of Canterbury and York are summoned by the archbishops on the instruction of the king when Parliament is summoned. Each has an Upper and a Lower House; the Upper House, presided over by the archbishops, consists of the diocesan bishops; the Lower House is composed of deans, archdeacons, a proctor for each chapter and proctors for the beneficed clergy, two from each diocese in the province of Canterbury, two from each archdeaconry in the province of York. The Lower House elects a prolocutor who, on being presented to the archbishop and approved by him, presides over the deliberations of the Lower House, and communicates the results to the Upper house. The stately ceremonial of Catholic days has been preserved for the opening session of Convocation, together with the use of the Latin tongue.
Arthur Featherstone Marshall wrote a trenchant parody of the Church of England's Convocation debates in his pseudonymous The Comedy of Convocation of the English Church (1868). Its characters include Deans Blunt, Pliable, Primitive, Pompous and Critical; Archdeacons Jolly, Theory and Chasuble; and Doctors Easy, Viewy and Candour.
- "Convocation of the English Clergy". Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. 1913.
- 25 Hen. VIII (1533-4), c. 19
- in 8 Jac., 1