CofE votes to reestablish Defrocking


The Church of England’s ruling body, the General Synod, recently voted in favor of reinstating the defrocking process for clergy found guilty of serious misconduct. This could potentially impact all priests, from newly ordained curates to the archbishop of Canterbury. These new disciplinary measures were discussed and agreed upon during the Synod’s meeting in York. The practice of defrocking, or stripping clergy of their holy orders, was abolished more than two decades ago, leaving the harshest possible punishment under church law a lifetime ban on officiating, though they still maintained their priestly status and entitlement to the title of Reverend.

The Church of England’s reinstatement of the defrocking process allows a bishop to depose a priest or deacon from holy orders if they are found guilty of misconduct. The specific misconduct, however, should not involve questions of doctrine, ritual, or ceremony. Once a clergy member is defrocked, they are expected to live their life as a layperson, with no formal religious responsibilities or privileges, as stated in the background paper provided.

The measure also includes a separate clause that permits the deposition from holy orders of bishops or archbishops. This reinstatement was suggested by the independent inquiry into child sexual abuse in 2020. The inquiry suggested that defrocking, the ritual removal of vestments worn by priests, bishops, nuns, monks, and others in religious vocations, would hold symbolic importance, particularly for survivors of abuse.

Defrocking is the ultimate sanction in the Roman Catholic Church. A notable instance was when Theodore McCarrick, a former archbishop and cardinal, was defrocked in 2019 after the Vatican found him guilty of sexual abuse. This made McCarrick one of the most senior figures to be defrocked in modern times. The concept and practice of defrocking are understood to be more than punitive; they also offer a symbolic gesture of justice to the victims.

The new Church of England clergy conduct measure is set to replace the existing clergy discipline measure (CDM), which was introduced in 2003. The CDM has faced criticism for its lack of transparency and delays. The new measure outlines three levels of complaints, with local grievances, allegations of “misconduct”, and “serious misconduct” each handled at different levels. Further, the measure introduces potential restraining orders for vexatious or malicious complaints and abolishes the rule requiring serious misconduct complaints to be lodged within a year. Clergy will also be required to disclose to their superiors any divorce or judicial separation. The final approval of this new measure is expected next year.