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Convocation of the English Clergy

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The technical name given in the Church of England to what corresponds in some respects to a provincial synod, though in other respects it differs widely from it. The two ecclesiastical provinces of Canterbury and York have each their Convocation, but that of Canterbury is the more important, and is spoken of as "Convocation" par excellence. The history of its external constitution is continuous down to the present time and is bound up with the development of English constitutional history; its powers and independence, however, were lost at the Reformation; its organization, retained as a mere form for many years, has been utilized of late to give expression to the opinions entertained by the clergy as a body upon questions of the day. Thus it exercises influence, but has no power. The authority of the Crown asserted at the Reformation is still supreme and intact.

The history of Convocation may be divided into five periods: (1) Before 1295; (2) From 1295 until the Reformation; (3) The Reformation period; (4) The post-Reformation period; (5) Modern times.

Before 1295

Previous 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 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, 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 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 the same in form as that 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.

After 1295

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: the first, 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, at present 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 indeed 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, and to this day a person in Holy orders is ineligible for 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 most of its powers by the Act of Submission [25 Hen. VIII (1533-4), c. 19], 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'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 Henry VIII, though a layman, asserted his right to preside, a right never subsequently exercised.

Post-Reformation period

The Act of Submission of Henry VIII was stringently interpreted by the judges at a committee before the Lords in Parliament (in 8 Jac., 1) as forbidding, even after obtaining royal assent, any canon (a) against the prerogative of the king; (b) against common law; (c) against any statute law; or (d) 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 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, Hoadley, 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.

Modern times

The old organization had survived, and 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 again in 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 again 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. As at present constituted the two Convocations of Canterbury and York are summoned by the archbishops on the instruction of the king when Parliament is summoned. Each possesses 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.


GIBSON, Synodus Anglicana (1702), ed. CARDWELL (London, 1854); WAKE, The Authority of Christian Princes over their Ecclesiastical Synods (London, 1697); KENNET, Ecclesiastical Synods (London, 1701); HOADLEY, A History of English Councils and Convocation and of the Clergy sitting in Parliament (London, 1701); TREVOR, The Convocation of the Two Provinces (London, 1852); LATHBURY, A History of the Convocation of the Church of England (2nd ed., London, 1853); JOYCE, England's Sacred Synods (London, 1853); LINGARD, History of England, passim; STUBBS, The Constitutional History of England (London, 1878); IDEM, Select Charters (8th ed., London, 1895); MAKOWER, The Constitutional History and Constitution of the Church of England, tr. from German (London, 1895); PHILLIMORE, The Ecclesiastical Law of the Church of England (2nd ed, London, 1895) GEE AND HARDY, Documents Illustrative of English Church History (London, 1896); HENSON, Our National Church (London, 1908).

About this page

APA citation. Myers, E. (1908). Convocation of the English Clergy. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.

MLA citation. Myers, Edward. "Convocation of the English Clergy." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 4. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1908. <>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Kevin A. Coleman.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. Remy Lafort, Censor. Imprimatur. +John M. Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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