All posts by Rachel Stone

How to deal with a mentally ill bishop

A post by Rachel Stone

In the early 850s, the clergy and people of Nevers, a small city in central France, had a problem: their bishop, called Herimann, was behaving strangely. There were complaints of his “excesses” and the “persistence of his frivolity” (perseverantia levitatum). He had been frequently corrected for this behaviour and rebuked by other bishops “moderately and sharply” (modeste et acriter), but the problems had persisted.

But the unsuitable behaviour of this turbulent bishop was not solely due to Herimann’s character flaws. The first account we have, from the Council of Soissons in April 853, also reports that he had some “bodily trouble” and talks of his “infirmity”. Later reports describe him as having “lost the soundness of his understanding” (sensus integritate privatus) and “similar to the insane” (insano similis). How did the Carolingian church respond to a bishop with what sounds like serious mental health problems? And what can this case tell us about the role of bishops in the early Middle Ages?

The response of the Council of Soissons in the spring of 853 to the problem of Herimann was a pragmatic and temporary one, with the main responsibility falling on Herimann’s metropolitan, Archbishop Wenilo of Sens. He was to send a bishop to Nevers to administer the see; he was also to take Herimann back with him to Sens for the summer, a season which worsened Herimann’s condition (aestivum tempus, quod valde contrarium infirmitati illius ferebatur). After the summer, and once Herimann had, the council hoped, been “accustomed to suitable abstinence, instructed in episcopal gravity, informed about apostolic behaviour”, the clergy and people of Nevers could recall him to his see.

These measures appear to have worked: the Council of Verberie in August of the same year reported that Herimann had been restored to his see and it stressed that he had been removed only because of his illness and not because of any “faults of character or public sins”. Unfortunately, this recovery was not permanent: around five years later the problem recurred.

We have three sources for the second part of this episcopal drama. One is a letter from Lupus of Ferrières (presumably on behalf of Wenilo) to an unnamed pope, asking for permission to depose Herimann, who, “frequently admonished and long expected to grow well again, is not able to fulfil his office, his mind not being whole (mente non integra)”. The second is a letter from Pope Nicholas to Archbishop Wenilo, replying either to Lupus’ letter or a similar one. Finally, there is the fragment of a letter from Charles the Bald to Wenilo (Tessier no. 224) which announces that the royal ministers Liudo and Geilo will take over the administration of the diocese. By 862, the bishop of Nevers is recorded as being Liudo, probably the same person, which has normally been taken to imply that Herimann was dead by that point.

The dating of all these letters is uncertain, although Lupus’ letter is probably from 858 and the reply by Nicholas has thus been dated to 858-860. Nicholas’ reply cannot have been welcomed by Wenilo. After praise of Wenilo for respecting papal authority, Nicholas then goes on to criticise him for summoning Herimann to synods when he was ill. Nicholas also comments that he cannot judge about Herimann’s “excesses” in his absence and without more details about whether he was of sound mind when he committed them. He states that Herimann should be consoled and his infirmity sympathised with rather than punished, although Nicholas approves of Wenilo admonishing Herimann if this is done from true charity.

Nicholas, in other words, was probably trying to take over the judgement of the case himself in order to assert his papal authority. We have no further record of papal involvement, however, and the letter by Charles the Bald may suggest that Wenilo took a different route. Although Charles’ ordering of administrators to be sent to the diocese could be dated at any period between 853 and 860 (and Charles was present at the Council of Soissons in 853), it is tempting to see this letter as a response to Wenilo’s inability to depose Herimann, reflecting a desire to put on a permanent footing alternative administrative arrangements that had already been used intermittently before.

Disciplining or deposing a bishop in the ninth century was normally a contentious matter, and therefore most sources discussing such matters reflect conflicts within the episcopate. Here, however, is a case where there was relative consensus, where we can see councils and the king working together effectively to solve a difficult problem. What made Herimann’s case so difficult was not a bishop being too ill or infirm to carry out his episcopal duties. The Council of Meaux-Paris 845-846 had already issued a canon (c. 47) on the topic, which envisaged the bishop handing over his power of ordination to his archbishop and the administration of the diocese to suitable subordinates. The problem with Herimann, I would argue, is that the probable nature of his mental illness caused specific administrative problems.

Retrospective diagnosis of any illness is always speculative and is particularly difficult when we have so few details. But are there are some revealing features in the sources on Herimann. Firstly, there is no mention of any head trauma or other injury (which Carolingian authors were aware could cause mental health problems). Secondly, the illness was long-lasting, but intermittent: Herimann had recovered sufficiently by August 853 to be re-entrusted with his see. That argues against degenerative brain disorders. Thirdly, there was a seasonal effect, with additional problems for Herimann in the summer. There have been a number of studies showing such a pattern for mania and schizophrenia, but not for other mental illnesses.

I think that Herimann was more likely to have had bipolar disorder with manic episodes than schizophrenic symptoms. There is no mention of possession (which might be used to explain hallucinations), and Herimann is described only as “similar to the insane”, suggesting that he may not have been obviously delusional. Instead, we have references to “excesses” and “frivolity” and an implied lack of episcopal gravity. Charles the Bald refers to complaints from Nevers of the “insolence” shown by Herimann. This all fits well with manic symptoms of heightened energy, euphoria and rapid speech, possibly in the milder form of hypomania.

We cannot know for certain whether Herimann experienced manic episodes, but such mania might have caused particular problems for the Carolingian church. To see this, it is useful to consider another aspect of Herimann’s life: his commissioning of manuscripts. The British Library today holds Harley 2790, a gospel book probably written in Tours and containing a short poem recording how it was donated by Herimann to the cathedral church of St Cyr, Nevers:

Harley 2790 folio 19v - Herimann poem

Me quicumque legis, Herimanni sis memor oro
Cuius me studio possidet iste locus
Obtulit eclesiae sibi commissae memorandus
Praesul me fateor, pro bonitatis ope
Me sancto Cyrico tali sub conditione
En dedit ut pereat qui cupit abstrahere (f. 19v)

I pray whoever reads me remember Herimann
By whose zeal this place possesses me
The memorable one offered it to the church committed to him
I acknowledge that the bishop on account of the riches of goodness
Gave me to St Cyr under such a condition
That he might perish who desires to take me away.

The gospel book has decorated canon tables, but is not a particularly ornate work otherwise. Nevertheless, any substantial manuscript like this (of around 270 leaves, each slightly bigger than A4) would have been expensive to produce in terms of paying for parchment and scribal labour. And the otherwise unremarkable poem suggests Herimann’s “zeal” (studium) to do good via generosity, at a time when he was presumably in better mental health.

It’s interesting to bring that together with some of the complaints about him in 853 and 858. In 853 there were complaints about his “excesses” and how these had caused “injury to the most sacred order”. Herimann “was accustomed to act strangely (ineptire)…and indiscreetly to do certain things that could have lead to the shipwreck of the powers (facultates) and matters/possessions (res) of the church”, as well as carrying out acts that were a danger to salvation. Charles the Bald talks of the “agitation” of the church’s res, with no stability, “either in the disposition of the demesnes (villas dominicas) or the arrangement of all business”.

This raising the intriguing possibility that serious alarms about Herimann were raised because of two common symptoms of hypomania: overspending and over-generosity. It is easy to imagine such recklessness with money and property as having the potential to cause severe damage to the diocese’s finances.

Yet people during hypomanic episodes are not delusional in the sense of having false beliefs, even if they recklessly overestimate their capabilities. The Council of Verberie mentions in passing that Wenilo had taken Herimann into his keeping in the summer of 858, because no-one in the church of Nevers had wanted to do so, “partly perhaps from undue piety, partly from reverence to a lord (reverentia seniorali)”.

A key issue is that early medieval bishops had a large amount of autonomy: there were, for example, no formal financial structures to check their spending. Suffragan bishops like Herimann might in theory be subject to their archbishop’s oversight, but the only archbishop we know regularly interfering with their suffragan’s activities was Hincmar of Rheims. The main check on a bishop’s behaviour was the informal one of his need to maintain his local reputation among his clerics and congregation. That may have been inadequate in this specific case. Was Herimann’s behaviour difficult to deal with because it was an exaggerated version of how a good Christian should deal with money? After all, appropriate spending and generosity by bishops was admirable behaviour.

The Council of Verberie stressed that Herimann had not committed any public sins, implying that any possible mania or hypomania had not led him to behave in a sexually inappropriate or aggressive way (two common symptoms of hypomania). If Herimann was behaving extravagantly with the diocese’s funds, but was not obviously “insane”, his damaging behaviour might have been peculiarly difficult for his subordinates to protest about or prevent.

Historical and cross-cultural studies have rightly stressed the variation in symptoms, diagnoses and responses to mental illness in different societies. Modern medical research has also been interested in how social class affects the prevalence and treatment of mental illness and whether particular occupations lead to higher risks of mental health problems. Herimann’s case tells us something else interesting about the connection between mental illness and social role: particular occupations and social organisations in any culture may be better able to cope with some forms of mental illness than others. A Carolingian lay nobleman, for example, described in the sources as very active, risk-taking, sociable, irritable, extravagant, self-confident and with strong sexual desires, would probably be regarded by most of as entirely typical, even though these are many of the symptoms of hypomania. In contrast, it’s easy to imagine the Carolingian episcopate as being reasonably well able to shelter a depressed bishop for some considerable period of time without him becoming controversial.

It is unlikely that Herimann was the only ninth-century bishop with mental health problems (especially since the office was normally held until death). His real difficulty was probably that his particular symptoms were ones that were unusually disruptive to his episcopal office.

Image credit: BL Harley ms 2790, now online 

Women and law-courts: the mysterious case of the Council of Nantes

In the early years of the tenth century, Regino, formerly abbot of Prüm, but now living in exile in Trier, compiled a handbook of extracts from church councils and other sources for use by bishops travelling round their diocese. The work, in two books, is known as Libri duo de synodalibus causis et disciplinis ecclesiasticis and was very influential on later canonical collections. Among the hundreds of extracts included are a number of capitula which Regino attributes to a “Council of Nantes” – including a famous and remarkable text about women and law-courts.

The date and background to this supposed Nantes council has often been debated. Several discussions incorrectly attribute it to the year 895, confusing it with the Council of Tribur;[i] some other historians saw it as dating from the mid-seventh century. However, a detailed study by Emil Seckel of the 21 canons attributed by Regino to this council identified that a number of them were taken from the episcopal capitularies of Hincmar of Rheims and Theodulf of Orléans.[ii]

There were eight canons, though, for which Seckel could find no earlier source, which he thought could be attributed to a genuine council of Nantes.

Other historians have been sceptical about this. Gabriel Fournier claimed that Regino had simply invented the council and attributed a number of canons from other sources to it in order to give them greater authority.[iii] He thought that the eight canons for which no source had been found were probably compiled in the Rhine area in the Carolingian period; more recently Wilfried Hartmann has suggested that they date from the ninth century and look most similar to episcopal capitularies.[iv]

I argued a few years ago in a seminar paper that another of the canons that Regino cites as coming from the “Council of Nantes” might be attributable to Hincmar of Rheims. This is the well-known “canon 19”, which is often cited by writers on women’s history. Here is its text, with my translation below:

CLXXIV Unde supra
Ex Concilio Nannetensi

Cum apostolus dicat: Mulieres in ecclesia taceant, non enim permittitur eis loqui; turpe est enim mulieri loqui in ecclesia [1 Cor. 14, 34-35], mirum videtur quod quaedam mulierculae contra divinas humanasque leges attrita fronte impudenter agentes placita generalia et publicos conventus indesinenter adeunt et negotia regni utilitatesque reipublicae magis perturbant, quam disponunt, cum indecens sit et etiam inter barbaras gentes reprehensibile mulieres virorum causas discutere, et, quae de lanificiis suis et operibus textilibus et muliebribus inter genitiarias suas residentes debuerant disputare, in conventu publico, ac si in curia residentes, senatoriam sibi usurpant auctoritatem. Quae ignominiosa praesumptio fautoribus magis imputanda videtur quam feminis. Unde, quia divinae leges, ut supra monstratum est, hoc contradicunt, et humanae nihilominus id ipsum prohibent, ut feminae nihil aliud prosequantur in publico quam suam causam. Ait enim lex Theodosiana [Codex Theod. II, 12, 5, Interpretatio] : «Nulla ratione feminae amplius quam suas causas agendi habeant potestatem, nec alicujus causam a se noverint prosequendam.» Idcirco ex auctoritate canonica interdicimus ut nulla sanctimonialis virgo vel vidua conventus generales adeat, nisi a principe fuerit evocata, aut ab episcopo suo, nisi forte propriae necessitatis ratio impulerit, et hoc ipsum cum licentia episcopi sui.

(Regino, De synodalibus causis, 2.174, ed. Wilfried Hartmann, Das Sendhandbuch des Regino von Prüm, Ausgewählte Quellen zur deutschen Geschichte des Mittelalters, 42 (Darmstadt, 2004), pp. 350-351).

174. As above
From the Council of Nantes

The apostle says: Let women be silent in church, for it is not permitted them to speak; it is shameful for a woman to speak in church. It therefore seems amazing that certain little women, acting shamelessly against divine and human laws with impudent face, incessantly go to general placita and public meetings (publici conventus) and rather perturb than arrange the business of the kingdom and the utility of the commonwealth. Since it is unsuitable and reprehensible even among barbarian peoples for women to discuss men’s cases and for those who ought to discuss their wool-working and textile work and women’s work, residing in their workshops, to usurp senatorial authority for themselves in public meetings, as if residing in courts.
This disgraceful presumption should be attributed rather to their patrons than the women. Since divine laws, as is shown above, condemn this and human ones no less prohibit women pursing any other case but their own in public. For the Theodosian law says: “Women may not have for any reason the power of acting beyond their own cases, nor should they recognise anyone’s case to be pursued by themselves.” Therefore from canonical authority we prohibit any holy virgin or widow from going to general meetings (conventus generales), unless they should be called by the prince or by their bishop, unless perhaps reason of their own necessity impels this, and this is with the permission of their bishop.

Why do I think this canon was probably written by Hincmar? Because the structure of the canon looks suspiciously like his style, piling up only partially relevant quotations for rhetorical effect. The author combines quotations from St Paul and the Theodosian code to try and suggest that both “divine” and “human” law condemn women’s attendance at such meetings (and adds in that even the “barbarians” don’t think it’s suitable). But St Paul’s quotation is irrelevant to the topic, since it’s about women’s behaviour in church. The Theodosian code, meanwhile, is talking about women prosecuting or acting in the legal cases of others, not them attending meetings which weren’t purely judicial.

The text also includes some turns of phrase that, although not unique to Hincmar, are seen elsewhere in his works, like the references to women’s workshops, and to ‘mulierculae’.[v] I’m not sure I can prove this text is by Hincmar, but it does sound suspiciously like him.

After all this rhetoric by Hincmar or another, the actual provisions are surprisingly modest. What we have right at the end is a specific prohibition about religious women (holy virgins and widows) attending public meetings without royal or episcopal permission. Even when their own cases are concerned, they must first get the bishops’ permission to attend. This provision is actually not that dissimilar from the repeated royal and episcopal demands that monks shouldn’t be attending placita. It reflects common concerns both that those living a religious life (men and women) should be properly separated from the world and also that bishops should exercise control over the religious of their diocese.

We are faced, therefore, with a canon that combines general and overblown rhetoric and only marginally relevant quotations with a fairly specific prohibition on one particular group of women. It’s also one that comes to us without a known context.

And that is a serious problem, because this text often takes centre stage in a claim that a Carolingian woman was not supposed to “try to exercise power in her own right”,[vi] or that reformers were attempting “to restrict women to a privatized domestic realm”,[vii] or indeed as a more general claim that medieval women were criticized for moving outside their own spaces.[viii] But as Janet Nelson points out, this is a lot to erect on “some actually rather uncertain bits” of text.[ix]

Even if it was Hincmar writing this canon, we’re still mired in uncertainty without more of a context. Should we read it in a narrow sense as trying to place restrictions only on religious women or is Hincmar concerned about laywomen’s behaviour as well? Does the canon reflect the view of a council (if possibly a council directed or strongly influenced by Hincmar himself) or was Hincmar alone responsible for it? And is it possible, that like many of Hincmar’s supposedly general statements, it is in fact a response to a specific conflict in which he was involved?

We know of at least one dispute that Hincmar had with a religious woman: we possess the summary of a letter he sent to Bertha, abbess of Saint-Pierre d’Avenay, regarding a conflict between her men and the monks of Hautvillers. Bertha was the daughter of Lothar I and Ermengard, but controlled a convent within Hincmar’s archdiocese; Lothar and Ermengard used this to try and exert influence within Charles the Bald’s kingdom.[x] Such an entanglement of the authority of kings, bishops and abbesses certainly provides a possible context for the canon we have, but by no means the only one. And without such a context, it is difficult to be sure of the significance of the original text.

Nor is this canon alone in its isolation from any context: a number of other Carolingian texts that appear in later canon law collections are of uncertain origin or are forged. All of us using such canons as source material need to take care that we remain aware of the context (or the lack of context) in which such statements were written and circulated and are careful about the conclusions we draw from them.

Image credit: Stuttgart Psalter, f. 33v

[i] See discussion by Janet L. Nelson, ‘Women and the word in the earlier middle ages’, in W. J. Sheils and Diana Wood (eds.), Women in the church. Papers read at the 1989 summer meeting and the 1990 winter meeting of the  Ecclesiastical History Society, Studies in Church History, 27 (Oxford, 1990), pp.53-78 at pp. 57-8.

[ii] Emil Seckel, ‘Studien zu Benedictus Levita. I.’, Neues Archiv der Gesellschaft für ältere deutsche Geschichtskunde 26 (1901), 37-72.

[iii] Paul Fournier, Histoire des collections canoniques en Occident: depuis les fausses décrétales jusqu’au Décret de Gratien, 2 vols. (Paris, 1931), pp. I: 259-61.

[iv] Wilfried Hartmann, Die Synoden der Karolingerzeit im Frankenreich und in Italien (Paderborn, 1989), p. 387.

[v] De Divortio, Responsio 3, p. 130: ‘quamque, ut dicitur, etiam feminae in textrinis suis revolvunt’; De coercendo et exstirpando raptu viduarum, puellarum ac sanctimonialium, PL 125, col. 1023, c. 8: ‘Cum etiamsi illae miserrimae mulierculae veraciter adulterium perpetraverint’.

[vi]Suzanne Fonay Wemple, Women in Frankish society: marriage and the cloister, 500-900 (Philadelphia, 1981), p. 105.

[vii] Jane Tibbetts Schulenburg, ‘Female sanctity: private and public roles, ca. 500-1100’, in Mary C. Erler and Maryanne Kowaleski (eds.), Women and power in the Middle Ages (Athens, GA, 1988), pp.102-25 at pp. 115-6.

[viii] Barbara A. Hanawalt, ‘At the margins of women’s space in Medieval Europe’, in Robert R. Edwards and Vickie L. Ziegler (eds.), Matrons and marginal women in medieval society (Woodbridge, 1995), pp.1-17 at pp. 6-7.

[ix] Nelson, ‘Women and the word’  at p. 57.

[x] Elina Screen, ‘An unfortunate necessity? Hincmar and Lothar I’, in Rachel Stone and Charles West (eds.), Hincmar of Rheims: life and work (Manchester, 2015), pp.76-92 at pp. 79-80.

The secular university?

The secular university?

A recent article for the Times Higher Education Supplement calling on universities to consider religion as a diversity issue brought a furious response from one reader:

In my view a university is a secular place of learning. If you want attention paid to your religion you should go to a theological college. It is not a university’s job to pander to superstition. Religion, unlike race, gender, sexual orientation and disability, is a choice and if you can’t modify your choice to cater for the university’s rules you should go elsewhere.

The comment interprets “secular” in the sense of excluding religion, rather than of a religiously neutral arena. It also displays little historical awareness: the university as a “secular” space is a relatively new phenomenon. In England, only after more than 600 years of universities did the first religiously neutral university appear, with the foundation of University College London. But rather than trace the overall history of the secular university, I instead want to use my own personal history to illustrate the difficulties of the concept.

In 1983, aged 18, I went to St Anne’s College, Oxford to study mathematics. During term-time, I spent substantial portions of the week in the lecture theatres at the old Mathematical Institute. Lectures were the main form of teaching mathematics and regular attendance at them was expected and required in order to do well.

But my time at Oxford was also expanding my experience in other ways. For the first time, I was exploring my Christian faith independently, away from the limits of attending the churches where my father was rector. I came to follow a regular routine on Sundays; the college Christian union met for breakfast and then parties of us walked down to the main student churches. In my case, I went to St Aldate’s, and after a long service (the morning service averaged about 90 minutes), then walked back to St Anne’s in time for lunch.

I was aware that religious commitment was out of fashion, so I was interested when I read an article in one of the student newspapers which quoted a mathematics student, Danielle, whom I knew slightly. She was a religious Jew, something that in my naivety I hadn’t realised, and she talked about observing the Sabbath, for example by not using her bicycle on that day. Later in the year, when we received the thick booklet with Oxford’s examination decrees and regulations, I noticed that there were provisions for Jewish students who felt unable to take examinations on the Sabbath to sit them at another time and presumed that such measures acknowledged the existence of students such as Danielle.

Fifteen years later, in 1998, I was off to Cambridge, this time to study for a master’s degree in medieval history. But as I looked at the general lecture lists, I noticed something odd about the mathematics lectures: some of them were held on Saturdays. Cambridge, like Oxford, also holds some exams on Saturdays. On their website, I can find information on special arrangements for examinations for disabled students, but not Jewish ones. A mathematics student like Danielle might have to make difficult choices if she went to Cambridge rather than Oxford.

So is Oxford “pandering to superstition”, while Cambridge is not? The question is misleading, unless you bring into the equation not only Danielle’s experience, but mine. As a Christian, every British university I’ve ever been to is set up to observe my main holy days. If they hadn’t been and I’d been expected to attend lectures on Sundays, I don’t know what I would have decided to do. Either my beliefs or my mathematical training would have had to suffer, and the suggestion that I should simply “go to a theological college” would also have excluded me from the highest level of academic education. Unlike Danielle, however, I didn’t have to make such choices, since I belong to the historically dominant religion of Britain.

The university that excludes religion then, is finally a myth, since it is inevitably embedded within wider systems that have already determined religious or non-religious parameters of acceptable behaviour. Making a university secular in the sense of religiously neutral, meanwhile, remains a difficult proposition; an awareness of the historical background is likely to be essential to doing so successfully.

The image is of Penrose tiling outside the Andrew Wiles Building, where the Mathematical Institute is now based in Oxford

Scandalous priests and bishops

In April 2014, Canon Jeremy Pemberton became the first priest in England to enter into a same-sex marriage. In September 2014 he filed a discrimination claim with an employment tribunal after he had been blocked from taking up a position as an NHS chaplain in Nottinghamshire because of his marriage.

The case is obviously personally difficult for Jeremy Pemberton and his husband, Laurence Cunnington. But for a historian it also offers some fascinating comparisons and contrasts with earlier church practice, and in particular how clergy have been disciplined over prohibited sexual behaviour. Legally, it is a relative novelty that Canon Pemberton is able to take his case to a secular employment tribunal at all. His case is complicated because of the question of whether he is employed by the NHS or by the diocese of Southwell and Nottingham (whose bishop removed his permission to officiate, which he needed for the NHS post). But employment tribunals have increasingly become willing to accept that in some circumstances ministers of religion do count as employees and thus have employment rights, although the Church of England still argues that their clergy are not employees. Secular jurisdiction over priests has historically been something that individual clerics have tried to avoid, seeking the ‘benefit of clergy’. Now, however, some of them are actively seeking it.

Canon Pemberton’s case shows more historical continuity in other respects, however. Partly this is because it raises interesting jurisdictional questions. His previous position as an NHS chaplain, which had not been threatened, was in the diocese of Lincoln, in the archdiocese of Canterbury. His new job would have been in the archdiocese of York. The implication is that different bishops and archbishops have chosen to enforce the Church disciplinary rules prohibiting same-sex marriage in very different ways. Such episcopal leeway would have seemed very familiar in the Middle Ages, where the zealous (or overzealous) enforcement of priestly good conduct by some bishops might be ignored by their successors or fellow-bishops.

And the case also displays the perennial difficulty for any Church on sexual matters: how far should it intrude into the bedroom? Sexual behaviour is by its nature private and the Church of England has stated that clergy can legitimately be in civil partnerships (and can even theoretically become bishops) provided that their relationship with their partner is celibate. There are intriguing parallels with priests in the pre-eleventh Catholic church, who could theoretically be married, though not sexually active within such a marriage.

Canon Pemberton’s offence, therefore, is not strictly speaking a sexual one, unless the bishop of Southwell and Nottingham has evidence to the contrary. Instead, it is a breach of the Church of England’s rules prohibiting clerics from entering same-sex marriages. The justification for this prohibition is taken from a canon that talks of the need for clerics and their families to be ‘wholesome examples and patterns to the flock of Christ’.

Such language concerning reputations would have been familiar to an early medieval bishop like Hincmar, Archbishop of Rheims (845-882). He wrote numerous episcopal statutes setting out how the priests and laity of his archdiocese should behave and the means for ensuring correct behaviour. His second episcopal statute from 852 gave instructions for archdeacons and rural deans as to how they should run regular investigations into priests’ behaviour. A long section is devoted to the need for priests to avoid too close contact with women, such as allowing unrelated women to live in the priest’s house.

Hincmar, however, was not concerned only with illicit sexual activity by such priests. Almost as important was the ‘evil reputation’ (mala fama) that such priests might gain within the community. As c. 21 (p. 56) of the statute points out, Hincmar’s concern is that such behaviour by priests ‘may damage the conscience of the weak by evil suspicion’ (mala suspicione infirmorum conscientias maculent). His statute details the procedure by which such priests could be removed from office if sufficient of their congregation were prepared to testify against them. Such witnesses did not have to prove immoral conduct by their priest. They had to swear only that they had seen or knew certainly that ‘women had such access or frequenting or cohabitation with that priest, from which there could be evil suspicion and an evil reputation could get out’ (c. 21, p. 58: si vidisti aut pro certo scis talem accessum vel frequentiam aut cohabitationem feminas habere cum isto presbitero , unde mala suspicio esse possit et mala fama possit exire).

In the modern Anglican church, similar principles seem to be at work, but on a much wider canvas. Public opinion and rumours about gay priests and sexuality more generally now extend not through a small rural parish, but across the globe. The archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, claims that the Church of England accepting gay marriage may lead to attacks on African Christians, while another bishop reports that he was once asked in Central Africa why you now had to be gay to be ordained in the Church of England. Yet at the same time, the most common reason for people in Great Britain to have a negative view of the Church of England is that it is too prejudiced against women and gay people (as Linda Woodhead found in a recent survey). How can ‘scandal’ be avoided when different audiences are scandalised by diametrically different actions?

The Church of England may well be legally successful in Canon Pemberton’s employment tribunal. While exemptions from the law of the land for churches and their ministers are now far narrower than in the days of benefit of clergy, such exemptions are well-established and not under serious threat from secular politicians. But in an era of rapid global communication, it is far harder to ensure that either individual clerics or the Anglican church itself does not end up having ‘an evil reputation’ among many laypeople.

Image credit
BBC