Nonconformity, Law Relating To
NONCONFORMITY, LAW RELATING TO. For the history of the gradual relief of nonconformists in England from their disabilities see ENGLISH HISTORY, BAPTISTS, CONGREGATIONAL- ISM, METHODISM, FRIENDS, SOCIETY OF, etc.; also OATH. It is proposed here to note simply the present legal aspects of nonconformity apart from its history, that is, the matters in which the law as to nonconformists still differs from that applicable to members of the Church of England. The differences may be conveniently grouped under six heads.
(i) Judicial Notice. The courts, both temporal and spiritual, take judicial notice of the tenets and authorities of the Church of England, the crown being head of the law and of the church. Where the tenets and authorities of a nonconformist body come in question, they must be proved by evidence. By Lord Lyndhurst's act, the Nonconformist Chapels Act 1844, where no particular religious doctrine or mode of worship has been prescribed by the deed or instrument of trust the usage of the congregation for twenty-five years is to be taken as conclusive evidence of the doctrine and worship which may be properly observed in such meeting-houses. (2) Tribunal. Offences against the law ecclesiastical (not being crimes) committed by clergy of the Church of England as a rule come by letters of request from the bishop of the diocese before the arches court of Canterbury or the chancery court of York (of both of which the same person is judge). Similar matters arising in nonconformist bodies can only be tried by the ordinary secular courts, and generally depend upon the question whether a minister has done any act which is not in accordance with the rules governing the particular body of which he is a minister. A nonconformist body is in law nothing more than a voluntary association, whose members may enforce discipline by any tribunal assented to by them, but must be subject in the last degree to the courts of the realm. Brawling in a church was an offence which formerly fell solely under the cognizance of the spiritual courts, but by the Ecclesiastical Courts Jurisdiction Act 1860 any person guilty of brawling in churches or chapels of the Church of England or Ireland, or in any chapel of any religious denomination, is liable on conviction to a fine or imprisonment (see BRAWLING), while clergymen of the Church of England may also be dealt with under the Clergy Discipline Act 1892. (3) Status of Ministers. A nonconformist minister is not in holy orders, and his chapel is not a consecrated building. His status is, however, recognized to a limited extent. By the Toleration Act, I Will. & Mar., c. 1-8, a minister, preacher or teacher of a nonconformist congregation is exempt from certain parochial offices, as that of churchwarden. He is also exempt from serving in the reserve forces or on a jury. These privileges only attach where the place of worship of which he is a minister has been duly registered (the Places of Worship Registration Act 1855), unless in the case of bodies subject to special legislation, as Quakers. Registration is not required in the case of consecrated buildings. By the Municipal Corporations Act 1882, s. 12, a nonconformist minister (as is a clerk in holy orders) is disqualified from being elected an alderman or councillor of a town council, but under the Local Government Act 1888 a clerk in holy orders, or other minister of religion, may be a councillor or alderman of a county council, and, under the London Government Act 1899, of a metropolitan borough. He cannot take a degree in divinity at Oxford, Cambridge or Durham (Universities Tests Act 1871), and so is debarred from holding any professorship of divinity in those universities. (4) Marriage. Marriage by a person in holy orders was probably necessary at common law, at any rate from the Reformation up to 1836. (See MARRIAGE.) And from the date of Lord Hardwicke's Marriage Act, '753. up to 1836 the ceremony must have been performed in a consecrated building. The first act of parliament that relieved dissenters (other than Jews and Quakers) from these restrictions was the Marriage Act of 1836. By that act the ceremony of marriage might be performed in a nonconformist place of worship, but it must be after due notice to the superintendent registrar and in his presence or in that of a registrar, and the building must be one that is duly certified for marriages. The Marriage Act 1898 dispensed with the necessity of the attendance of a registrar at marriages celebrated at a nonconformist place of worship, substituting in place thereof a person duly authorized by the trustees of the place of worship, if the persons intending to be married so desire; but the parties may, if they wish, still require the presence of the registrar. Marriage by banns, licence or special licence cannot take place except ina church. (5) Burial. By the Burial Laws Amendment Act 1880 burial may take place in a churchyard without the rites of the Church of England. But in such a case notice must be given in a specified form, which is unnecessary where the burial service is conducted by a clergyman of the Church of England. (6) Parish Offices. By I Will. & Mar. c. 18, s. 5, a dissenter chosen churchwarden and scrupling to take the oaths may execute his office by deputy. His acceptance of office is made optional by the act; there is nothing to prevent his discharging it if he see fit to do so. This seems to be still the law, although a declaration was substituted for the oath by the Statutory Declarations Act 1835, s. 9.
British Colonies. In crown colonies ecclesiastical jurisdiction may be conferred by the sole authority of the crown. In colonies which have parliamentary representation the crown cannot give to a metropolitan bishop jurisdiction or coercive legal authority over suffragan bishops or over any other person. In colonies of the former kind the Church of England may still preserve the privileges which attach to her in the mother country ; in colonies of the latter kind she is in the same position as any other religious body, simply a voluntary association. Since the Irish Church Act 1869 the Church of Ireland has been practically in the same position as the Church of England in colonies which have representative government.
Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)