‘Put up thy sword into his place:  for all they that take the sword shall perish with the sword.  Thinkest thou that I cannot now pray to my Father, and he shall presently give me more than twelve legions of angels?’  (S. Matthew 26:52f.)

In 1621 the Archbishop of Canterbury, George Abbot, accidentally killed a gamekeeper during a hunt in Bramshill Park.  The king, James I, himself addicted to the chase, readily forgave Abbot.  But as Lord Dacre observed, ‘The law of the Church…was less easily disposed of’[i]:  a number of the bishops argued that Abbot now was ‘a man of blood’ and therefore under irregularity.  The archbishop’s offices were put under the control of a committee while the matter was tried.  In the end a commission of ten men, six bishops and four laymen, split evenly on the charge of irregularity, with five of the six bishops supporting the charge.  The king cut through the tie by issuing a royal dispensation, and Abbot resumed the exercise of his offices.  Abbot never again, however, held much authority in Church or state.  With only a little exaggeration one modern writer asserts that ‘Abbot was merely a cipher, having lost influence after killing a gamekeeper in a hunting accident in 1621.’[ii]

The implication seems clear that in the eyes of Stuart churchmen killing, even if accidental, created an irregularity that in and of itself should elicit resignation or removal from office.  Bishop John Williams, sometime Lord Keeper and later Archbishop of York, expressed the sentiments of many clergymen in a letter:  ‘for the King to leave virum sanguineum, a man of blood, Primate and Patriarch of all his churches, is a thing that sounds very harsh in the old Councils and Canons of the Church.’[iii]  To be a ‘man of blood’ under canon law before and after the Reformation was a very grave matter:  an impediment to ordination and, in the case of one already ordained such as Abbot, an impediment to continuation in office.

While one cannot prevent all accidents, and no one suggested that Abbot had any subjective intention to commit homicide, his participation in a hunt brought him more generally up against widespread disapproval of clerical participation in blood sports.  What the incident certainly shows is belief in special obligations attaching to the clerical state in matters involving arms and bloodshed.   What then is a ‘man of blood’?  How does the clerical state interact with the Church’s moral teaching concerning war and killing in general?

Systematic pacifism is rejected by the central Christian tradition in favor of a theory that generally permits some forceful or violent acts such as self-defense, capital punishment of some heinous crimes[iv], and Christian participation in just wars[v].  By ‘systematic’ pacifism, I mean a pacifism that is exceptionless or virtually exceptionless in its condemnation of the kinds of force just mentioned.

One can, to be sure, conceive of other, qualified, and limited kinds of pacifism or non-resistance.  For example, one might argue that passive non-resistance is sometimes the most prudent, practical, and effective method to achieve certain desired political or social ends, without suggesting that it also is universally obligatory.  One might, for example, suggest that Gandhi was objectively correct in judging that non-violent resistance would be effective when battling the colonial authority of the British in India.  Such appreciation of the actual effectiveness of Gandhi’s tactics against the British certainly does not require in turn the highly implausible belief that such tactics would have worked against more ruthless opponents such as Hitler or the Soviet Union.  One might, therefore, propose the category of ‘tactical’ or ‘temporary’ or ‘prudential’ pacifism, as opposed to systematic, exceptionless non-resistance or pacifism.  Likewise, one might argue that certain states of life or professions call for personal pacifism or for what is sometimes called ‘vocational pacifism’.  Or again without accepting systematic pacifism, one might argue that non-resistance is appropriate in some relationships, such as with fellow Christians or with family members.   In any case, the central tradition of Christian moral teaching is opposed to systematic and exceptionless pacifism.

This Christian opposition to systematic pacifism does not apply to clerical behavior.  That is, in both the Church in general and in the Church of England in particular the clergy have traditionally been prohibited from shedding blood or serving as arms-bearing members of the military.  It has seemed to most Christians inappropriate that the clergy, who serve as icons of the Prince of Peace, should bear arms in wars, serve as public executioners, or directly will to shed blood.  As is often the case in regard to the common law of the medieval Church, this general prohibition was given positive formulation and codification in the 1917 Codex Juris Canonici (Canon 141):

Saecularem militiam ne capessant voluntarii, nisi cum sui Ordinarii licentia, ut citius liberi evadant, id fecerint; neve intestinis bellis et ordinis publici perturbationibus opem quoquo modo ferant.[vi]

This position in no way alters the Church’s general, traditional acceptance of the morality of self-defense, capital punishment, and service in just wars.  In all three of these cases force, including violent force, is permitted under certain circumstances.  Likewise, in all of these cases, the Church tends to leave the practical or prudent determination of particular, actual cases to the public authority which has the responsibility for the general welfare and, often, also has the most information.  The freedom and behavior of the clergy, however, is limited by their clerical state.

The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church briefly summarizes the matter:

Since the Middle Ages clerics in major orders have been expressly forbidden to take a direct part in the shedding of blood.  The prohibition was based on the grounds that is was unseemly for the ministers of the altar to shed blood and that the military life was detrimental to the discharge of pastoral duties.  This teaching is embodied in the present RC canon law…The C of E has commonly upheld the medieval discipline, though ecclesiastical penalties have not been imposed on the few clerics who have entered the services….[vii]

The state of traditional English Church law on the matter can be gathered by a brief survey in standard works.  John Johnson published in 1720 a translated collection of the laws of the Church of England:  A Collection of the Laws and Canons of the Church of England, from Its First Foundation to the Conquest, and from the Conquest to the Reign of King Henry VIII.[viii]  From this collection one finds a canon of 1070 that says simply, ‘That no clerk [is to] bear secular arms.’[ix]   And again, in 1138, a legatine canon from Westminster reads,

Here we allege the authority of Pope Nicholas who says, ‘Since the soldier of Christ and the secular soldier differ from each other, it becomes not a soldier of the Church to bear secular arms;’ for effusion of blood can scarce be avoided in this case:  farther, as it is abominable for laymen to say mass, and to consecrate the sacrament; so it is ridiculous for a clergyman to carry arms, and fight in wars, for St. Paul says, ‘No one that is a soldier to God entangles himself with the affairs of this life.’[x]

Similarly, a canon of 1175 forbids the clergy to ‘wear or bear arms…for none can be a soldier to God and the world at once’.[xi]  While the regular repetition of canonical prohibitions often suggests that the matter in question remains an active issue (e.g., medieval canons enforcing clerical celibacy), the canonical and theological traditions are consistently and solidly against clergymen in arms.

The clergy, then, might best be described as vocationally pacifist.  That is, they are called precisely as clergymen to mirror and realize in their own lives the non-retaliation and self-sacrifice of Jesus Christ.  As saving victims, wounded healers, the clergy are to serve as icons of the Saving Victim in his work of opening wide the gate of heaven by forgiving enemies and by taking upon themselves even unjust penalties so as to convert and persuade their ‘persecutors, enemies, and slanderers’.

Many states, certainly including the United States, have accepted this self-understanding of Christian and Catholic clergy.  The American military has a chaplain corps, and the chaplains often are placed in combat situations.  The chaplains themselves, however, do not bear side arms or other arms and are non-combatants, even in the most dangerous of circumstances, and are protected by non-clergy chaplains’ assistants.  In addition to this limitation on the role of serving military chaplains, the United States, so far as I know, has never conscripted or compelled service by clergy.  Seminarians and clergy both have been exempted from military drafts and any compulsory or combatant military service.  Just as it has been (rightly) thought both wrong to compel armed service by women, and also wrong even to permit service in combat roles even by volunteering women, so also the nation has (rightly) thought it wrong to compel such service by clergy.[xii]

The vocational pacifism of the clergy has deep roots in the New Testament and in the Conciliar age, but it gained its firmest canonical expression in the medieval Church, when the Western Church also strove to impose universal clerical celibacy.  To some degree both clerical pacifism and clerical celibacy were supported by an unfortunate two-tier moral theology, which argued that the Sermon on the Mount’s ‘counsels of perfection’ (poverty, chastity, non-resistance) apply strictly to the clergy and religious, while the laity were held to a lower standard (tithing and generosity, marital fidelity, just behavior).  Nonetheless, the post-Reformation Church of England, with its married clergy, maintained the medieval prohibitions against both clerical arms bearing and also against service in the military except as unarmed chaplains.

It should be noted, nonetheless, that the wider implications of vocational pacifism can be much more difficult when clergymen are married.  Non-resistance and vocational pacifism could conceivably place married men in more acutely difficult positions than celibate men.  It is one thing for a priest to die unresistingly with joy at the altar or confessing his faith.  It is another thing to ask a man unresistingly to permit his wife or family to be harmed for his faith and vocation.  Does the prohibition on bearing arms bend in such cases?

I do not know that a universal and exceptionless rule is either possible or desirable in such cases.  The general principle is that the clergy should not bear arms and should prefer to suffer themselves than to resist evil violently.  E.J. Bicknell correctly notes, however, that in a fallen world such ideals bend when our actions affect other people:  ‘non-resistance may be truly Christian.  But when the injury affects others, then we may be called on to resist.’[xiii]  The quality of self-sacrifice is altered when it implicates third parties.

In general and as much as possible, the Church and her members should leave forceful resistance to evil in the hands of the public authorities:  the military and the police.  In cases where such public protection is truly inadequate, it seems reasonable to supplement it with private guards or security forces.  Beyond that, it is helpful to remember that hard cases make bad law.  Fortunately, in the United States at least, the cases where clergymen have a true need for private, armed defense of their families are rare and are quite possibly outweighed by the actual danger of weapons, particularly firearms, in a house.[xiv]

The case of Archbishop Abbot raises the related issue of bearing arms for sport and hunting.  Again, the issue is not the general morality or permissibility of hunting.  There is no prohibition at all in general on hunting nor any implication that hunting is at all inappropriate for Christians.  There is, also less of a canonical or traditional argument against clerical hunting than against clerical violence against human beings.  Nevertheless, because of the danger of accident and the common use of arms in warfare and hunting, hunting has generally been seen as something inappropriate or unfitting or distasteful for the clergy.  In some periods and places hunting by the clergy has been simply and explicitly prohibited by the Church.  Sometimes hunting has been tolerated but discouraged.  The ‘hunting parson’ usually was a figure of fun or disdain in English literature rather than anything worse.[xv]  As a clergyman probably should not walk into a casino in a clerical collar, so he probably should avoid hunting, unless perhaps from necessity to feed or support life.  No hard and fast and exceptionless rule, however, seems possible in regard to clerical hunting.  The matter is like gambling:  tolerable in general, but not to be encouraged and generally rather inappropriate for the clergy.

[i] H.R. Trevor-Roper.  Archbishop Laud  1573-1645.  Hamden, Connecticut:  Archon, 1963.  2nd edition.  Page 58.

[ii] Charles Carlton.  Charles I:  The Personal Monarch.  London:  Ark Paperbacks, 1983.  Page 72.

[iii] Trevor-Roper.  Op. Cit.  Page 59.  Williams also certainly would have liked Abbot’s job for himself, but that is another matter.

[iv] See my post elsewhere in this blog on capital punishment and Pope Francis:  https://anglicancatholicliturgyandtheology.wordpress.com/2018/09/20/the-pope-and-capital-punishment/

[v] See my post elsewhere in this blog on the subject of just war:  https://anglicancatholicliturgyandtheology.wordpress.com/2017/09/14/just-war-theory-a-basic-introduction/

[vi] Codex Iuris Canonici.  Vatican, 1948.  Page 39.   Translation:  ‘[Clerics] should not volunteer in secular armies, except with the permission of the local Ordinary, which they might do in order to be free of any earlier draft; nor should they become involved in civil wars or disturbances of the public order in any way.’  The current Roman Code reads, ‘As military service ill befits the clerical state, clerics and candidates for sacred orders are not to volunteer for the armed services without the permission of their Ordinary.’  (Canon 289.1)   The permitted service, of course, is as chaplains, not combatants.

[vii] ‘WAR, Participation of the Clergy in’ in The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church.  Oxford, 1983.  2nd edition.  Page 1460.

[viii] Reprinted by the Parker Society.  Oxford:  Parker, 1851.  Two Volumes.

[ix] Ibid., Volume II, page 8.

[x] Ibid., Volume II, page 44.

[xi] Ibid., Volume II, page 62.

[xii] Some years ago I heard the late Senator John McCain say that he once had opposed military service by women, but that he had come to believe that they had ‘much to offer’ the defense of the United States.  What women can or might offer the defense of the nation is not, however, the main issue.  Does a nation that permits women in combat deserve defense?  At present the prohibition of women in combat is in slow retreat, not least because restriction from service in such roles slows promotion in a career many women desire.  The women affected by such retreat are volunteers, at present, so the change largely goes unchallenged.  I suspect that this development, along with the total egalitarianism of most modern feminists, would evaporate quickly in the face of a shooting war and a universal military draft.  Under current legal and social norms, it is impossible to see how a male-only draft could survive legal challenge.  I think only a morally bankrupt nation would accept the inevitable consequences of its currently regnant legal and social principles.  Those consequences would include both young women universally subject to a future military draft and also women in combat.

[xiii] See E.J. Bicknell.  A Theological Introduction to the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England.  London:  Longmans, Green, 1955.  Third edition, revised by H.J. Carpenter.  Page 441.

[xiv] There are many reasons for gun ownership, including hunting, target shooting, and repulsion of crime or self-defense.  To these one should add the deterrent effect of gun ownership, since the mere fact of widespread gun ownership tends to deter property crime in particular.  Of these reasons, the repulsion, as distinguished from the deterrence, of crime is in fact the most unlikely.  A gun owner is less likely to use his weapon to repulse an attack than he is to use the weapon in question for suicide or homicide or than he is to suffer (himself or in the case of a loved one) from its accidental use.  Given these facts, clerical possession of arms under color of family defense seems difficult to justify.

[xv] Consider this passage from Anthony Trollope’s Framley Parsonage (Chapter III, ‘Chaldicotes’):

‘We have six or seven gentlemen here, Mr. Robarts, and they always go out hunting before breakfast, and they never come back – I was going to say – till after dinner.  I wish it were so, for then we should not have to wait for them….But perhaps, Mr. Robarts, you are as bad as the rest; perhaps you, too, will be hunting to-morrow.’

‘My dear Mrs. Smith!’ said Mrs. Proudie, in a tone denoting slight reproach, and modified horror.’

‘Oh!  I forgot.  No, of course, you won’t be hunting, Mr. Robarts; you’ll only be wishing that you could.’

‘Why can’t he?’ said the lady, with a loud voice.

‘My dear Miss Dunstable!  A clergyman hunt, while he is staying in the same house with the bishop?  Think of the proprieties!’ 

‘Oh – ah!  The bishop wouldn’t like it – wouldn’t he?  Now, do tell me, sir, what would the bishop do to you if you did hunt?’

‘It would depend upon his mood at the time, madam,’ said Mr. Robarts.  ‘If that were very stern, he might perhaps have me beheaded before the palace gates.’ 

Likewise in The Claverings a hunting parson, the Rev’d Mr. Clavering, gives up his hunting ways under pressure from Bishop Proudie (and Mrs. Proudie).  The narrator makes clear that while he disapproves of hunting parsons, he also disapproves of the Proudies.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s