How can a Priest also be a Magistrate?

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I started sitting as a Magistrate or Justice of the Peace (JP) on the East Kent Bench in December 2010, whilst still a curate in Woodchurch. The Magistrate’s Court is the first tier of the English criminal justice system and deals with about 98% of all criminal cases.  The vast majority of magistrates (like me) are part time volunteers, some are retired but many have other day jobs; I trained with teachers, journalists and others.

Before being ordained my first career was as a solicitor and, although I did not practise criminal law, I felt very ‘at home’ in the legal system.  I wanted to be a magistrate as I felt that it would be an interesting way of serving the wider community (i.e. beyond the parish boundary) but that it would also enhance my parish ministry by exposing me to a whole part of society which may otherwise not appear even on a parish priest’s ‘radar’.  I am really pleased to say that for the last two and a bit years my experience of being a magistrate has ticked both of those boxes and more.

However the range of reactions to a priest being a magistrate has been very interesting.  When I was being selected the interview panel was split between those who were worried that I might be a wet, liberal, vicar who would want to let everyone off and those who thought I might be too ‘old testament’ and want to have everyone stoned to death!

The interesting reactions continued while I was going through the process of moving on from my curacy to being a vicar.  The most extreme came from a very angry sounding lady (who was part of a panel of 16 interviewers) who asked how I could be a magistrate when the bible says that we should ‘not judge others lest we are judged ourselves‘ (Matt 7:1).  My reaction was that this applies to all Christians (not just priests) and that if we took her point to its logical conclusion it would mean that no Christians could work within the criminal justice system and, in my view, that would be detrimental to the system.  This is not to mention that the bible also contains plenty of ‘laws’ and even has a whole book called Judges!  Maybe that makes me a little ‘old testament’ but it seems to me that God brought order out of chaos and that the proper rule of law, with a seasoning of Christian compassion, probably trumps a text taken out of context.

Although that was the most extreme reaction (and one that stays with me, as you can tell) the most common reaction was concern about a priest spending any time on an activity outside of the parish.  One interview panel seemed very proud of the fact that their previous Rector had to give up all his outside interests because the parish kept him so busy.  I said that this sounded very unhealthy both for the priest and the parish; I didn’t get that job!  However, it was quite illuminating to see, time and again, both a generalised concern about the vicar having a role away from the parish and a more particular concern about whether a vicar should be a magistrate in the first place.

Fortunately the people of St Mary’s Hadlow were not overwhelmed by that concern and I continue to believe that being a priest helps make me an even-handed magistrate and that the experiences I gain from being a magistrate makes me a better parish priest.

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3 thoughts on “How can a Priest also be a Magistrate?

  1. In the early days of the New South Wales colony, the chaplains were also appointed as magistrates.The historian Ken Cable provides an insight on clergy and the office of magistrate in NSW: ‘Johnson, Marsden, Cartwright and Fulton were all, at one time or another, magistrates. Only Johnson and Marsden showed any liking for the office or displayed any zeal in performing it. For this, Marsden was strongly criticised at the time; and most historians still hold it against him. It must be remembered, on the other hand, that the period 1770-1820 saw the heyday of the clerical justice in England. Before the eighteenth century, few clergymen were JP’s. By the end of it, most of the learned and conscientious beneficed clergy in rural areas were on the commission. They were leaders among the magistrates for legal reform, prison reform, the preservation of public morality and the improvement in the poor law. After 1815, as in New South Wales, they came to be criticised for holding what were alleged to be conflicting offices in Church and State. But, on the whole, their contribution was a notable one. It is to be remarked that Wilberforce secured much support from clerical justices in his campaigns for moral reform – and that Wilberforce was an important figure in securing the appointment of Johnson and Marsden to New South Wales. It is probable, therefore, that these strongly Evangelical chaplains looked on their magisterial duties, at least in the early years and before criticism became too vocal, in the same way as Wilberforce. Here, then, was a connection between the Church and local authority in the early days of New South Wales.’ Cable KJ, The Churches and Local Government Finance, Sydney, 1966 at 21.

    I encourage you in both your ministries

  2. Interesting article, which I came across because I am interested in the ‘clerical justices’ or ‘parson magistrates’ of a previous era. Magistrates who were Anglican clergymen were quite common in the late Georgian and early Victorian period. At that time the profession of clergyman was more of a career for a gentleman than a calling, and many parson magistrates were pillars of the Tory establishment. At a time when the lower classes were seeking reform, they were known as ‘black dragoons’. It was a parson magistrate who read the riot act in 1819 before the protesting masses were charged by the yeomanry at Peterloo.

    In these more enlightened times I have no problem with a clergyman being a magistrate provided the two roles are kept separate, but I think it would be quite inappropriate to wear a dog collar when sitting on the bench.

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