The term “benefit of clergy” in recent years has come to mean sanction of the clergy, as in the phrase “marriage without benefit of clergy” referring to a civil ceremony. The origin of the term, however, offers an interesting perspective on the importance of literacy within the Christian church’s tradition.
During the twelfth century when Henry II was king of England and Thomas Becket was the Archbishop of Canterbury, a serious bone of contention developed between the two over what we would call the separation of powers. Henry wanted a system of courts that derived their power strictly from the king. Becket however insisted that those courts should have no power over the clergy, claiming that they should have the “benefit” of being subject only to the church courts. (And remember that the priesthood in the 12th century was not open to women, hence my subsequent use of the male pronoun.) The reason for disagreement between the king and the archbishop was really very simple: Becket wanted priests’ cases to be handled in the more lenient church courts that did not impose the death penalty. Ultimately, Becket’s position prevailed, and this is where the story becomes interesting.
In order for a priest to claim the “benefit of clergy,” he had to prove that he was clergy. One of the kinds of proof offered was a literacy test. Because most lay people at that time could not read, the assumption was that if a person could read, he must be clergy. So, a defendant could demonstrate his clerical status simply by reading from the Bible.
Interestingly, the custom developed that defendants were asked to read a particular passage from the Bible: Psalm 51. And this was certainly an appropriate selection because that psalm begins with the petition, “Have mercy on me, O God; according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions.” It wasn’t long before illiterate defendants realized that if they could memorize that passage and recite it while appearing to read from the Bible, they could claim the potentially life-saving benefit of clergy. Consequently, the first lines of Psalm 51 came to be known as the “neck verse” because being able to recite it could literally save your neck.
“Benefit of clergy” eventually ended in England, and yet it continued to be used in a few places in this country up until the mid-19th century. Historically, it offers a quaint reminder of how much legal process has developed in 800 years. It also highlights the phenomenal growth of literacy in the western hemisphere, an important consequence of which has been making scripture accessible to everyone. But there is also a theological lesson to be found here. Because of its reliance on Psalm 51, the quintessential prayer for forgiveness, “benefit of clergy” points to the truth in an old Scottish proverb, that whether we are clergy or laity, whether we’ve been accused of a crime or not, “confession is good for the soul.”