BENEFICE (Lat. beneficium, benefit), a term first applied under the Roman empire to portions of land, the usufruct of which was granted by the emperors to their soldiers or others for life, as a reward or beneficium for past services, and as a retainer for future services. A list of all such beneficia was recorded in the Book of Benefices (Liber Beneficiorum), which was kept by the principal registrar of benefices (Primiscrinius Beneficiorum). In imitation of the practice observed under the Roman empire, the term came to be applied under the feudal system to portions of land granted by a lord to his vassal for the maintenance of the latter on condition of his rendering military service; and such grants were originally for life only, and the land reverted to the lord on the death of the vassal. In a similar manner grants of land, or of the profits of land, appear to have been made by the bishops to their clergy for life, on the ground of some extraordinary merit on the part of the grantee. The validity of such grants was first formally recognized by the council of Orleans, A.D. 511, which forbade, however, under any circumstances, the alienation from the bishoprics of any lands so granted. The next following council of Orleans, 533, broke in upon this principle, by declaring that a bishop could not reclaim from his clergy any grants made to them by his predecessor, excepting in cases of misconduct. This innovation on the ancient practice was confirmed by the subsequent council of Lyons, 566, and from this period these grants ceased to be regarded as personal, and their substance became annexed to the churches,—in other words, they were henceforth enjoyed jure tituli, and no longer jure personali. How and when the term beneficia came to be applied to these episcopal grants is uncertain, but they are designated by that term in a canon of the council of Mainz, 813.
The term benefice, according to the canon law, implies always an ecclesiastical office, propter quod beneficium datur, but it does not always imply a cure of souls. It has been defined to be the right which a clerk has to enjoy certain ecclesiastical revenues on condition of discharging certain services prescribed by the canons, or by usage, or by the conditions under which his office has been founded. These services might be those of a secular priest with cure of souls, or they might be those of a regular priest, a member of a religious order, without cure of souls; but in every case a benefice implied three things: (1) An obligation to discharge the duties of an office, which is altogether spiritual; (2) The right to enjoy the fruits attached to that office, which is the benefice itself; (3) The fruits themselves, which are the temporalities. By keeping these distinctions in view, the right of patronage in the case of secular benefices becomes intelligible, being in fact the right, which was originally vested in the donor of the temporalities, to present to the bishop a clerk to be admitted, if found fit by the bishop, to the office to which those temporalities are annexed. Nomination or presentation on the part of the patron of the benefice is thus the first requisite in order that a clerk should become legally entitled to a benefice. The next requisite is that he should be admitted by the bishop as a fit person for the spiritual office to which the benefice is annexed, and the bishop is the judge of the sufficiency of the clerk to be so admitted. By the early constitutions of the Church of England a bishop was allowed a space of two months to inquire and inform himself of the sufficiency of every presentee, but by the ninety-fifth of the canons of 1604 that interval has been abridged to twenty-eight days, within which the bishop must admit or reject the clerk. If the bishop rejects the clerk within that time he is liable to a duplex querela in the ecclesiastical courts, or to a quare impedit in the common law courts, and the bishop must then certify the reasons of his refusal. In cases where the patron is himself a clerk in orders, and wishes to be admitted to the benefice, he must proceed by way of petition instead of by deed of presentation, reciting that the benefice is in his own patronage, and petitioning the bishop to examine him and admit him. Upon the bishop having satisfied himself of the sufficiency of the clerk, he proceeds to institute him to the spiritual office to which the benefice is annexed, but, before such institution can take place, the clerk is required to make a declaration of assent to the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion and to the Book of Common Prayer according to a form prescribed in the Clerical Subscription Act 1865, to make a declaration against simony in accordance with that act, and to take and subscribe the oath of allegiance according to the form in the Promissory Oaths Act 1868. The bishop, by the act of institution, commits to the clerk the cure of souls attached to the office to which the benefice is annexed. In cases where the bishop himself is patron of the benefice, no presentation or petition is required to be tendered by the clerk, but the bishop having satisfied himself of the sufficiency of the clerk, collates him to the benefice and office. It is not necessary that the bishop himself should personally institute or collate a clerk; he may issue a fiat to his vicar-general, or to a special commissary for that purpose. After the bishop or his commissary has instituted the presentee, he issues a mandate under seal, addressed to the archdeacon or some other neighbouring clergyman, authorizing him to induct the clerk into his benefice,—in other words, to put him into legal possession of the temporalities, which is done by some outward form, and for the most part by delivery of the bell-rope to the clerk, who thereupon tolls the bell. This form of induction is required to give the clerk a legal title to his beneficium, although his admission to the office by institution is sufficient to vacate any other benefice which he may already possess.
By a decree of the Lateran council of 1215, which was enforced in England, no clerk can hold two benefices with cure of souls, and if a beneficed clerk shall take a second benefice with cure of souls, he vacates ipso facto his first benefice. Dispensations, however, could be easily obtained from Rome, before the reformation of the Church of England, to enable a clerk to hold several ecclesiastical dignities or benefices at the same time, and by the Peterpence, Dispensations, &c. Act 1534, the power to grant such dispensations, which had been exercised previously by the court of Rome, was transferred to the archbishop of Canterbury, certain ecclesiastical persons having been declared by a previous statute (1529) to be entitled to such dispensations. The system of pluralities carried with it, as a necessary consequence, systematic non-residence on the part of many incumbents, and delegation of their spiritual duties in respect of their cures of souls to assistant curates. The evils attendant on this system were found to be so great that the Pluralities Act 1838 was passed to abridge the holding of benefices in plurality, and it was enacted that no person should hold under any circumstances more than two benefices, and this privilege was made subject to the restriction that his benefices were within ten statute miles of each other. By the Pluralities Act 1850, the restriction was further narrowed, so that no spiritual person could hold two benefices except the churches of such benefices were within three miles of each other by the nearest road, and the annual value of one of such benefices did not exceed £100. By this statute the term benefice is defined to mean benefice with cure of souls and no other, and therein to comprehend all parishes, perpetual curacies, donatives, endowed public chapels, parochial chapelries and chapelries or districts belonging or reputed to belong, or annexed or reputed to be annexed, to any church or chapel. The Pluralities Acts Amendment Act 1885, however, enacted that, by dispensation from the archbishop, two benefices could be held together, the churches of which are within four miles of each other, and the annual value of one of which does not exceed £200.
All benefices except those under the clear annual value of £50 pay their first fruits (one year’s profits) and tenths (of yearly profits) to Queen Anne’s Bounty for the augmentation of the maintenance of the poorer clergy. Their profits during vacation belong to the next incumbent. Tithe rent charge attached to a benefice is relieved from payment of one-half of the agricultural rates assessed thereon. Benefices may be exchanged by agreement between incumbents with the consent of the ordinary, and they may, with the consent of the patron and ordinary, be united or dissolved after being united. They may also be charged with the repayment of money laid out for their permanent advantage, and be augmented wholly by the medium of Queen Anne’s Bounty.
A benefice is avoided or vacated—(1) by death; (2) by resignation, if the bishop is willing to accept the resignation: by the Incumbents’ Resignation Act 1871, Amendment Act 1887, any clergyman who has been an incumbent of one benefice continuously for seven years, and is incapacitated by permanent mental or bodily infirmities from fulfilling his duties, may, if the bishop thinks fit, have a commission appointed to consider the fitness of his resigning; and if the commission report in favour of his resigning, he may, with the consent of the patron (or, if that is refused, with the consent of the archbishop) resign the cure of souls into the bishop’s hands, and have assigned to him, out of the benefice, a retiring-pension not exceeding one-third of its annual value, which is recoverable as a debt from his successor; (3) by cession, upon the clerk being instituted to another benefice or some other preferment incompatible with it; (4) by deprivation and sentence of an ecclesiastical court; under the Clergy Discipline Act 1892, an incumbent who has been convicted of offences against the law of bastardy, or against whom judgment has been given in a divorce or matrimonial cause, is deprived, and on being found guilty in the consistory court of immorality or ecclesiastical offences (not in respect of doctrine or ritual), he may be deprived or suspended or declared incapable of preferment; (5) by act of law in consequence of simony; (6) by default of the clerk in neglecting to read publicly in the church the Book of Common Prayer, and to declare his assent thereto within two months after his induction, pursuant to an act of 1662.