Tuesday, 6 May 2014

People are more important than buildings

Heritage asset and liability simultaneously
The poor old Church of England is getting bad press again. And in this case it certainly deserves it - or at least some individuals on Parochial Church Councils (PCCs) do.

Apparently around 250 PCCs are using a medieval law that allows them to register 'Chancel Repair Liability' against properties that have this provision in their deeds. This anachronistic law requires the owners of certain houses to pay for the upkeep of the local church - sometimes it can be  single household that in principle is responsible for this liability.

This is appalling, ridiculous behaviour, which to be honest I don't blame the Church of England as a whole for, but rather those PCCs. I know something of these, as I was on one accidentally for 3 years when I was in my 20s (don't ask) and sadly PCCs, like parish councils (think Vicar of Dibley) all too often seem to get frequented by the kind of committee-loving person who really hasn't a clue but likes to hear the sound of their own voice.

It's not that I don't sympathise with the problems the PCCs face. They have to keep up a very expensive, very old building and are bound around with restrictions in what they can do. If we want to keep old churches standing and accessible to all in our villages and towns - and these are some of the most beautiful buildings in the country - we all should take some responsibility paying for them one way or another. But not by using this ridiculous archaic law, which should be repealed immediately.

I think there are a couple of things that need to happen (apart from scrapping the law). One is that the churchgoers need to be prepared to give up some buildings. In many rural communities you have a collection of villages - sometimes as many as 7 or 8 - with a single vicar, but each with their own church. They could easily lose half the buildings, as these villages are often just a few miles apart. That would slash their upkeep costs (and increase the size of their congregations at any particular service). Then there should be a clear mechanism to make disposal easy.

Official bodies (local councils, English Heritage etc.) should be given the option to take the building on in return for paying something to the PCC - but if the bodies don't want to do this, the PCC should be allowed to sell the building off for any use, provided it is preserved and accessible to the public on certain days of the year. And if no sale is possible with these strictures, the official bodies (including the locals) should be given a final chance to take it over before the building is sold for redevelopment. That would liven up the decision making process!

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UPDATE 7/6/2014 - There's been an interesting discussion about this on Facebook, so I wanted to include it here:

PCC Member: Indeed it is a stupid law but I don't blame PCC members. As charity trustees they have a duty to maximise the income/assets of the charity. I'm no lawyer but my understanding is that (in theory at least) failure to enforce a source of income such as this could lead to action being taken against individual PCC members.

Brian: And who would take such action against them? I can't imagine it happening. A Christian approach would be to be actively working to get the law removed, rather than trying to enforce it. Alternatively, maybe they should lose charitable status if they act in such an uncharitable fashion.

PCC Member: The Charity Commission for starters. Very difficult moral and legal decision for an individual PCC. There are FAQs on the Charity Commission and CoE website e.g. http://www.churchofengland.org/media/51407/crlfaq.rtf or http://www.charitycommission.gov.uk/.../parochial-church.../

Brian: You really think the Charity Commission would push a PCC to act immorally just to maximise income? It's meaningless. They could maximise income by selling the church for development - are the CC pressing them to do that?

PCC Member: Possibly not - but the CoE might! However if someone brought it to the CC attention they would no doubt investigate. I am a PCC member and we were told by CoE that we had to deal with this. Luckily there were no issues in Shrivenham. Just think it is a very hard thing for an individual PCC especially as the CoE FAQs imply that it is right to go after people and they will lose out on other grant income if they don't. Fully agree that a law change is required.

Brian: I do understand your situation - it sounds like the CofE is more to blame than PCCs if they are leaning on them.

 Brian: Actually, having thought about it, I take back my sympathy for the PCCs. If a PCC is put under pressure by anyone - Charity Commission, CofE or whatever - to act immorally, as I believe this action to be, I think the PCC should resign en masse rather than go ahead with it. You can't use the 'We were only following orders' escape clause.

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