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Church ownership stays . . . uncertain

02 November 2006

THE THREAT to shift the historic ownership of England’s 16,000 churches from parishes to dioceses has been lifted, after a working group decided that it would cause too much trouble.

But it turns out that nobody owns the parish churches, anyway.

In a report for the General Synod, meeting in London later this month, the group responsible for implementing proposals on clergy terms of service said it would be better to leave "ownership" of churches in the parishes.

When the General Synod debated the proposed new terms of service in February, it accepted in principle recommendations to end clergy freehold. Part of the package, though, involved the transfer of the incumbent’s property responsibilities to the diocese. The Synod motion expressed "grave reservations" about such a move.

The implementation group’s first report, Review of Clergy Terms of Service: The property issues revisited, acknowledges that "grass-roots" opinion, shared by the Council for the Care of Churches, was that the move over church ownership would "diminish" interest in the churches by the PCCs and churchwardens.

As a result, critics told the group, people would be less willing to share responsibility for a church’s upkeep.

One problem, the group admitted, was over the ownership of a church building. In its report, it states: "There is a sense in which the answer to the question ‘who owns a church?’ is: nobody.

"According to the Legal Advisory Commission the ‘fee simple’ (what most people understand by ‘ownership’) of church and churchyard is ‘in abeyance’."

The report identifies different "rights and duties" held by various bodies, e.g. access to church for worship (parishioners); right to burial (parishioners); repair and maintenance (PCC); liability as occupier (incumbent and PCC); ownership of contents (churchwardens).

It was "remarkably difficult" to say what would be taken away from the incumbent if he or she did not "own" the church.

Vesting the church with the churchwardens or the PCC would identify it too closely with the worshipping community and not the parish as a whole, it said.

"We have therefore come to the conclusion that the ‘ownership’ of the church and churchyard . . . should remain vested in the existing corporation sole, which is in effect the corporate expression of the ‘cure of souls’ exercised by the incumbent to the benefit not only of the worshipping community but of all parishioners."

The ancient ceremony of "inducting" the new incumbent (where the archdeacon hands the vicar or rector to his or her stall and into "the real, actual and corporal possession" of his new church) could continue. But the act would have only "symbolic value". The legal power would be given by a deed of appointment.

But the group stood firm on the proposal to move ownership of all parsonage houses to dioceses. Clergy should occupy them under an occupational licence, which sets out their rights and responsibilities.

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