In matters of finance, accounts must be maintained and presented in a manner subject to the rules of the Charity Commission; and we are being told that elected members of the PCC and churchwardens are “trustees”.
If these things are true, how can the responsibility of a trustee be reconciled with that of the duty of churchwardens and PCC members to the diocesan bishop under ecclesiastical law?
BECAUSE so many churches are now required (by their annual turnover) to register as charities, this is a timely question.
The governing body of a church is the PCC, under the leadership of the parish priest. The rules on how the church operates are governed by a raft of laws and requirements, starting with many that are individual Acts of Parliament. But the diocesan bishop and others have parts to play under ecclesiastical law which apply also.
Registering a church as a charity in a formal way moves us from the earlier position, when churches were categorised as “excepted” charities: that is, charities not required to be individually registered. Now they will be registered.
When a group seeks to register as a charity, its constitution or memorandum and articles — what it seeks to do, and how it governs itself to achieve its purpose — is scrutinised and approved by the Charity Commission. In the case of a Church of England parish, the whole of that ecclesiastical system is taken as the constitution and governing documents.
In the church system, some things are different from other trusts. PCC members cannot be held individually responsible for the actions of the PCC. For example, a PCC member cannot be sued individually for church debts. If an individual commits an offence — for example taking money, or committing fraud — he or she is still liable.
One change, however, is that the annual report and accounts have to be presented in a manner that complies with the requirements of the Charity Commission, and this has resulted in a much clearer, and more systematic, presentation of accounts in the required format. They are now much easier to read, although at times they may seem harder to prepare — and, for the uninitiated, harder to interpret. But everyone is working in the same system; so it is easier for diocesan officers, who receive the accounts annually, and for the Charity Commissioners to spot any problems quickly.
The language of the charity sector helps us to see that the responsibility of the PCC is to check that the church is working within its objectives or mission, and that its money is spent appropriately and well, in achieving that mission.
You could call PCC members trustees, in these circumstances, but the rules that govern how we operate, apart from the way in which accounts are presented, are still set up and reformed within the ecclesiastical system: the bishop is still the boss.
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