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Dioceses could take over reorganisations and closures, paper suggests

25 June 2021

Church Commissioners

St Nicholas, Hockerton, a disused Grade II church in Nottinghamshire, has been sold to become a glass-blowing studio after discussions between the diocese, the Commissioners and the local planning authority; an illustration from the Church Commissioners’ annual report

St Nicholas, Hockerton, a disused Grade II church in Nottinghamshire, has been sold to become a glass-blowing studio after discussions between the dio...

A CONSULTATION paper for the General Synod envisages “incremental” short-term and long-term changes to the Mission and Pastoral Measure (MPM), which governs parish reorganisation and the disposal of churches no longer deemed viable as Anglican places of worship.

While the authors of Church of England Mission in Revision: A review of the Mission and Pastoral Measure 2011 hold that some simplification could be achieved quickly by consensus, other changes, particularly those affecting rights of representation in the decision-making process, would require longer deliberation.

In a foreword, the Third Church Estates Commissioner, Dr Eve Poole, writes: “While there have been revisions to this Measure . . . it still feels unwieldy. Some regulatory process will always be inevitable because — like the much-traduced Faculty System — it is part of our agreement with the state under the Ecclesiastical Exemption, but many of the provisions the current Measure contains should arguably be settled locally, particularly given our new commitment to being a Church which is Simpler Humbler Bolder.”

The consultation period runs from 13 July to 15 September.

This consultation “will allow us to start to develop a proposal for what a new MPM could look like”, the paper says. The feedback will be analysed and discussed with “key parties”, including government, planning and heritage bodies, and dioceses.

Draft legislation, if a consensus emerged, could be tabled at the Synod’s February 2022 sessions; or, if more time was needed, a report on options, followed by draft legislation later in the year. “If there is a lack of agreement over points of detail our recommendation would be to proceed with the split of the Measure between primary and secondary legislation so that changes could be made more easily in future once agreement had been reached on what that should look like.”

Dioceses in particular have requested that the processes be improved “sooner rather than later”, the paper says. “At the moment there is no quick way to ease the administrative burden of the Measure on dioceses because the processes are all contained in primary legislation.”

At the moment, there is, in effect, a two-tier decision-making structure, since the third tier, the appellate function of the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council (JCPC), is rarely used (its retention is favoured in the paper). “Where there are no representations, decisions on reorganisation are made on the basis of acceptance by the diocesan bishop of recommendations by the Diocesan Mission and Pastoral Committee, with the Commissioners’ role limited to ensuring that due process has been carried out and that Schemes are correctly drafted to give effect to what is intended. Where representations are made the decision to proceed or not moves to the Commissioners.”

This system, the paper says, is from a “rather different era”, and national responsibilities could be moved to dioceses, which could be given the responsibility for managing the processes, including the consideration of representations that currently come to the Church Commissioners. The Commissioners would retain the governance and management responsibility and have an advisory and validating function, including training and support for dioceses and parishes. “It is advisable to retain these functions nationally because of the legal complexity of the work.”

In the short term, the proposals are to streamline the number of instruments and simplify the scheme processes. “Another way that we could help dioceses is by giving the Commissioners an explicit direct power to rectify administrative mistakes made during the consultation process to avoid processes having to be repeated or re-run at a diocesan level as a result of a process mis-step. . .

”Broadly speaking, there would be only two processes, Schemes and Orders (which might include some variation in terms of consultees and representation and appeal rights for particular types of reorganisation) and we would have a shortened one-stage formal consultation process for developing schemes (instead of the current two). As now, dioceses would decide if and how they want to do any informal consultation prior to publication.”

The paper recommends continuing to promote planning across deaneries or wider areas as a concept, but the plans “should no longer have statutory force”. It also asks: “Would bishops and dioceses benefit from an enhanced provision for making pastoral arrangements across diocesan boundaries? For example, at present group ministries cannot be set up across diocesan borders without transferring all the benefices involved into one diocese.”

Delays due to “capacity issues” in obtaining a report from the Church Buildings Council on the architectural and historic significance of a church before closure — a report that has little influence on the proposal for closure — lead the authors to propose removing this requirement. The paper also asks for views on providing for churches at risk of closure “an interim status between the binary options of ‘open’ and ‘closed’ (for which Festival Church may be an apt designation) if appropriate governance and maintenance arrangements can be devised”.

At the moment, once a church has been closed, it is subject to both faculty jurisdiction and the secular planning system. “We would propose to simplify this by removing the requirement for faculty jurisdiction during the use-seeking period. Being subject to both the faculty jurisdiction and the listed building consent regimes could potentially add cost for dioceses and potential purchasers and may make securing a re-use more difficult. Where the closed church building is unlisted and not in a conservation area, is it necessary to consult over its future use or demolition, where no burials are affected?”

Sustainable solutions are harder to find for buildings the more run-down they are. “Given PCCs may lack resources and capacity, there could be an argument to give dioceses the ability to complete basic and necessary repairs to keep the buildings wind- and watertight if the PCC can no longer function or lacks the resources.”

Looking at the part played by the Statutory Advisory Committee of the Church Buildings Council, the paper observes that “such heritage advice is now regularly required in planning processes and the advice given is often duplicated.” Various changes could be taken forward, not all of which require legislation, it suggests.

Schemes for the re-use of closed church buildings are automatically sent to Historic England for comment, whether or not the building is listed. “We would like to change this and bring into line with the secular planning system and usually only consult Historic England where the building is Grade 1 or Grade 2* listed.” There are also questions about the appropriate point at which this is done.

“Although there will always be a need in considering additional and alternative uses to occasionally disturb human remains, we would like to review the current assumptions in the legislation given burials usually remain undisturbed and consider removing the need for Dispensing Orders from the Ministry of Justice, instead only needing to approach them for directions permitting specific works. This would help significantly speed up church disposal processes.”

Instead of allowing anyone under a pastoral Scheme or Order to make representations against a parsonage disposal, it could be limited to PCCs, patrons, incumbents, and occupiers holding an office under common tenure, it is suggested.

In the longer term, the paper puts four options on the table concerning limiting the right to make representations more generally:

1. limit the right to make representations on Schemes and Orders to the interested parties only — e.g. incumbent, patron, PCC;

2. limit the rights to make representations on Schemes and Orders to the interested parties, parishioners, and those on the electoral roll;

3. allow anyone to comment, but give greater weight to comments from the interested parties and congregation/electoral roll in the decision-making;

4. have a general duty to consult the public on the provision of ministry, but make that a different process from pastoral reorganisation; or

5. allow representations from everyone, as now, but limit the right to appeal to interested parties only.

Another issue for the longer term, described as “one of the most difficult aspects of pastoral re-organisation”, is where clergy are dispossessed of their offices if a Scheme dissolves a parish, benefice, or team ministry, or creates a group ministry.

“At the moment, the only way for the clergy person to object to the loss of office is to represent against the pastoral scheme itself, but this can conflate the structural changes with the more personal issues. The current system is not designed to manage the pastoral issues of dispossession in a modern way. For example, the MPCPC [the Commissioners’ Mission, Pastoral and Church Property Committee] is required to consider the representations from the clergy who object to dispossession, but it is not designed to be, and nor is it required to act as a kind of, employment tribunal for Office Holders.”

The 2018 reduction in compensation payable for dispossession, to a year’s stipend plus housing, combined with the increased financial pressure in some dioceses to reduce stipendiary clergy posts, “means that reorganisation involving dispossession may now be more likely to be proposed. Consequently, there are likely to be more cases where clergy (or others) object to such pastoral reorganisation.

“It is also the case that more clergy may seek to make a case against dispossession on the grounds of discrimination in respect of protected characteristics. The Equality Act does not typically relate to clergy because of their status as independent office-holders, but nevertheless clergy should be able to make a case against dispossession on those grounds within the Church’s processes where this is appropriate.”

One option is a different process where potential dispossession is involved. There would be the usual representations to the MPCPC, “but the personal issues would be considered by having a route of appeal. This could either be to the diocesan bishop, or a neutral third party. . . Another question would be whether or not clergy should still have the right to appeal to the JCPC on dispossession matters.”

The paper refers to the use-seeking and disposal process for closed churches as taking “a long time because of issues with the policy of heritage and planning bodies. . . We would like to ask government to allow parallel marketing so that the timelines can be shortened. As part of the discussions on the recent planning white paper, we would also like to encourage a deemed consent for the residential conversion of unlisted church buildings in non-conservation areas.”

Historic England “tend to take a strong view on limiting proposals for re-use, such as residential conversion. This creates a problem for the Church as that policy line can make it very difficult to achieve an end-use and the amenity bodies are included as statutory consultees under the MPM processes, so they can make representations against re-use schemes and demolition.

“Churches are designed to be places where people gather in large numbers, and therefore they have an expansive internal volume, and planning bodies tend to resist schemes which would divide up that internal space. They would also generally prefer to see the building maintain open access and a public use, rather than a private use, such as residential. This would particularly be the case the higher the listing.

”The problem with the public use is that it is often unsustainable and does not generate sufficient income to manage the repair and maintenance required in highly listed buildings. Our concern is that if there is a wave of closures over the next 20-30 years it will not be possible to find suitable uses for more buildings without a shift in the public policy line, and that ultimately might lead to poor outcomes in relation to the buildings.”

Regarding the suspension or restriction of patrons’ rights of presentation to a benefice, the paper says: “the circumstances in which suspension is actually necessary have become much more limited, although in practice it is used far more widely which is a cause of concern to patrons and PCCs. A way forward might be to have single procedure whereby rights of presentation could be put into abeyance without consultation but in more tightly defined circumstances.”

Other proposals include a requirement for a patronage board for new benefices, and povision for removing patrons’ rights to consent to changes in patronage.

During a vacancy in a benefice, the “continued, vestigial existence of sequestration and the office of sequestrator” lead to unnecessary complication and bureaucracy and should be abolished, the paper says. The terms “are not well understood . . . [and] bear no real relation to the duties that the area dean and churchwardens actually carry out during a vacancy.”

Moreover, they may lead to churchwardens’ “dealing with squatters or being responsible for letting the parsonage house and carrying out the duties of the landlord”. This change would represent “a final tidying-up of the law”, and not involve changes to the ownership of parsonages, the paper says.

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