Coming Home, charity law, and public housing
From Geraldine Peacock
Sir, — I am on the Board of a small CIC (Community Interest Company) in Wells, Somerset (News, 20 July 2020), who are seeking to negotiate with the diocese about the possibility of obtaining their property, the Old Deanery, which is for sale.
We are finding negotiations tricky. Our aim would be to turn this property into a social enterprise that would involve an arts centre, a restaurant, a restoration of the 15th-century herb garden, space for community meetings, and a small amount of private housing. We already have had an offer of significant investment from a property developer to work with us to achieve this, but we are not the people who have offered the highest price.
The property was on the public market, and there were private buyers offering more money. Our argument was that the definition of investing in property, as laid down in the Charity Act, is about total, not just financial, value, we would argue that our offer to the diocese meant better value because it included making the organisation self-financing within two years. If the diocese joined with us as a partner, they would gain a new resource and an ongoing new income stream that would sustain their investment in the long term.
We began to meet other community groups around the country who were experiencing similar difficulties with a range of dioceses, and it became clear to us that there was a need to clarify charity law. Lawyers could not then inadvertently misinform their clients about the meaning of the Act.
We all met with representatives of the Archbishops’ Commission on Housing, Church and Community (News, 26 February), and agreed to come up with something that could be a win for all charities. Many people are confused by the way the right of trustees to count social and public benefit plus a smaller cash offer is agreed by the Charity Commission. We also managed to get support from David Blunkett, as some of his constituents are also involved in some of these wrangles.
I chaired the Charity Commission when the Act went to Parliament. It was always intended that maximising your charity assets could be interpreted by trustees to include social and public value as well as money. Many lawyers seem to have used this flexibility; others have not.
The Archbishops’ report was published ten days ago. The Archbishops’ Commission did not advise us of its publication in advance, and, despite having meetings with the Charity Commission and community groups about the formation of a joint letter to Parliament, formed an alliance that was unique to them with the Charity Commission.
We were very surprised that the Charity Commission seemed to have been talking with the Archbishops’ Commission and come to an agreement to issue a special letter to them when misunderstandings about the full meaning of “maximisation” occurred. It would be easier and quicker than trying to change charity law. They had not consulted with us.
What a waste. We feel disappointed and let down. There could have been a big advantage for the whole sector. It’s a problem that the Charity Commission and charity lawyers have been fumbling with for ten years, and this could have resolved it. It may have taken some time, but it would have been worth waiting for. It makes you question whether the C of E promises for partnership with the sector will hold good.
White Lion House
5 New Street, Wells
Somerset BA5 2LA
From Canon Peter Howard
Sir, — It is good to see the Church of England marshalling its energies and grass-roots experience to come up with a programme for housing justice. I have just one criticism, that the report, or at least its summary in the Church Times, seems, perhaps unwittingly, to have bought into the treatment of the rented sector, especially that still in the hands of local authorities and housing associations, as second best to private ownership.
Canon Angela Tilby in her excellent column last week has already presented a good critique of that notion. What I would want to add is how that is ensconced in the description, “social housing”, that seems to have been adopted by the report without criticism. Behind that “naming” lies the idea that public housing is for those who haven’t the wherewithal to enter the owner-occupied market (not forgetting that for the first 20 or so years, the bank, not the mortgagee, is the owner!).
I retired from the ministry in 2016 after 40 years of serving on estates, the last 26 years on the Heartsease Estate in Norwich. When I arrived there, I found a community that included many who had lived in their council house since they were built in the 1950s, brought up their families, done well in their careers, and loved their homes.
Some had bought their home under Right to Buy; others, out of principle, continued to rent and supported the Council in fighting off the divesting of the estate to housing associations. These tenants, some members of our congregation, one to become a father of a bishop, believed in the notion that council housing was “housing for all”, not a social service for those who lacked the capacity to make their own arrangements.
By the time I retired, many of the houses bought under Right to Buy had not passed on to new home-buying families, but had been snapped up by buy-to-let investors to let on the open market at higher cost to those desperate for housing and lacking access to the diminished stock of public housing. This was a clear case of the failure of the myth of a house-owning democracy espoused by the creators of the Right to Buy policy.
There has been some blessing in this, as we were able to welcome into our community new residents from Eastern Europe and the Philippines who have contributed much to our economy and the care sector; but they and the increasing number of young families who have no other housing option find themselves in insecure tenancies at higher rents than those enjoyed by their neighbours fortunate enough to be council tenants.
We can’t undo past mistakes, but, if we are to build towards a more just housing future, we must let go of our fixation on private ownership and pursue a more egalitarian vision of housing for all, based on security, affordability, community, and a sense of pride in what we call home.
17 Chapel Lane
Norwich NR12 7DR
In Fort Worth, original diocese is with ACNA
From Dr Colin Podmore
Sir, — In 1983, the convention of the newly constituted diocese of Fort Worth resolved to accede to the Constitution and Canons of the Episcopal Church in the United States.
Twenty-five years later, led by its bishop, the convention rescinded its accession and thereby withdrew the diocese from the Episcopal Church, taking the great majority of its congregations, clergy and people, with it. Eventually, it joined the Anglican Church in North America.
The Texas courts have found that the diocese is entitled to retain its property, and the US Supreme Court’s recent refusal to hear an appeal makes that decision definitive.
Your report (“Fort Worth ruling is a ‘turning point’”, News, 26 February) fails to explain to your readers (most of them in the Church of England, whose dioceses never joined it and therefore cannot leave it) that the ruling flowed from a finding that, despite its departure, the diocese continued to be “the Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth”, the corollary being that the diocese of the same name formed by the minority that stayed in the Episcopal Church is a new body with no entitlement to the diocese’s property.
Your description of the diocese that left as a “breakaway group” (six times) and the Episcopal Church loyalists’ diocese as “the original diocese” or just “the diocese” obscures this and implies that you do not accept the judgment of the courts.
Over the past 12 years, the Episcopal Church has spent eye-watering sums of money not on attempts at reconciliation with those who felt driven out of it, but instead on litigation aimed at depriving them of their church buildings, funds, and other property. It is hard to see how this prodigious (and in Texas completely fruitless) expenditure has advanced God’s Kingdom or the Church’s mission.
If the ACNA diocese were to allow the five Episcopal Church congregations now at risk of losing their buildings to continue to worship in them, its moral victory would be complete.
16 Isla Road
London SE18 3AA
Today’s World Day of Prayer is revitalised
From the Revd Carole Bourne
Sir, — We are looking forward to celebrating the women of Vanuatu in our World Day of Prayer services on 5 March.
Almost unbelievably, given the challenges of the past year, we are able to offer a greater variety of services this year on Zoom, YouTube, and Facebook than we have before. We are finding that requests for access to these may actually exceed numbers coming to live services in previous years.
Many women who, this time last year, didn’t own a computer are now competent communicators on Zoom — and an organisation that was beginning to look as if it needed an injection of new life and inspiration has had just that. We are now communicating ecumenically with women all over the world in ways we had never have thought possible.
This hasn’t been an easy year, and there are still technicalities to iron out, but one should never doubt the power of people’s determination and creativity in the most unusual circumstances, given faith and the grace of God.
Vice-Chair, World Day of Prayer (www.wwdp.org.uk)
Flat 21, 9 St Mary’s Road
Surrey KT6 4JG
Politics and discipline
From Miss Vasantha Gnanadoss
Sir, — Thank you for your clear summary of the final report of the Ecclesiastical Law Society’s working group reviewing the Clergy Discipline Measure (CDM) (News, 26 February). I write just to add one important clarification.
You report the working group as taking the view that “political opinions should be exempt from disciplinary proceedings.” More completely, what the working group says (at para 3.120) is that “we would maintain the current protection from proceedings in respect of the lawful political opinions or activities of the clergy (see s.8(3) of the CDM, together with the exception provided in s.8(5)-(10) of the CDM)”.
The exception mentioned is that concerning membership, promotion, or support of organisations “declared in writing by the House of Bishops to be incompatible with the teaching of the Church of England in relation to the equality of persons or groups of different races”.
The House of Bishops made two such declarations in 2014. It is high time that the House made further declarations to keep pace with newly formed far-Right organisations. Police services have maintained updated lists, which could be consulted.
242 Links Road
London SW17 9ER