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General Synod digest: Faculty rules changed with net-zero target in mind

18 February 2022
Clive Mear/Church Times

The Dean of the Arches, the Rt Worshipful Morag Ellis QC

The Dean of the Arches, the Rt Worshipful Morag Ellis QC

Faculty and jurisdiction

AFTER a two-hour debate and several fallen amendments, the General Synod approved changes to the Faculty Jurisdiction Rules (News, 28 January 2022). This was despite warnings about the impact on parish finances and the workload of volunteers (News, 11 February).

The amended rules were moved by the Dean of the Arches, the Rt Worshipful Morag Ellis QC, an environmental lawyer by profession. She said that the changes were bring brought to the General Synod primarily because the Synod itself “has committed the whole of the Church of England to respond to the climate emergency with practical action. . .

“Having spent many months working on these new rules, I am convinced that they can help all of us to make a difference, and that they represent a positive and proportionate step” towards the Church’s achieving net zero (News, 12 February 2020).

The rules were underlined by four principles: to move churches towards net zero; to make the permissions route more straightforward for carbon-reducing proposals; to help parishes with proposals that would produce additional carbon well after 2030 (for example, the installation of a new oil boiler); and to exclude matters of guidance from the rules. Matters that did not require a faculty would be included.

“There is no ‘one size fits all’ when it comes to church buildings and communities,” Ms Ellis said. “In many instances, it would be possible to both reduce emissions and to save money.” By asking parishes to have regard to new net-zero guidance from the Church Buildings Council, the rules would ensure that parishes were “in touch with helpful technical guidance”.

She assured the Synod: “Nothing in the proposed new rules forces parishes to make changes, nor do the rules rule out doing things which are incompatible with carbon reduction; but they do ask us, in our parishes, about what to do for the best in an informed way when we want or need to make changes to our buildings.”

Replacing gas and oil tanks was no longer in the list of works that did not require a faculty or the approval of an archdeacon.

Clive Mear/Church TimesThe Revd Stella Bailey (Coventry)

The Revd Stella Bailey (Coventry) said that, as the vicar of a parish with a Grade I listed building and an Augustinian priory in its churchyard, “you cannot sneeze without Historic England wanting to know.”

The new rules were “inconvenient” and would create more work. Yet, “this is where legislation reaches mission. For the emerging generations in our community, this subject matters. . . They are looking to this chamber and seeking authenticity and integrity.” She called for the changes to go further, to include listed buildings; and, in a plea to the Government and amenities societies, said: “Our churches are not historic monuments: they are living, breathing communities. . . Work with us to hear the cry of not just this chamber, but wider society.”

Fiona Norris (Salisbury), a Tearfund employee, quoted from a colleague affected by climate change in Honduras: “If we continue this pattern of exploitation and destruction, and going beyond the limits of the planet, maybe you will not feel it, but we will.” She cited polling by Youthscape that suggested that only one in ten young people thought that the Church was doing enough on climate change (News, 12 February 2021). “Will we practise what we preach?”

The Bishop of Norwich, the Rt Revd Graham Usher, the lead bishop on the environment, said that the “prophetic and ambitious target” to reach net zero by 2030 would be “an almighty challenge, but so is any aspect of living the gospel. It’s a challenge we need to step into.” He warned: “If we put in a new oil or gas burner today, we are investing in fossil fuels for another 25 years.” Funding the alternatives would be a challenge that needed a plan now.

Canon Ruth Newton (Leeds), who chairs the Synod environment group, was aware of anxiety about the impact of the target on “smaller, more vulnerable churches, which have already been hit hard by Covid and need a bit of a break”. Money must be made available, she said. But the burden of the target would “almost certainly not fall on our smaller and more vulnerable churches, but on larger parishes where the church is in daily use”.

Many of the new rules could be summarised as “Here’s an extra thing for parishes to do,” the Revd Dr Miranda Threlfall-Holmes (Liverpool) said. Going through the faculty process was “quite a bruising experience”, and the part played by the DAC should not “simply be to criticise the paperwork of PCCs. Why can’t we specify instead that DACs themselves should have regard to the guidance?” There was a need, she said, to be “much more radical in a presumption for change rather than a presumption against change”.

The Revd Carol Bates (Southwark) warned that continued global warming of two degrees would “result in a death sentence for people in the Pacific, the West Indies, and Africa. . . We live in the prosperous third of the world, and God calls us to use our gifts and privilege to bless and care for others.” She noted that 84 per cent of church energy use went towards heating. “The only way for churches to reach carbon net zero is to decarbonise our heating.”

The Archdeacon of Leeds, the Ven. Paul Ayers (Leeds), said that, if something was on List A (not requiring a faculty or consultation with an archdeacon), then “nobody else knows what’s being done.” The removal of replacing fossil-fuel boilers from this list would mean “PCCs at least get advice.”

The Revd Marcus Walker (London) moved his first amendment, which would remove the requirement to have due regard to the net-zero guidance. This would turn the rules into “an ecologically sound meal of pure carrot” (as opposed to “stick”). Parishes were under huge financial strain, he said. “When we hit them with unaffordable costs, without anything but vague promises to fund them, we risk the very thing we love.” Volunteers were leaving as a result. “The faculty process is long and can be expensive. . . It is exhausting and debilitating.”

Clive Mear/Church TimesThe Revd Marcus Walker (London)

Responding, Ms Ellis denied that the rules contained such a stick, but were designed “to assist volunteers and others . . . to engage with the guidance which is there to help us all . . . to offer options which don’t, for example, build in being fettered to increasingly expensive as well as damaging fossil fuels and store up problems for the next generations of volunteers”.

The threshold of 25 standing to debate the amendment was not reached, and it was lost. Fr Walker moved his second amendment, concerning the replacement of fossil-fuel boilers. Responding, Ms Ellis said that the rules were not telling parishes, “Thou shalt never have another oil or gas boiler” because, “in some circumstances, sadly that will be the only option.” She continued, however: “We should not be perpetuating a situation which just enables parishes to do the same-old with boilers.”

Prebendary Pat Hawkins (Lichfield), who chairs the Lichfield DAC, said that the faculty process enabled parishes “to have real expert advice to negotiate through this very complex process of making our heating systems fit for a carbon neutral future”.

Canon Tim Bull (St Albans) argued that “sometimes in life we have to choose between the thing that is right and the thing that is easy. . . You can have a nudge. . . If we accept the amendment, that nudge towards the right thing goes away.”

The Archbishop of York understood the sentiments behind the amendments seeking to make life easier for parishes, but said: “If we in the Church of England can be seen to be taking a lead in this issue . . . that is going to be the very best way that we will become a younger Church — because at last people will see that this Christian faith that we share means something. It is actually being lived out in really, really hard, painful decisions.”

Canon Tim Goode (Southwark), who had been on the Southwark DAC for nine years, urged the Synod to resist the amendment, which, he said, “may inadvertently create loopholes that will offer encouragement to churches that wish to either step back from or avoid the challenge that we as a Synod set down in 2020”.

The amendment was lost.

A further amendment was moved by the Archdeacon of Chichester, the Ven. Luke Irvine-Capel (Chichester). It sought to ensure that proposals to replace a boiler could be considered by an archdeacon rather than be subject to the faculty process. Most PCCs faced this matter “only in extremis, namely, when the existing boiler fails. This most frequently occurs in winter when the boiler is most in demand.” He explained: “My concern is that if this is not addressed, the result could be non-compliance with faculty jurisdiction or a loss of morale among our parishes.”

In support of the amendment, Prudence Dailey (Oxford) spoke of the risk that a boiler broke down just before Christmas, “which is one of the best missional opportunities the Church has to get people through the door”.

The Archdeacon of Blackburn, the Ven. Mark Ireland (Blackburn), agreed. “Boilers break down in the middle of winter, and if people cannot be at a safe temperature to worship for extended periods, it’s not helpful.”

The amendment fell narrowly, by 142 to 145 with 12 recorded abstentions.

Finally, the Archdeacon of Ludlow, the Ven. Fiona Gibson (Hereford), moved an amendment proposing that the list of matters that could be approved by an archdeacon include the installation on the exterior of a church building of equipment for receiving and transmitting wireless broadband services. During the pandemic, many rural churches could not get online for want of a signal, she reported. “Our people felt isolated at a time when they needed us most.” The amendment would “rural-proof” the new rules.

The amendment and then the amended rules were carried by an overwhelming majority.

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