Welcome to the batty world of Chancel Repair Liability, in which possibly thousands of local Anglican churches find their mission to the community compromised, whilst insurers line their pockets with a tidy little premium that they know is rarely, if ever, called upon.
Why not just ignore it? Again, because of the law:
A PCC (church council in a CofE church) is a charity (even if it is not registered with the Charity Commission) so its members are subject to the same general duties as charity trustees, including the duty to exercise their powers in the charity’s best interests. Where a chancel repair liability exists, the right to enforce that liability is an asset of the PCC which must be appropriately managed.
This is from some new guidance by the Charities Commission for church councils. This is coming to a head because of a deadline (October 2013) for all PCCs to establish whether local properties are liable, and to decide whether to 'register' those liabilities, or let them lapse. If we let them lapse, then there is the chance that we fall foul of the law for charities to use their assets for the best. There are also stories of churches being refused grants and other assistance for building repairs (e.g. by English Heritage) because they've not invoked chancel repair liablity.
All of this is missionally disastrous. How did we get to a place where people have to insure themselves against the church? How did we get to a place where churches have to tax local people - believer and atheist alike - to preserve an ancient church building, and where any church that doesn't do this is acting against the law, or is penalised in grant bids? Here's just one example of what that looks like on the ground.
There's a helpful summary of the new guidance on the Law and Religion blog, which notes:
The Commission does, however, set out a useful framework for trustee decision-making which, in the Commission’s opinion, should help PCC members to act in accordance with their legal duties. Under the Commission’s framework PCC members must:
- act within their powers, which means:
- only making decisions which advance, or support activities that advance, their charity’s purpose for the public benefit;
Personally, I'd like to leaflet the whole parish explaining that we have no intention of invoking the liability, and then write to all the local solicitors encouraging them to donate the money they've made out of this to charity. Or the building fund.....
For more background, here's a really helpful page maintained by one local church, with lots of links, stories and resources for churches wanting to know more.
Update: Greg Yerbury, who's put together this help page, is hoping to publish a list of 590 parishes known to have Chancel Repair Liability later this week, so keep an eye on his site if you think it might be you!
Update 2: the lists are up, 4b and 4c in the top rhs of the Chancel Repair page, sorted by county, which is helpful.