Complexities of church-sharing

On 26 December, the Daily Telegraph carried an item entitled Church of England should consider opening doors to Muslims and Hindus in which Sir Barney White-Spunner, Executive Chairman of the Countryside Alliance (“Promoting Hunting”, “Promoting Shooting”, “Promoting Rural Life”), suggested that churches in villages and towns were falling into disrepair and not being used enough.

“He said he was ‘hugely excited’ about opening up churches to other Christian denominations and, in the longer term, other faiths.  He also proposes making churches into community centres which host local markets, nurseries and even police contact points.”

In response, Steve Jenkins, head of media for the Church of England, is quoted as saying

“It wouldn’t be a Church of England church if it was open to other faiths. They want their own buildings anyway, they don’t want to share with us … We do, however, want people to use them for more diverse things. Most communities have churches at their heart and we want them to stay that way.”

Comment

While both parties made valid points, the article failed to capture the legal and religious complexities associated with the suggestion, and the measures that are currently in place such Open and Sustainable Churches.

So far as “formal” sharing beween denominations is concerned, the Sharing of Church Buildings Act 1969 resulted from a private Peer’s bill introduced into the House of Lords by the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Michael Ramsey (though we suspect that the bill was drafted with Government assistance). He said at the time that

“… this Bill is in no way a dramatic ecumenical project. The Churches which agree to share a place of worship will not in the normal way worship together; they will worship separately at different times, in accordance with their respective forms of worship” (HL Deb (1968–69) 298 cc 1281–1282).

The Act was therefore more a response to changing settlement-patterns and the need to build new places of worship on council estates than an ecumenical initiative – but the very act of sharing buildings meant that congregations who did so started getting to know each other, so it inevitably had a local ecumenical dimension.

Legislation was necessary partly in view of the established nature of the Church of England (and hence the regulation of its property and the need for the Sharing of Church Buildings Measure 1970) and partly because of the wider aspects of charity and trust law that would impact on such arrangements by the other parties. For example, could a building held on a charitable trust established with the object of worship according to the rites and doctrinal standards of the Strict and Particular Baptists be used by a local Russian Orthodox congregation? We would imagine not: the two are so far apart in doctrine and practice that to do so would be outside the terms of the trust-deed.

The provisions of the Act extend to beyond places of worship to Church halls or centres available wholly or mainly for activities other than worship, youth clubs and the residences of ordained ministers and lay workers.  The Act prevents church-sharing agreements with regard to cathedrals, peculiars and extra-parochial churches of the Church of England.  However, it does not preclude congregations from entering into informal arrangements with those of other denominations.

The Act has one or two slightly unusual features:

  • it applies only to England and Wales (though it has been extended to the Isle of Man by Act of Tynwald);
  • churches not listed in the original Schedule 2 to the Act can sign up to it if they wish to; and
  • it gives statutory recognition (uniquely, so far as we are aware) to the Evangelical Alliance and to Affinity – then known as the British Evangelical Council.

Generally:

  • for the C of E, sharing agreements “shall not be made without the consent of the bishop and the Pastoral Committee of the diocese concerned” while for other churches “the appropriate authority… may require the consent of any body or person specified by the authority to be given to sharing agreements…” [s 1(4)];
  • “a sharing agreement shall be binding on the successors to the parties thereto.” [s 1(9)];
  • s 2 makes provision for sharing of buildings held on trust;
  • s 3 provides for shared financial arrangements, even where the building is owned by only one of the sharing churches [s 3(4)];
  • s 4 provides a framework for worship in accordance with the forms of service of the participating churches, but subsection (3) provides that participation in each other’s worship by the sharing congregations shall be “governed by the practices and disciplines of those churches in like manner as if they worshipped in separate buildings” – so, eg, it does not provide statutory authority for Anglicans to receive communion at a Roman Catholic Eucharist;
  • s 7 makes provision about the sharing of residential buildings;
  • s 8 continues the exception or exemption from the provisions of the Charities Act 1993: many congregations are still excepted from the requirement to register with the Charity Commission for England and Wales but some are not: s 8 ensures that where an excepted and a non-excepted congregation share a building, the presence of the non-excepted congregation does not “contaminate” the exception of the other;
  • s 9 makes provision for termination; and
  • as noted above, s 10 prevents church-sharing agreements in respect of cathedrals, peculiars and extra-parochial churches of the C of E – but does not prevent joint use other than by way of a sharing agreement.

As an example of use other than by way of a sharing agreement, a Royal Charter of 1550 permitted the Huguenot refugees to worship in the Black Prince’s Chapel in Canterbury Cathedral – and they do so to this day (though no longer in the crypt) as the Eglise Protestante Française de Cantorbéry.

The 1969 Act is about formal sharing agreements rather than informal arrangements; and as early as 1994 about 60 per cent of Church of England parishes in the four northern archdeaconries of Southwark diocese were reported as hosting informally at least one “tenant” church, and sometimes up to three. And even within Christian communities there are quite different perceptions between the “parish” and “gathered” models for “church”. Within the Roman Catholic Church, concepts of sacred space differ with regard to the church as “domus Dei” (house of God) or “domus ecclesiae” (house of the People of God). At the other extreme, Quakers have no concept of “sacred space” at all: in principle, the meeting house is what keeps you dry if it’s raining. A Meeting for Worship can take place anywhere – there is a monthly MfW at Speaker’s Corner in Hyde Park.

With regard to secular use, the faculty jurisdiction of the Church of England imposes particular constraints; and in his article Shared Use of Church Buildings – Is nothing sacred? (2002) 31 Ecc LJ (6) 306 Charles George concludes

“the nineteenth-century outlawing of pure secular use on consecrated land is now part of legal history”.

Church use:

  • need not be ecclesiastical in purpose, providing the primary use of the church remains that of worship;
  • need not be ancillary to worship, or pastoral in motivation;
  • can be purely commercial; and
  • the prime motivation for allowing the use can be to raise revenue for the church.

The only impermissible uses are those which:

  • prevent the primary use of the church for worship; or
  • involve activities which are unsuitable in a church, either because of some conflict either with the teaching of the church, or because they would be unlikely to be regarded as acceptable by “right-thinking members of the Church of England.

George notes that the latter would preclude its use as a mosque or as a bookshop run by the National Secular Society.  However, possibly acceptable uses would include: post-offices; banking facilities; limited retail sales (including food and pharmaceutical goods); libraries; and doctors’ surgeries.  In addition to faculty approval, it would also be necessary to address issues relating to rating, planning and possibly listed building status.

Five legal options for the “complementary use of church buildings” are considered in the Open and Sustainable Churches initiative which is aimed at encouraging wider, more imaginative and more strategic use of the Church of England’s 16,000 buildings. It further states

“This approach will help churches to select the right legal and funding model to develop their building – in addition to the primary role of worship – for the ‘3Cs’ Community activities, Cultural events including tourism, or Commercial activities, e.g. local service provision or private hire.

There is now great flexibility in the system to allow shared use of a building – ranging from sole use for mission and worship with enhanced facilities, to mainly community or other use with occasional worship.”

David Pocklington and Frank Cranmer

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