The Church of England and “Festival Churches”

 In an attempt to keep open those churches threatened with closure, the Church of England has recently endorsed the concept of designating some as “Festival Churches”. In this guest post, Trevor Cooper, Chairman of the Council of The Ecclesiological Society, explores the matter further…



The Church of England has recently endorsed the concept of designating some of its church buildings as “Festival Churches”. It says that such buildings have “some potential to help avert a sharp upturn” in the number of churches closing every year, explaining that “Festival Churches are about trying to ensure that churches remain open”.[1] An Association of Festival Churches has been set up and is to be launched at a fringe meeting of General Synod on 16 February 2016.

The core idea of a Festival Church (FC) is to remove the requirement for regular services and to use the building in a way which allows “much of the whole community to come together to celebrate church festivals” and “to ensure that there is an open church for people in the local community to celebrate rites of passage, such as baptisms, weddings, and funerals”. But there is no single definition: it is “a broad term for a range of models for doing rural ministry differently”.

This post is a first attempt to describe various forms of Festival Church, focusing on their legal status and source of funding. We avoid any discussion of the desirability or sustainability of each of four basic models (I to IV below). There is at present a paucity of public information on FCs, and we would welcome corrections and improvements to this post.

I -The festival church as the responsibility of the parish

One model of a FC is that the parish remains responsible for the building but without the requirement to use it for regular services. This appears to be the model being systematically considered by a number of dioceses including Lincoln and Ely.[2] We suspect that this may become the most common model.

With this model, all costs remain with the parish. The building remains consecrated and within the faculty system. One legal route is to convert the building to a chapel of ease. Within certain constraints, the bishop can currently remove the requirement to hold regular services in a church building under Canon  B 14A, but the Church is seeking to amend this Canon, though it is not yet known what changes are proposed.[3]

In many ways this is similar or identical to existing arrangements for “once a month” or “fifth Sunday in the month” or “Summer services only” church buildings. However, although some church buildings are already used only intermittently, not many have yet been branded as FCs.[4]

II – The festival church as the responsibility of the diocese

An influential article[5] on FCs by Canon Anna Norman-Walker suggested that the diocese should be responsible for the buildings, but each local community should pay the diocese for use of their local church building, paying an amount which depended on what church services and other usage they wanted. This may be the model currently being explored by the diocese of Exeter, where some ninety churches have been identified as candidates for FC status.[6] All costs lie with the diocese, which may recover some of these costs where community groups exist and want to use the church. The legal status of the buildings is not clear to us.

At present we know of no examples of buildings following this model.

III – The festival church as the responsibility of a diocesan Trust

Under this arrangement an arms’-length diocesan Trust is responsible for the FC. Each FC will be used for six or more services per year. In the literature available on this model, there is no mention of community use and it is not yet clear whether this model is regarded as a FC by the Church authorities. All costs lie with the Trust. The legal status of the buildings is not clear.

The only known example is in the Diocese of Norwich. The Trustees comprise three archdeacons and another local person;the overall purpose of this Trust is stated as: “the advancement of the Christian religion through its buildings”. Each church building will remain within the faculty system. Quinquennial inspections will be paid for by the diocese, not by the Trust.[7]

IV – The festival church cared for by a local Trust and no longer a parish church

The fourth model is for the FC to be cared for by a local Trust. We presume that this is on the basis of a lease of the building from the diocese. Occasional or regular services may take place.

With this model, all costs lie with the local Trust, which may receive payment from those using the church. If the Trust fails, we presume liability returns to the diocese. The legal status of these buildings is not clear to us, but we think they may be closed but licensed for services by the bishop.

We know of two examples, from the leaflet on FCs produced by the Church of England.[8]

Other models not known to be branded as festival churches

There are other models of interest but which (as far as we know) have not been branded as ‘Festival Churches’.

  • A Community Trust takes responsibility for the care of a parish church. The PCC contributes towards the cost (for example, by paying “rent” to the Community Trust), and uses the building for regular services. The Trust uses it for other events. There are several known examples.[9]
  • A parish makes occasional use of a church cared for by the Churches Conservation Trust. We know of one example, but are not clear whether the arrangement is formal or informal.
  • A church building has moved part way through the closure process and is in the care of the Diocesan Board of Finance, and is leased to a Trust who keep it wind and watertight. It is used occasionally for services. This is the model of the Norfolk Churches Trust.[10]
  • A church building is closed and either leased to, or the freehold bought by, a local Trust which uses it for community purposes, including holding a small number of services per year, the number strictly limited by the terms of the lease or by covenant. There are many examples.[11]

Trevor Cooper,  Chairman of the Council of The Ecclesiological Society


[1] This and the next two paragraphs make reference to the speech by Sir Tony Baldry ‘What are Festival Churches?’ on 3 February 2016; to a leaflet produced by the Church of England called Festival Churches: What are they?, distributed at that event and available on the same site; and to the Report of the Church Buildings Review Group, para 54.

[2] For Lincoln, see Mission Communities p 11: for Ely, see People Fully Alive p14.

[3] Report of the Church Buildings Review Group, para 147, referring to the recommendation in paragraph 59 of the Report of the Simplification Task Group (GS 1980).

[4] For examples of church buildings referred to as FCs, see e.g. St Stephen’s Ashill and St Mary’s Willand. For a church building in the process of conversion under current legislation see Cotes Heath & Swinnerton.

[5] No longer available on the Internet. A slightly revised version is available  in Trevor Cooper (ed), For Public Benefit: Churches Cared for by Trusts, 2014, chapter 32.

[6] For the figure of ninety candidate churches in the diocese of Exeter, see Report of the Church Buildings Review Group, para 42.

[7] See Diocesan Churches Trust and the background note here.

[8] See Festival Churches: What are they?. The two church buildings are Toller Fratrum, St Basil, Dorset and St German’s, Cornwall.

[9] Two are discussed in Cooper (ed.), For Public Benefit. They are Yarpole, Herefordshire and Fernham, Oxfordshire.

[10] See also the relevant chapter in Cooper (ed.), For Public Benefit.

[11] see Cooper (ed.), For Public Benefit, passim.


Cite this article as: Trevor Cooper, “The Church of England and ‘Festival Churches'” in Law & Religion UK, 14 February 2016,

6 thoughts on “The Church of England and “Festival Churches”

  1. The former parish church of Betteshanger, Canterbury is now used as a school chapel for which the school pays rent. Upkeep of the church and the (still open) churchyard is with the Canterbury DBF, whilst the care of the souls (interments – whether cremated or non-cremated remains) rests with the parish of Northbourne and Betteshanger with Ham.

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