Who may enter a parish church?

In February 2019, the General Synod Legal Advisory Commission issued the Advice Parish Church – Right to Enter. Aside from the Delphic title, the new Advice provides a timely reminder for those concerned with the operation of the church at parish level. Under the Church Representation Rules, every parish is legally required to hold an Annual Parish Meeting to elect Churchwardens (formerly referred to as the “Vestry Meeting”) and an Annual Parochial Church Meeting (the “APCM”) to elect the PCC and conduct other parish business. Churchwardens are elected according to sections 4 and 5 Churchwardens Measure 2001. These meetings must be held between the 1st January and 30th April of each year.

For attendance at the Annual Parish Meeting, a person’s name must be entered on the electoral roll or on the register of local government electors by reason of residence in the parish, s5(1) Churchwardens Measure 2001; For attendance at the Annual Parish Church Meeting, the person’s name must be entered on the electoral roll of the parish, rule 6(2) Church Representation Rules 2011.

Commencing in 2007, a new Electoral Roll must be prepared de novo every sixth year, and consequently PCCs must undertake this activity during the next few weeks. To be on the electoral roll a person needs to have been baptised, be at least 16 years old and either be:

  • Living in the parish and a member of the Church of England or a Church in communion with the Church of England; or
  • Not resident in the parish but is a member of the Church of England (or a Church with which the Church of England is in communion) and has habitually attended worship in the parish during the six months prior to enrolment; or
  • A member in good standing of a Church which subscribes to the doctrine of the Holy Trinity and they are prepared to declare themselves a member of the Church of England, having habitually attended worship during the six months prior to enrolment.

See comments below on the meaning of “habitually” and the role of the Electoral Roll Officer.

The Advice

The Advice concerns the entry of persons to “parish churches”, and therefore is not directed towards “non-parochial units”; in addition to cathedrals, these include Royal and other Peculiars, college chapels, chapels of institutions and the Armed Forces, private chapels, and Mission Initiatives, see Chapter V, Moore’s Introduction to English Canon Law, 4th Edition, Ed Timothy Briden, Bloomsbury, 2013.

Although Guild Churches in London may be considered as “non-parochial  units”, specific provisions relating to them are included in rule 5, Church Representation Rules; a  person whose name is on Guild Church Roll is deemed  on the roll of the parish in which the guild church is located.

In his post The Right to Worship Philip Jones points out that s31(4) Mission and Pastoral Measure 2011 follows earlier Measures in providing that a pastoral scheme may create a new parish even though it has no parish church. He notes:

“[h]owever, s.43(1) of the Measure apparently obliges the bishop to provide a place of worship in every parish. According to s.43(1), where a parish has no church, the bishop must license a building, or part of a building, for public worship.

According to s43(2), where there is no parish church, the bishop may designate another church, or a building already licensed for worship, as the parish centre of worship (‘PCW’). The PCW is then deemed to be a parish church. A parish church may not itself be designated a PCW. The wording of s43(2) suggests that a PCW may be designated even if there is a parish church already.”

There are some uncertainties as to the origin of the right to enter a parish church; whether this was originally founded in statute (1) or whether it is purely a common law right (2). Leaving aside these academic points, however, the Advice states:

  • A parishioner has the right to enter his or her parish church in order to take part in divine service and to remain there until the conclusion of the service (3).
  • For these purposes ‘divine service’ includes any form of legally-authorised religious service (4). This right is subject to there being sufficient accommodation available (including standing room) but is necessarily subject to the requirements of the preservation of good order (5)  as well as of any applicable health and safety legislation (6).
  • The parishioner must comply with a churchwarden’s directions (if any) as to where he or she should sit (7). Although Canon F 7 speaks of allocation of seating “in such manner as the service of God may be best celebrated”, there seems no reason why this should not in appropriate circumstances embrace the seating of the parishioner in a different part of the church away from one or others of the congregation, for example, in the context of safeguarding concerns or possible harassment.
  • There is a similar right to attend the parish church for any meeting of parishioners for the purpose of choosing churchwardens (as long as the person’s name is entered on the electoral roll or is entered on the register of local government electors by reason of residence in the parish (8) and the annual parochial church meeting (as long as the parishioner’s name is on the electoral roll of the parish (9).
  • Subject to the rights in relation to church meetings, the position of those whose names are on the electoral roll but who are not resident in the parish is not clear (10). Such persons have the right to be married in the parish church (11). They may also be elected as members of the parochial church council (12) and chosen as churchwardens (13). In these circumstances, such persons as may have been elected or chosen presumably have the right to enter the church in order to carry out their legal functions.

It also refers readers to the other Opinions of the Commission relevant to the “right to enter” church buildings. Disturbances during services and admission to episcopal enthronements (op. cit. at page 302-305 – not available online) is of more relevance to cathedrals, an issue addressed in our posts: Objectors to female bishops (160721); Acclamation, assent and disruption (160625); and Court hears objector to female bishops (180521).

Celebrating (sic) Marriages in Anglican Cathedrals and Churches (February 2017) appears to refer to the Opinion Celebrity Marriages in Anglican Cathedrals and Churches (February 2017), which was covered in our post, Celebrity Marriages (and others) (170417).


The title and content of the Advice give little indication of the rationale behind its production, and we have focussed on its relevance to the forthcoming Annual Church Meeting and the APCM. For a different perspective on the legislation and case law associated with the “Right to Enter”, see in Philip Jones’ post The Right to Worship. This includes inter alia aspects of the case law not covered elsewhere:

“In Cole v Police Constable 443A (1936) 3 All ER 107 Goddard J held that only a parishioner has a common law right to attend the parish church; non-parishioners have no common law right to attend. Moreover, the right is limited to attendance at acts of public worship in the church.  The Court of the Arches held in Jarrett v Steele (1820) 161 English Reports 1290 that “no person has a right to enter [the church] when it is not open for divine service”’, except with permission of the incumbent and churchwardens”.


Whilst the new Advice clarifies a number of issues in relation to Annual Church Meetings and APCM, there are others which would benefit from further consideration. Although it states that a “parishioner must comply with a churchwarden’s directions”, there is no advice to churchwardens on what action, if any, to take if a parishioner does not comply. Jones reminds us:

“The symbol of the churchwarden’s office, the stave, alludes to the maintenance of order. Canon 19 of 1603 required the churchwardens ‘not [to] suffer any idle persons to abide either in the churchyard or church-porch’. Canon 28 required them to send non-parishioners back to their own churches. Canon 60 requires them to repel unauthorised preachers. Canon E1(4) now provides that the churchwardens shall ‘maintain order and decency in the church and churchyard, especially during the time of divine service’”.

In the case of “riotous, violent, or indecent behaviour…during the celebration of divine service or at any other time”, Churchwardens have certain powers under sections 3 and 4 Ecclesiastical Courts Jurisdiction Act 1860. However, it is generally recommended that thy do not use their powers of arrest; the Diocese of Chichester document  Being a Churchwarden comments “[u]nder ancient law [churchwardens] have power to arrest those making a disturbance but this is used sparingly!”, and the Diocese of Oxford advises [emphasis in original]:

“They are responsible for good order in the church and churchyard or the equivalent. In the event of a service being disrupted or a disturbance in church or churchyard they should call the police and, if necessary, may arrest a person or escort them off the premises. Police should always be called in preference to using churchwardens’ powers“.

Jones further notes that there is ample authority for holding that the churchwardens’ function extends to the maintenance of order during divine service; and in some older cases action has been taken against churchwardens who sought to restrict entry to churches, Taylor v Timson (1888) 20 Queen’s Bench Division 671 (“often cited in support of the right to worship in the parish church”); also pertinent is Cole v Police Constable 443A (1936) 3 All ER 107, albeit an action against Police Constable 443A who, at the Dean’s request, ejected the unofficial guide Mr Cole from Westminster Abbey, a Royal Peculiar. Mr Justice Goddard (later Lord Chief Justice Goddard) doubted the view in Taylor v Timson that the right to worship is correlative to the statutory duty to attend service that was imposed by the Acts of Uniformity after the Reformation; instead he concluded that:

“the parishioner’s right to attend his parish church must be of far more ancient origin than that [i.e. the Acts of Uniformity], and may be described as a common law right. The church, by being dedicated to sacred uses, is being dedicated to the use of parishioners to be there for worship … the right of the parishioner to attend his church … depends, not upon the statute, but upon the wide and common law right”.

Segregation of individuals

It should be noted that Canon F7 (3) permits the discrimination of parishioners and non-parishioners with regard to seating. However, reference in the Advice to segregating individuals on the basis of safeguarding or possible harassment is an issue that does not appear to have been raised elsewhere. In view of the potential difficulties this may raise with regard to discrimination, further guidance would have been useful.

With regard to the justification of Canon F7 (2)  for standing  “there seems to be no reason why this does not also include standing where the churchwarden directs if there is no seating available”, reference [7], this seems at odds with reference [6] on fire safety.

Other issues

The Advice does not address the vexed question of charging for entry to buildings for purposes other than the attendance at divine service, such as entry to Bath Abbey and Holy Trinity, Stratford upon Avon. There is also the issue in charity law that, in order to be a charitable activity, worship must be public (c.f. the Places of Worship Registration Act 1855 which, of course, does not apply to the C of E or the C in W).

References in the Advice

  1. That is, as a corollary of the statutory duty to attend divine service: see the Act of Uniformity 1551, section 1, (repealed); 34 Halsbury’s Laws of England (LexisNexis, 2011) paragraph 292 note 1. See, now, Canons B 6, paragraph 1, & B 15, paragraph 1.
  2. See Cole v Police Constable 443A [1937] 1 KB 316.
  3. Jarratt v Steele (1820) 3 Phillimore 170; In re St Michael’s, Orchard Portman [2001] Fam 302.
  4. As to which see, generally, the Revised Canons Ecclesiastical, Section B.
  5. See sections 2 and 3 of the Ecclesiastical Courts Jurisdiction Act 1860 (which are concerned with disturbances in churches and churchyards and enable those guilty of “riotous, violent or indecent behaviour” to be immediately apprehended by a churchwarden and taken before a magistrates’ court). See also Canon E 1.4 as to the duty of the churchwardens to “maintain order and decency in the church and churchyard, especially during the time of divine service”.
  6. For example, the requirements of the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 (SI 2005/1541).
  7. Canon F 7, paragraph 2. There seems to be no reason why this does not also include standing where the churchwarden directs if there is no seating available.
  8. Churchwardens Measure 2001, section 5(1).
  9. Church Representation Rules 2011, rule 6(2).
  10. See the Legal Opinions concerning the Church of England (8th ed., 2007) at page 170.
  11. Marriage Act 1949, section 72. Those having a qualifying connection with the relevant church have a similar right to be married in that church: Church of England Marriage Measure 2008, section 1.
  12. Church Representation Rules 2011, rule 14.
  13. Churchwardens Measure 2001, section 1 (3).

Note: At L&RUK we do not give legal advice, or purport to do so. This post summarizes the issues arising from the recent Church of England Legal Advisory Commission Opinion on rights of entry to parish churches. For specific queries on the application of the legislation, professional legal advice and the opinion of the competent authorities should be sought.

Updated: 11 May 2023 at 11:11. 

Cite this article as: David Pocklington, "Who may enter a parish church?" in Law & Religion UK, 4 March 2019, https://lawandreligionuk.com/2019/03/04/who-may-enter-a-parish-church/

9 thoughts on “Who may enter a parish church?

  1. In this post you refer to the qualifiactions for entry on the Church Electoral Roll, which includes the phrase “habitually attended worship in the parish”. Is the meaning of this phrase defined, or is it up to the Electoral Roll Officer to decide?

    • It’s a good question. Not that I would dream of doing so, but given that I’ve attended worship at my parish church three times this year (apart from ringing most Sunday mornings then creeping out), does that mean I could apply to go on the Roll? Have I attended worship “habitually”?

      I guess that, like a lot of things, the wording of the CRR leaves people with a very large area of discretion.

      • That’s an interesting point. I suspect that for a C of E or C in W church, strictly speaking, the answer is “yes” in normal circumstances – though I wouldn’t recommend you pitching up at Westminster Abbey for a Royal wedding and demanding to be admitted. But I assume that the current temporary bar on more than thirty people at weddings overrides that.

  2. Some dioceses such as St Edmundsbury and Ipswich use the word “regularly”, but that’s not what is says in the legislation, which uses “habitually”. The OED defines “habitually” as “By way of habit; customarily”, but this is perhaps given a more specific meaning since this refers to the period of the previous six months.

    In his article “The Church electoral Roll: Some Vagaries of the Church Representation Rules” (Ecc LJ [2006] 8, Issue 39 438-452) David Lamming says:

    “As Hill points out, neither baptism nor habitual worship can be the test as these terms appear elsewhere in the rule. Nor can it mean a person
    whose name is on the electoral roll, since the matter would then be circular. It appears, suggests Hill, ‘to be a self-defining concept’. This is certainly true with regard to rule l(2)(c), which requires an applicant relying on that paragraph to be ‘prepared to declare himself to be a member of the Church of England’. But, happily for EROs, they do not have to wrestle with this concept: if the applicant has made the requisite declaration, he is ‘entitled’ to be enrolled.”

    The reference to Mark Hill’s book above relates to the second edition, Hill M, Ecclesiastical Law (2nd Edn. OUP, Oxford, 2001). In the 4th Edition, published in 2018, Mark cites, with apparent approval, David’s paper on the meaning of “habitually”, (section 3.03, page 49, reference 10).

    • Thanks for the information Stephen. In response to the question “Who make the decision on what happens in church settings and at events held in church buildings?” the current CofE guidance “Opening and managing church buildings in step 4 of the Roadmap out of Lockdown” states:

      “The responsibility for making decisions about how to proceed lies with the incumbent. This applies to acts of worship, to events run by the PCC or church community, and to decisions on whether to hire out spaces or allow other events to proceed.

      Incumbents should feel empowered to make locally appropriate decisions, including taking different approaches to different types of services and events where the risks may vary. Your Archdeacon may be able to help if you would appreciate support with this.”

    • Thank you Stephen for your response, from which I have redacted the allegations to certain individuals and bodies. At L&RUK we do not give advice on specific issues, although we try to indicate where relevant information might be found, as in my initial response.
      My church too is also in vacancy, and I fully understand the problems and uncertainties associated with an Interregnum, for which the Area Dean and Churchwardens are normally the first point of contact. Should you wish to take matters further, perhaps you should approach the diocese or the national church which have procedures for dealing with victimization and bullying.

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