“Major Churches” and “Festival Churches” – I

“Greater Churches” / “Major Churches”

In our post Churches, Minsters and Cathedrals, we considered the legal distinction between these designations within the Church of England; this included a short review of the terms “greater/major church” and “festival church”.  The annual visitor numbers reported last week revealed “Record numbers of visitors and worshippers flock to England’s cathedrals“, and the attention in the media prompted us to revisit and revise our earlier post. Below we give further consideration to “Minsters” and examine “Major Churches”; a later post will address “Festival Churches”.

Strategic Planning

The Church of England web site provides a section on resources on strategic planning for church buildings on its diocese-focussed web pages; these resources include templates to assist with strategic reviews of church buildings to take account of diocesan plans, deanery plans, mission action plans, and parish audits. Reference is made to the ChurchCare document Open and Sustainable Churches: Legal options for complementary use of church buildings (December 2018) which considers five options for the shared use of church buildings, and the legal and other implications. In addition to the faculty jurisdiction and the ecclesiastical exemption, these include the Mission and Pastoral Measure 2011, national non-domestic rates (‘business rates’), and various schemes for funding. In this context, it notes:

“There are two “black or white” legal statuses for a church building. Either it is open for public worship or it is closed. Closure means completely removing the legal effects of consecration in order to start the process of disposal, or occasionally “rebooting” the church in a different form. If the church is closed, the responsibility for the building passes to the Diocesan Board of Finance (DBF) until a further use is found. If the church is open it currently has to be maintained by (or on behalf of) the PCC”.


The historical background to use of the “Minster” designation was reviewed in our earlier post, in which we noted:

“a parish church with the “Minster” designation is considered in law no differently from any other parish church unless it is also a cathedral, such as York Minster or Southwell Minster; it then falls within the legislative regime relating to cathedrals. The same reasoning applies to the designations Abbey, Priory, Collegiate church and Pro-Cathedral”

The strategic planning template comments:

“Although not clearly defined legally [there is no legal definition of Minster, dp], the new status of Minster (as opposed to an historic honorific title) can be conferred by the Bishop to allow a church building to adopt an extra- or super-parochial role beyond that of a parish church. This can be adapted to circumstances but should always be carefully considered within an overall diocesan mission plan.”

Furthermore, it recommends “that possible candidates for Minsters are considered, although the final decision will be made by the Bishop. Bishops Mission Orders should be used where appropriate”.

“Greater Churches” and “Major Churches”

The term “greater church” is sometimes used to describe larger parish churches; in 1991 the Greater Churches Network was founded as “an informal association of non-cathedral churches which, by virtue of their great age, size, historical, architectural, or ecclesiastical importance, display many of the characteristics of a cathedral”. Its now-defunct web site noted: “[m]ost churches in the group also fulfil a role which is additional to that of a normal parish church”. Consequently, whilst these buildings may have many features in common with cathedrals in relation of their finance, maintenance &c, the term is merely “an honorific title” bestowed by the diocese, and legally these churches fall within the same regime as parish churches.

Following the 2016 study into Major Parish Churches by Rebecca Burrows for Historic England under the auspices of the Church Buildings Council, a Cathedrals and Major Churches Officer was appointed within the Church Buildings Council (CBC), and  ~300 churches in England were identified as meeting certain agreed criteria; these defined a “Major Parish Church” as having exceptional significance, being physically very large (over 1000m2 footprint), listed as Grade I, II* (or exceptionally II), open to visitors daily, having a role or roles beyond those of a typical parish church, and making a considerable civic, cultural, and economic contribution to their community.

The Study produced three reports:

The main report includes the example of Bath Abbey, which:

“… operates with a traditional PCC structure that retains ultimate responsibility; however, in practice this role is for legal purposes only, with the majority of tasks carried out by the Abbey staff, both lay and clerical. The Abbey has an unusually high amount of staff; the most active of which is the project management group, who manage major projects but also the day-to-day maintenance of the building”.

In May 2019, the Greater Churches Network was formally closed, a new Major Churches Network formed, and a new constitution instituted. The criteria for a Major Church were as identified in the studysupra, which added “Major parish churches may require a higher level of attention from the diocese and the CBC because of their special functions, significance and potential”. In this context, further information is provided on: Conservation Management PlansDisaster Management PlansLiturgical Plans; and Applying to Become a Major Church.

The second part of this review will consider “Festival Churches” and will be posted next week.

Cite this article as: David Pocklington, "“Major Churches” and “Festival Churches” – I" in Law & Religion UK, 4 December 2019, https://lawandreligionuk.com/2019/12/04/major-churches-and-festival-churches-i/

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