‘Virtual’ PCC meetings and other Coronavirus-related issues

Further to our post “Coronavirus – election of PCC and churchwardens”, David Lamming has written the following guest post on the issues raised

‘Virtual’ PCC meetings and other Coronavirus-related issues

Peter Collier’s comment on “Coronavirus – election of PCC and churchwardens” is helpful and timely. I believe there is a common misconception that the combination of Church Representation Rule M29 (business by correspondence) and rule 76 (communicating by email or post), coupled with the abolition of the former rule requiring each PCC to hold a minimum of 4 meetings a year and its replacement by a requirement to hold “a sufficient number of meetings to enable the efficient transaction of its business” (rule M23(1)), enables everything to be done by e-mail. This is not what rule M29 enables or allows, as Peter Collier explains.

I was a member of the revision committee for what is now the Church Representation and Ministers Measure 2019, the main provision of which is to substitute the completely new Schedule 3 to the Synodical Government Measure 1969, which contains the text of the new CRRs. It was the revision committee that added what is now rule M29 to the new rules. In its report to General Synod in July 2018, the committee explained the new rule (then rule M27) as follows:

“Parochial Church Councils – conduct of business by correspondence

58. The Committee considered that it would be desirable to make provision to enable parochial church councils to conduct business by correspondence where that was appropriate. The existing Rules provide for decisions to be taken at meetings; there is no other provision for decisions to be taken by the PCC.

59. The Committee recognised that there were occasions when PCCs needed to take decisions quickly – for example to approve expenditure on urgent repairs – without waiting to hold a meeting. The Committee noted that relevant legislation provided for the Archbishops’ Council, the Church Commissioners and the Church of England Pensions Board to conduct business by correspondence where that was appropriate and considered that PCCs should have a similar facility.

60. The Committee accordingly inserted what is now rule M27 (business by correspondence). That rule provides for the chair of the PCC – if he or she considers that any business can properly be conducted by correspondence – to instruct the PCC secretary to send proposals requiring approval to members. The chair has to specify the period by the end of which any objections are to be received and the number of objections needed to prevent the proposals from being approved. The proposals are treated as having been approved unless objections from the requisite number of members are received within the period specified.

61.The secretary must formally report the outcome to the next meeting of the PCC (with the result that the matter will be recorded in the minutes).”

Peter’s ‘purposive’ interpretation of what constitutes a ‘meeting’ in this digital age is helpful and one which, hopefully, can and will be adopted by all parishes. When it is possible to have a conversation by Skype with a family member on the other side of the world, it should be possible to conduct a PCC meeting by Skype within a single parish. (Clearly, provision would need to be made to include those PCC members who do not have online access: perhaps a conference telephone call could be arranged.)

As section 2(1) of the Parochial Church Council (Powers) Measure 1956 (as amended) states: “It shall be the duty of the minister and the parochial church council to consult together on matters of general concern and importance to the parish.” During the present coronavirus pandemic crisis, it is surely all the more important that ministers meet with their fellow PCC members (online, if not physically) to discuss the important pastoral and other issues of concern and importance to everyone in their care. Consulting ‘together’ cannot take place by the minister ‘instructing’ the PCC secretary to send a proposal to PCC members for them to approve or object to within a stated timescale.

Nor can or should such discussion/consultation be simply delegated to the standing committee. While it is now the case that where there are no more than 50 names on the church electoral roll (likely to be the position in many rural parishes), the standing committee is to consist of the minister and ‘at least’ two other members of the PCC (CRR rule M31(3)), thus enabling a standing committee of just the minister and two other PCC members, the role of the standing committee is to transact the business of the PCC ‘between meetings’, not ‘instead of’ PCC meetings (rule M31(6)), and it is provided expressly (by rule M31(6)(a)) that the standing committee “may not discharge a duty of the PCC”: arguably, this must include the ‘duty’ under section 2(1) of the 1956 Measure.

Postponed APCMs and the General Synod election 2020

ACMs and APCMs

Although at the time of writing, no advice to this effect had been posted on the Church of England ‘coronavirus’ webpages, it appears that the ‘Bishop’s Instrument’ made by the Bishop of Oxford, Steven Croft, and referred to in the L&RUK post, is based on a template circulated by Church House to all diocesan registrars. As an answer to an FAQ on the Church of England website states:

In the light of the Government’s guidance churches will be encouraged not to hold meetings unless they are absolutely necessary. The national Legal Office has written to every Diocesan Registrar and Diocesan Secretary with advice on how to suspend the legal requirements to hold these meetings.”

It is to be expected, therefore, that all diocesan bishops will make similar provision, exercising the powers given to them by section 10(1)(c) of the Churchwardens Measure 2001 and CRR rule 78(5).

The Oxford Instrument extends the time for holding the meeting to choose churchwardens and the APCM to 31 October 2020. In consequence, it provides that those who are parochial representatives of the laity on the deanery synod on the date the instrument was made (19 March 2020) “continue to hold that office… until 30 November 2020.” Obviously, some parishes will have held their annual meetings before 19 March, in which case the Explanatory Note to the Instrument states that its effect is that “the previously elected representatives of the laity on the deanery synod (i.e. those elected in 2017 or to fill casual vacancies since the 2017 elections) continue in office until 30 November 2020 (rather than 30 June, as would otherwise have been the case) and the newly elected representatives of the laity on the deanery synod (i.e. those elected in 2020) will not take up office until 1 December 2020 (rather than 1 July.)

As the Explanatory Note also states: “As a result, it will be the current members of the houses of laity of deanery synods who will comprise the electorate for the House of Laity of the General Synod in elections to the General Synod this year.

Whether or not, in practice, the electorate for the General Synod elections would have been very different (the controversial CRR rule M8(5), limiting service on the deanery synod to two successive three-year terms, is not retrospective), the expectation was that those elections would be held on the basis of the electorate being the deanery synod members elected at this year’s APCMs for a three-year term commencing 1 July 2020. Moreover, interest groups on the General Synod have been gearing up their supporters to seek to secure that those sympathetic to their position were elected at this year’s APCMs.

General Synod

This begs the question whether the General Synod elections will still go ahead in September/October 2020 as intended. This was certainly the expectation when the Synod met in London in February and agreed the allocation of seats (see GS 2162) and the rules for the conduct of the elections (GS 2164, GS 2165 and GS 2166.) Since Synod has agreed rules that provide (with a few exceptions) for the 2020 elections to be conducted electronically (both nominations and voting) those elections could still go ahead as planned, notwithstanding the current ‘social contact’ restrictions.

However, on 19 March 2020, Andrew Selous MP (Second Church Estates Commissioner) and Chris Bryant MP tabled an amendment to add the following new clause (NC1) to the Government’s Coronavirus Bill:

“Postponement of General Synod Elections

Her Majesty may by Order in Council, at the joint request of the Archbishops of Canterbury and York, postpone to the date specified in the Order the date on which the Convocations of Canterbury and York stand dissolved for the purposes of the Church of England Convocations Act 1966,

Section 1 of the Act is, accordingly, to be read subject to the provision made by an Order under this section.

If either of the Archbishops is unable to exercise the power to join in making a request under subsection (1), or is the see of either of the Archbishops is vacant, the power may be exercised by the senior bishop of the province, with seniority for that purpose being determined in accordance with section 10(4) of the Bishops (Retirement) Measure 1986.

An Order under this section may make consequential, supplementary, incidental, transitional or saving provision.”

The explanatory note states: “The new clause would enable elections to the General Synod of the Church of England that are due to take place this summer to be postponed.”

It may be presumed that Mr Selous has been prompted to table this new clause at the request of the Archbishops and/or the Legal Office at Church House, in which case serious consideration must be being given (as one would hope and expect) to postponement of the 2020 General Synod elections.

Conclusions

Postponing sessions of General Synod

Assuming that the new clause is agreed by Parliament (and there is unlikely to be any objection to it), the question arises as to the date to which the General Synod elections may be postponed. Linked to this is the issue whether the group of sessions in York this July (currently scheduled for July 10-14) will be cancelled. A power for the Presidents (i.e. the two archbishops) to do so “in circumstances of special urgency or importance” (SO 2(6)) was added to the Synod’s standing orders in July 2018, so such a cancellation in current circumstances is already catered for. (The Business Committee are scheduled to meet on or about 21 May to plan the agenda for July, so a decision would have to be made by then.)

If the General Synod elections are postponed to (say) December 2020, there will be no inaugural group of sessions of the new quinquennium on 23-25 November 2020, which would then be the group of sessions in February 2021. However, at present all this must be speculation, given the uncertainty over the length of the coronavirus crisis period and its consequent restrictions on normal life.

Virtual PCC meetings

With regard to the introductory remarks of this post (and absent any meeting of General Synod to pass a Church Representation Rules amendment resolution), whilst it would be helpful if a further clause could be added to the Coronavirus Bill to provide expressly for PCC meetings to be held by Skype etc, in the time available the inclusion of such a provision seems unlikely, given the intention to ‘fast-track’ the Bill through Parliament early this week. However, as Second Church Estates Commissioner, Andrew Selous should be aware of the situation should the opportunity arise for further changes to the Bill.

Cite this article as: David Lamming, “‘Virtual’ PCC meetings and other Coronavirus-related issues” in Law & Religion UK, 22 March 2020, https://www.lawandreligionuk.com/2020/03/22/virtual-pcc-meetings-and-other-coronavirus-related-issues/.

9 thoughts on “‘Virtual’ PCC meetings and other Coronavirus-related issues

  1. The Charity Commission’s Coronavirus Guidance does allow for use of teleconferencing etc even where there is no clause in the constitution or legislative provision. The relevant paragraph is below:

    “Where there is no such clause in your governing document and you decide to hold meetings over the phone or using digital solutions, we will understand but you should record this decision and that you have done this to demonstrate good governance of your charity.”

  2. Two other administrative matters which will arise: where weddings have to be conducted by Common Licence because it is not possible to read banns will Chancellors remit the fee? And what fees will churches charge for Services of Blessing at a later date and for Memorial services where a disposal cremation is all that has been possible There are no statutory fees for these so dioceses will miss out on the diocesan element. Approaches to these fees have varied considerably between parishes

    • This will be decided in each diocese. I anticipate issuing an order later this morning for the Diocese of York to the effect that the fee for a Common Licence for the next 3 months will be £100, which is the minimum I feel able to go to as the Registry will have significant work to do which is not covered by their retainer.

      • The Bishop of Peterborough, the Rt Revd Donald Allister, wrote this in a ‘Bulletin No.2’ to the licensed clergy of his diocese last Thursday (19 March):

        “If the banns have not already been read or completed, you will need a licence. I hope we can reduce the price of licences during this crisis to roughly the cost of banns, but that is still under discussion: please consult the registry.”
        [See: https://crosskeysmag.org.uk/?p=3292%5D

  3. Pingback: Coronavirus updates – index | Law & Religion UK

  4. New Clause 1 (set out above), moved by Andrew Selous MP, has just been added to the Coronavirus Bill without a division, and the Bill given its third reading. So, with just the HL stages and Royal Assent to go, I hope we can reasonably expect an early announcement whether the General Synod elections are to be postponed, or at least the date by when that decision will be made.

    • The Coronavirus Act 2020 (c.7) received Royal Assent earlier today. New clause 1 is now section 84 of the Act. We await to see whether (and when) the two Archbishops request Her Majesty to make an Order in Council postponing the 2020 General Synod elections as now provided for.

  5. Further research has unearthed the (not often cited in ecclesiastical law circles until now) case of Byng v London Life Association (1989) 1 All ER 560, which defined a valid meeting as one where people can see and hear each other.

    There is also Charity Commission Guidance from 2012 (long before the current crisis) https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/charities-and-meetings-cc48/charities-and-meetings which is based on that case and which says amongst other things that:

    “Charity trustees may choose to conduct some trustee meetings by electronic means, unless the governing document specifically prohibits it, and provided that the means used allows them to both see and hear each other, for example, by using video conferencing or internet video facilities. Such meetings can be useful if an emergency decision needs to be made, if trustees live a long way from any central point or if electronic communication makes it easier for charity trustees with disabilities to participate. The charity’s governing document may, if the trustees wish, specify the number (or a minimum number) of physical meetings to take place in a year, and the circumstances in which they may be called. The commission recommend that at least one physical meeting of all the charity trustees take place each year.”

    This predates the recent and much more limited guidance which has been often referred to recently. The recent guidance needs to be read in the light of what was said 2012.

    Finally there is s 360A of the Companies Act 2006 which provides that:
    360A Electronic meetings and voting
    (1) Nothing in this Part is to be taken to preclude the holding and conducting of a meeting in such a way that persons who are not present together at the same place may by electronic means attend and speak and vote at it.
    (2) In the case of a traded company the use of electronic means for the purpose of enabling members to participate in a general meeting may be made subject only to such requirements and restrictions as are—
    (a) necessary to ensure the identification of those taking part and the security of the electronic communication, and
    (b) proportionate to the achievement of those objectives.
    (3) Nothing in subsection (2) affects any power of a company to require reasonable evidence of the entitlement of any person who is not a member to participate in the meeting.

    In all these circumstances it is in my very humble opinion quite impossible now to maintain that meetings of any sort connected with church business cannot be held electronically so long as the participants can see and hear one another.

    I rest my case

    PCQC

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