A relic of the past

Occasionally, an item arrives in the email inbox that enables an individual to do something to correct one of the many of the wrongs, as personally perceived, with the society in which we live. Such was the case recently when I received an email from the National Secular Society (NSS), a movement of which I am a member. The item had to do with a campaign being conducted by the NSS for the Westminster government to abolish the Chancel Repair Liability (CRL), otherwise known as the Chancel Tax.

In what follows I acknowledge the information from the NSS campaign against the CRL as being my main source of information.

The CRL goes back to the time of Henry VIII and ecclesiastical laws that gives some Anglican churches the right to demand local property owners, including domestic landowners, to make financial contributions towards repairs to their church chancels. The ‘Chancel’ is that part of an Anglican church building near the altar. It is an area reserved exclusively for clergy and choir, yet whose repair bills are to be paid from what could be described as ‘public funding’ – from ordinary church adherents who are not so privileged. Further, the chancel liability is due irrespective of the landowners being Anglican, or otherwise, and applies even if they are not (and have never been) Christians!

The situation in respect to the CRL is a long and complex legal process that goes back to the time around 1536 when rectoral land, usurped by Henry VIII from the Roman Catholic Church, was sold off to owners who were normally close to the church. Such owners were designated, without any exclusion clause, as “lay rectors”. It was these owners who were part responsible for the repair of the churches.

The Church of England can demand, in some cases, payment for the full cost of repairs, which can, be, for such ancient church buildings, very substantial, running into hundreds of thousands of pounds. A major consequence of this demand by the Church of England is that the presence of the CRL can be harmful, even destructive, for some property owners and require them to take out insurance against the risk of the Church claiming the money for expensive repairs. The liability continues even after the property is sold (the new landowner takes on the responsibility for the liability). Few potential buyers will contemplate taking on the burden of a property with CRL. Consequently, the value of most properties subject to CRL will be blighted and, in some cases, they may even become unsellable. Some homeowners have been understandably traumatised when they discover that their biggest asset had become significantly devalued.

It is instructive to reflect on a case study of when the issue of CRL first hit the headlines in 2003. The story concerned Andrew and Gail Wallbank. The Wallbanks received a demand for almost £100,000 to fund repairs of their local medieval church at Aston Cantlow, a village in Warwickshire. After a protracted legal battle, which was taken right to the House of Lords, the Wallbanks lost their appeal against the demand and faced a £350,000 bill – including legal costs. They were forced to sell their whole farm to pay for it. Talk about adding insult to injury!

Until this case, this legal anachronism had largely been forgotten and had been little exercised for centuries. Many purchasers of land were simply not aware of it. CRL was not generally mentioned in deeds, but despite this anomaly, the original ecclesiastical liability can still be enforced. Following the Wallbanks’ case, the Government introduced a registration procedure enabling CRL to be shown on Land Registry documents. A small advance.

According to the Land Registry, property in around 5,300 parishes in England and Wales is subject to CRL. Not all affected property is close to the church. Notwithstanding, thousands of homeowners around the country have been notified by the Land Registry that they are liable to pay the CRL. Not all of them are aware of how damaging these notices are likely to be to their property… and to their bank accounts!

As long ago as 1985, the Law Commission described the impact of CRL as “wholly capricious” and considered “that this relic of the past is.… no longer acceptable”. Its report concluded: “It is hard today to see any justification for this imposition”. Both the Law Commission and, more recently, the Law Society, have recommended that the only equitable solution is for CRL to be phased out. Even the Church of England’s General Synod overwhelmingly supported the abolition of CRL in 1982. Despite all this, abolition has not taken place. This is primarily because the Church has changed its mind and is not now willing to forgo any revenue to repair its many ancient churches, regardless of the unfairness, hardship and distress caused to many.

The argument generally advanced for the retention of CRL is that it is a civil liability that landowners should have known about, although there are some who obviously who did not. It is possible that the land was purchased at a discount in recognition of the liability, but this will be rare. The Church points out that it is responsible for maintaining 45% of the Grade I Listed Buildings in the country and the majority of all the parish churches are Grade II or higher, that it is unable to maintain these heritage buildings unaided, and so is reluctant to give up any source of income. Surely this is an inordinate concern for money and land. One can only wonder at this continuing attitude of what purports to be the ‘State’ church – the church of the people!

The NSS has highlighted the gross inequality of the CRL to the Government at ministerial level, but it seems clear that the Government is not prepared to initiate any abolition of the CRL, unless requested to do so by the Anglican Church. This seems very much a case of the cart before the horse. Furthermore, whilst the NSS values the great contribution to the English heritage that ancient churches make, it is also of the view that it is completely unfair that money for repairing them can be demanded simply on the grounds of what the Law Commission further describes as “anomalous, uncertain and obscure law.”

The NSS is continuing to campaign energetically for abolition of this deeply unfair and anachronistic liability. Nevertheless, recognising that this may have to be a medium-term goal, it is also seeking to broker solutions which in the meantime mitigate the most inequitable impositions of CRL. This work has been undertaken by conversations, meetings and correspondence with the relevant government Minister and the head of civil law at the Ministry of Justice, as well as with MPs, parliamentarians, specialist lawyers, and other interested parties.

CRL is a gross anachronism and an inequity that has no place in a 21st century democracy. That Church of England parishes alone can impose such an obligation on others, regardless of their religious affiliations, is totally at variance with the modern concept of justice. Despite all this, CRL remains, largely because no government has been prepared either to take over and fund the amounts the Church would levy on landowners for CRL, or to pass legislation to abolish CRL. So, this outmoded system remains a privilege, amongst others, that is afforded an unrepresentative Church of England. It is an ecclesiastical scandal.

For the above reasons, and others, it is surely time that this ancient law is consigned to the annals of history, if not to the Church of England’s rubbish bin, and a fairer way is found to preserve a heritage that is, perhaps, not so common as the Church of England might believe it to be.


About stewculbard

I am a retired secondary school teacher of Humanities, having spent a major portion of my working life as a Minister of Religion with the Baptist denomination. I would now describe myself as a secular humanist and a socialist. I am married to Vicky and we have three children - two sons and a married daughter - all of whom are in their thirties. Formerly of Melbourne, Australia, we are all now living in England. My academic studies have been undertaken in Australia, the UK and the USA. I have a doctorate in religious studies from the San Francisco Theological Seminary. In retirement I enjoy reading, listening to classical music and writing. I am a member of Republic, Sea of Faith, Dignity in Dying Campaign and the National Secular Society. As well, I have a subscription to a number of cultural and political associations, including Amnesty International and, as a committed European, The Federal Trust.
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