In the weeks leading up to Christmas places of worship prepare to welcome friends old and new.  And local churches are no exception.

But when you stop to admire a picture-perfect village church and perhaps wonder about those who have crossed its threshold over the centuries, have you ever stopped and thought about how much it must cost to maintain it?  And where the funding comes from?

While we probably all feel a pang of regret when we see a place of worship converted into trendy homes like the 19th century chapel opposite Hampton Court or the Leeds church set to be converted  into 175 apartments,  it can be inevitable.

Keeping old Church buildings in good repair as active churches is a big challenge, especially the picturesque historic churches such as we see on Christmas cards, which is why we often see ‘progress signs’ for building renovation funds.

Did you know though, that in over 5000 English parishes, local people could be required to pay for the repairs to the chancel?  While it’s only the part of the church, the eastern end containing the altar, the chancel is typically about 25% of the building and can  account for a big repair liability.

It may be surprising to learn that there is still a legally enforceable liability for local property owners to undertake, or contribute towards, the cost of chancel repair of a parish church – and the law here has teeth.

In 2009 the Wallbank family lost their farm following an 18-year dispute over liability for the church repairs in the Warwickshire village of Aston Cantlow3.

Are you liable?

It is unlikely, especially in a leasehold flat, but if your parish church was built before 1536 you might want to check – especially if your property has an address like “Church Lane”!

It has been estimated that 15,000 individuals may have chancel repair liability3, but they can be protected by chancel repair indemnity policies. The fact that one-off premiums, typically paid at the time of purchase for a 25-year policy, are very low is a reflection of the unlikelihood of being called upon to pay a big bill, but the risk is still there.

If you are liable, and assuming that if the property has changed hands since 1990, which means it will be compulsorily registered, then any liability should be lodged at the Land Registry . That said, Parochial Parish Councils (PCCs) can lodge the information retrospectively, after you’ve bought the property.

So how did all this come about?

The old medieval system of paying tithes to the Church was superseded by the church acquiring rectories and glebes: endowments including land which isn’t even necessarily close to the church.

When Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries, property belonging to rectories came into lay ownership. The new owners may have been Henry’s favourites, but he still made sure to pass laws making them responsible for church upkeep.

This liability has passed down through subsequent owners, and since 1932 enforcement has been a matter for Civil, not Church, Courts.

It seems the Church of England recognises the issues – and the risks associated with incurring the wrath of home and landowners who may have been living in happy ignorance of their liability.

So why don’t PCCs just renounce their rights and not bother registering them?  Sadly, they are caught between a rock and a hard place.

A PCC that did not register the liability could be held to be in breach of its lawful duty to maximise the income due to the charity. That could make individual churchwardens and PCC members personally liable for the cost of chancel repairs to our historic churches, and to lose all grant aid from English Heritage.

So, if you find your dream home is in a village with a very old parish church, make sure your conveyancer is on the ball, and checks for any potential chancel repair liability!

FP1459-2020

The sole purpose of this article is to provide guidance on the issues covered. This article is not intended to give legal advice, and, accordingly, it should not be relied upon. It should not be regarded as a comprehensive statement of the law and/or market practice in this area. We make no claims as to the completeness or accuracy of the information contained herein or in the links which were live at the date of publication. You should not act upon (or should refrain from acting upon) information in this publication without first seeking specific legal and/or specialist advice. Arthur J. Gallagher Insurance Brokers Limited trading as Deacon accepts no liability for any inaccuracy, omission or mistake