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 Issues | General Synod | Report February 2008

General Synod

Transfer of Parsonages

Clergy Terms of Service Measure

Charity Commission asked to investigate parsonage transfers.

The Dean of Christ Church Oxford has written to the Charity Commission asking them to investigate the current proposals to transfer all parsonages from local to Diocesan ownership. Christ Church is one of the many Oxford and Cambridge colleges and the letter has the backing of a number of other patronage bodies and individual patrons.

Most parsonages are currently owned by the incumbent who hold the property in trust for the parish for the duration of his incumbency. Therefore the parsonage, along with the Church and graveyard are locally owned on behalf of the parish. The new Ecclesiastical Offices Measure being considered by General Synod in February proposes that part of the conditions of office should be the provision of a house and that the Diocesan Parsonages Board should therefore become the owner of all the parsonages. As the Dean, Christopher Lewis, points out this will involve the transfer of four billion pounds worth of assets which were generally given by local people for the ministry of their local Church. In view of this the Commission are being asked to investigate whether the legislation if it is approved amounts to a breach of trust.

The full text of the letter follows:
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Christ Church, Oxford. OX1 1DP

15th January 2008

Mr Andrew Hind
Chief Executive
Charity Commission
Harmsworth House
13-15 Bouverie Street

Ecclesiastical Offices (Terms of Service) Measure

1. The above Measure is due to come before the General Synod of the Church of England on 12 February 2008 for its final reading. It is a substantial Measure which is primarily directed at replacing clergy freehold with a new legal arrangement whereby parish clergy would hold office, to be known as Common Tenure. It is not that aspect of the proposed Measure about which we are writing, but about additional provisions which will have the effect of transferring the ownership of parsonage houses, i.e. rectories and vicarages from the corporation sole normally occupied by the rector or vicar to a diocesan charitable body. If the Measure gains a majority in the February General Synod, it will then be sent to the Ecclesiastical Committee of Parliament and not until Parliament has declared the Measure expedient will it proceed for Royal Assent.

2. The total value of the parsonage houses of the Church of England is in the region of £4 billion, a sum approaching the total value of the assets held by the Church Commissioners. We imagine that the transfer of charitable assets on this scale from dispersed to centralised ownership will, at the very least, attract the attention of the Charity Commissioners.

3. As a consequence of the Pastoral Measure, 1983, there already is provision for redundant rectories and vicarages to be transferred to the ownership of Diocesan Boards of Finance either for sale or for diocesan purposes when two or more benefices are united. Such amalgamations of benefices, particularly in rural areas, have been necessary owing to the decline in the number of stipendiary clergy and probably also for financial reasons. It has also provided dioceses with capital to provide houses for beneficed and other clergy in new housing areas. Although some have not been happy with the powers given by the Pastoral Measure, most would recognise that the powers granted have been justified by changing circumstances, rather as the Charity Commission is willing to make schemes for charities when their aims and objectives do not fit easily with the circumstances of a changing world.

4. That, however, does not apply to established parsonage houses which are still needed to house rectors, vicars and priests-in-charge who have the Cure of Souls in the parishes of the benefice they serve. The ownership of parsonage houses by the rector or vicar as a personal and corporate trust (a "corporation sole") to provide them with housing as pastor of the parishes of the benefice has, in England, a history of about a thousand years. Given the existing provisions referred to above, neither changing clergy numbers nor demographic changes require the wholesale transfer of ownership of parsonage houses from the present corporation sole trust arrangements to a centralised diocesan body.

5. As things are, a rector or vicar requires a large number of permissions before he/she can make changes to the parsonage house. However, the fact that the incumbent is the owner of the house does restrict the power of others to make changes without consent. For example, if the ownership of parsonage houses is to be transferred to the new diocesan parsonage boards envisaged in the Draft Measure, a sitting incumbent will lose his/her right to prevent the sale of the parsonage while (s)he is incumbent. Perhaps more significant, the draft legislation provides that the new parsonage boards will be set up as corporate trusts, able to borrow against the corporate capital "for the purposes of the trust". To some, that may appear to be innocuous, but were a diocese to use these powers to borrow to finance property developments in new housing areas and were the developments to run into problems ( for example in a time of recession ) others could have a charge on the parsonage houses which form part of that trust. This cannot happen while, as at present, each house remains in its own trust.

6. A high proportion of the parsonage houses of the Church of England were endowed locally. Frequently the land was given by a local landowner and the rectory built cither by a local individual or by local public subscription and then conveyed to the corporation sole to be held in perpetuity for ecclesiastical, i.e. charitable, purposes. There have, of course, long been powers to replace large and expensive-to-maintain houses by smaller and more easily maintained rectories and vicarages. Usually, the diocese has had the benefit of the proceeds not needed for the replacement house and has recycled them elsewhere. There can, arguably, be justification in charitable terms for that.

7. However, we cannot see that there is any justification for removing the trustee ownership from the local rector or vicar and giving it to a diocesan body which inevitably will have agendas of its own. Present arrangements arc working perfectly well in almost every case. Senior ecclesiastical lawyers are divided on the wisdom of what is proposed.

8. We would particularly draw your attention to clause 7(1) (and schedule 2 clause I (I)) of the proposed Measure, which provides that parsonage houses will be transferred to a diocesan body 'discharged from all previously existing trusts in favour of the benefice or of the incumbent'. We are concerned that this provision could overturn at a stroke the original (and to our minds charitable) intention of a donor who may have given or built a parsonage house to facilitate the ministry of a particular parish (it to advance religion). This may be a provision which the Commission should review, in particular.

9. We request that this matter has your urgent attention and that you advise on whether or not our concerns are well-founded and/or raise questions of charity law which the Synod will need to consider.

Yours sincerely,

Christopher Lewis
Dean of Christ Church

Although signed by me, this letter is written with the support of the following who wish to be associated with it:

  • Dr Paul Kent, Chairman of the Patrons Consultative Group representing inter alia a substantial network of private patrons of Church of England livings and the following patronage trusts with rights of presentation to about 1000 livings between them and representing a very wide range of traditions within the Church:
  • Church Pastoral Aid Society
    • Church Trust Fund Trust
    • Martyrs Memorial and Church of England Trust
    • Church Patronage Trust
  • Church Society Trust
  • Church Union
  • Guild of All Souls
  • Oxford Churches Trust
  • Society for the Maintenance of the Faith

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