John Fenwick argues that a free province of the CofE already exists, like a shell company ripe for a takeover
Robert Van Der Weyer [‘The law as friend’, ND August] states that ‘traditionalists have the right to form their own province without reference to General Synod’.
He is quite correct. But there is no need. Such a province already exists. As you have kindly reminded your readers from time to time, the Free Church of England has existed as precisely what its name says – a Free Church of England – since 1844. Any group of people contemplating life as Anglicans outside the Church of England has, surely, a duty to look at the alternative that already exists. Apart from its ecclesiological integrity, the Free Church of England enjoys some legal advantages which relate to a central theme of the article, namely the use of church buildings.
Mr Van Der Weyer suggests a scenario in which the traditionalist parishes would retain use of their churches and might on occasion permit CofE congregations to share them under the provisions of the Sharing of Church Buildings Act 1969. Such a situation seems highly unlikely. But there is a parallel alternative which is already legally possible.
Already a scheduled church
The Free Church of England is already a scheduled Church under the Sharing of Church Buildings Act. An FCE congregation can therefore legally share, for example, a Methodist, Roman Catholic or Church of England building, given the necessary conditions set out in the Act were met. But there is more. The FCE is also a Designated Church under the Ecumenical Relations Measure 1988. This means that the Church of England’s ‘Ecumenical Canons’ – B43 and B44 – already apply to it. So, for example, were a Church of England congregation to split, if the traditionalists became an FCE congregation, they could enter into a Local Ecumenical
Partnership (LEP) with the remainder of the congregation (who, realistically, are more likely to retain legal title to the building) and so retain continued use of the Church. Such a situation would require a great deal of good will locally, but so would any other arrangement for shared use.
Why is such a possibility so attractive? Because the provisions of the Act and the Measure do not apply to every Church. To qualify for the former, the new independent province would have to be gazetted by either the Evangelical Alliance, the British Evangelical Fellowship (now Affinity) or Churches Together in England (see Section 11 (3) of the Act).
Joining any of those bodies might not be a straightforward process, given the disruption and acrimony likely to accompany the creation of a breakaway province. In the meantime traditionalist congregations would be homeless. Designation under the Ecumenical Relations Measure is done by the Archbishops of Canterbury and York, who would probably act on advice formally given by the Council for Christian Unity. In other words the Church of England would have the final say on whether to grant this concession to the breakaway province.
Mr Van Der Weyer says that he ‘would hugely welcome the creation of a new province in England’ that included not simply ‘party’ traditionalists, but parishes that are simply Anglican in a conservative sense. The FCE really could provide the nucleus of such a province – and one that holds out a greater possibility of continuity of use of buildings and of co-operation with the Established Church and other Churches. ND