Every incumbent, every churchwarden, and indeed every PCC member, ought to buy and read a copy of the CHURCH REPRESENTATION RULES, which were updated on 1 January 1995. (They can be ordered from Church House Bookshop for £4.95 + P&P).

There is an attitude of mind which is still prevalent in the Church, that church law is somehow only morally, and not legally binding. This is not so: we are an Established Church and our law is the law of the land. And one of the areas in which them law is clearly laid down is the law on Parochial Church Councils. In other words, it affects almost all of us who have anything to do with a parish church. It is not optional: it has to be observed by clergy, by PCC officers, and by the diocese as well.

All this may sound rather negative, but it is not. The law is there to regulate relations between church members, for the protection and well-being of us all. There would be far fewer disputes in PCCs if everyone knew the relatively simple code set out in the Church Representation Rules.

The PCC is a relatively new body in the history of the Church of England. It was created by the Church Assembly, under the 1919 Enabling Act, with laudable intentions:

“It shall be the primary duty of the Council in every parish to co-operate with the Incumbent in the initiation, conduct and development of Church work both within the parish and outside.”

Section 3 of the Measure which created PCCs makes it plain that the PCC is an independent body with full legal rights and a legal existence of its own, comparable to that of a Public Limited Company.

“Every Council shall be a body corporate by the name of the Parochial Church Council of the parish for which they are appointed and shall have perpetual succession.”

This series begins with a look at the question, “Who may chair the PCC?” A number of parishes have been reporting requests for some diocesan official to come in and chair the local PCC meeting. The Church Representation Rules, however, are clear as to who may chair the PCC.

Rule 15 (contained in Appendix II) stipulates:

1 (a) The minister of the parish shall be chairman of the parochial church council. (b) A lay member of the council shall be elected as vice-chairman of the council. (c) During the vacancy of the benefice or when the chairman is incapacitated by absence or illness or any other cause or when the minister invites him to do so the vice-chairman of the council shall act as chairman and have all the powers vested in the chairman.

Provision is made for various circumstances which may arise. For instance, a priest-in-charge of a parish during an interregnum chairs the PCC as if he were the incumbent. If no minister is available and the vice-chairman is not present, then the PCC is to choose one of its own number to chair the meeting. The only circumstance in which anyone else may chair the meeting of the PCC is if an extraordinary meeting of the PCC (or an extraordinary parochial church meeting) is convened by the archdeacon, on a written representation made by at least one third of the lay members of the PCC, or by one tenth of the members of the church electoral roll. In this case the meeting is chaired by the archdeacon himself, or he may appoint someone else to chair the meeting. The incumbent may attend such a meeting, as a member of the PCC. The archdeacon has no vote.

A meeting of the PCC to discuss Resolutions A and B under the Priests (Ordination of Women) Measure is not an extraordinary meeting, and is chaired in the usual way.

Attempts have been made in some dioceses to replace PCC chairmen by the device of holding a Visitation. The diocesan bishop and the archdeacon have the right in canon law to “Visit” those who come under their jurisdiction, “at times and places limited by law or custom.” When they do so, states Canon G5, “the jurisdiction of all inferior Ordinaries shall be suspended”. The Bishop suspends the jurisdiction of the archdeacon while he is Visiting his diocese, but cannot suspend his clergy, either from their cure of souls, or from chairing their PCC.

The incumbent or minister of a parish is not an “Ordinary”. An Ordinary is an ecclesiastical superior who has jurisdiction – the right to hold a Court – and this includes archbishops, bishops and archdeacons, but not parish clergy. Even a Visitation can only take place according to the terms of Articles of Inquiry sent in advance to the minister and churchwardens. There is no power to Visit the laity, and attempts to establish such a power should be steadfastly resisted!