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Church of England proposes to pass law to override bankruptcy claims against its dioceses

The Church of England is considering passing a new law which would prevent secular judges from being able to order the sale of a cathedral as part of bankruptcy procedures, at a meeting of the General Synod in York next week. Several of the Church of England’s 42 cathedrals have fallen into financial difficulties in recent years, despite the overall substantial and increasing wealth of the Church. Humanists UK, which campaigns for the removal of ecclesiastical authority from the English legal framework, has called this proposal an abuse of Church’s legal powers.

At the General Synod, bishops will be presented with a report detailing the financial difficulties of Exeter and Peterborough cathedrals. It fears that under the current legal framework it could face having to sell its assets in order to fulfil its obligations to creditors. Such a new law would prevent judges from considering the sale of a cathedral during winding up procedures. Church laws, passed by the Synod and the Church’s own parliament, become laws that are binding on all courts, religious and secular.

However, the Church of England nationally is one of the wealthiest private foundations in the world. Church Commissioners manage the Church’s investable assets worth £7.9 billion in 2017. These investments made a 17.1% return in 2016. It also has fixed assets worth £96 million (2013) and cash deposits and debts worth a further £379 million. It is also one of the largest private landowners in country, estimated to be in the region of 100,000 acres in England and Wales.

Humanists UK’s Campaigners Officer Rachel Taggart-Ryan commented, ‘We are committed to protecting all buildings that have a cultural or heritage value, but it is not acceptable for a religious organisation, especially one that represents a minority of the population, to be able to use its own legislative powers to pass a law to exempt itself from due process and from fulfilling its financial obligations.

‘It is strange that some of the Church of England’s cathedrals are facing financial difficulties, given the increasing value of the organisation as a whole. Nonetheless, the Church should be subject to the same laws as the rest of society, and if it cannot manage its assets then judges should be able to consider alternative models of ownership, including takeover by national heritage organisations, as has happened in many other European countries.’  

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For further comment or information contact Rachel Taggart-Ryan, Campaigns Officer at rachel@humanism.org.uk or 07951 176 245.

Read more about our campaign work on disestablishment: https://humanism.org.uk/campaigns/secularism/constitutional-reform/

At Humanists UK, we advance free thinking and promote humanism to create a tolerant society where rational thinking and kindness prevail. Our work brings non-religious people together to develop their own views, helping people be happier and more fulfilled in the one life we have. Through our ceremonies, education services, and community and campaigning work, we strive to create a fair and equal society for all.

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