A brief introduction to the faculty system

Author: Mr Nicholas Cannon

Published on: 21 December 2022

The faculty system is in effect a parallel planning permission system covering church buildings and churchyards. There are three main reasons why such a system exists:

  1. Some changes to church buildings involve questions of theology or churchmanship, which are for the Church to decide rather than the secular planning authorities. This is known as the ecclesiastical exemption. However, significant external changes to churches, particularly listed buildings, may still require secular planning permission.
  2. It ensures that parishes wishing to change their church take expert advice and remain within the parameters of church doctrine and policy.
  3. It safeguards the interests of the community beyond the current immediate congregation, including residents in the parish and those concerned with the preservation of the national heritage.

The usual procedure is that a parish (generally but not always the incumbent or the PCC) applies for a faculty (a permission) to the Diocesan Advisory Committee (DAC), which meets monthly to discuss and assess such applications. The DAC consists of a group of experts in the Diocese, some from the clergy, others with extensive architectural, historical or legal experience. They can call on the support of specialist DAC Advisers on a wide range of issues such as liturgical matters, church bells, clocks, organs, wooden furnishings, silver and so on. The DAC on receiving an application often asks the parish to provide more information to help consider the case. It will usually ask the parish to post public notices of what is planned, and will also usually consult heritage partners with an interest, such as the Church Buildings Council, the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, Historic England, and others. The basic objective is to build a consensus on the way forward. Once the DAC has come to a conclusion, the application is formalised as a legal petition and forwarded with a recommendation through the Diocesan Registrar (basically, the Bishop’s solicitor) to the Chancellor, a judge appointed by the Bishop to deal with faculties and other church legal matters. In the Diocese of Norwich, the Chancellor is David Etherington KC.

The Chancellor will consider the petition and any objections raised and come to a decision whether or not to issue a faculty to allow the proposed works or changes to go forward. His deliberations are nearly always on paper, but he may convene a hearing to take oral evidence from interested parties, a sort of court case. There is a right of appeal against a Chancellor’s decisions to an appeal court called, in the Province of Canterbury, the Court of Arches. This is very rare. Technically there is a right of further appeal to the Privy Council, but the last time this happened was in 1928.

The Chancellor’s faculty is time-limited, and parishes are supposed to complete the works envisaged in that period. If, as very often happens, the parish runs out of time, they can request an extension of the faculty from the Chancellor by emailing the Diocesan Registrar. It is best to do this before the faculty runs out, otherwise the Chancellor may insist that the whole process be re-started from scratch.

If a parish realises that they have inadvertently taken action without the necessary faculty, they can apply for a retrospective confirmatory faculty. Where immediate work is needed against the clock, the parish can ask for an emergency interim faculty. When King’s Lynn Minster flooded recently, the Chancellor issued a faculty for the emergency repairs in under two hours. But the faculty system is a serious legal requirement: significant changes to church buildings without the necessary permission are illegal and, while clergymen are no longer thrown into prison in such circumstances as they were in the controversies over church ritual in the Victorian era, the Chancellor has the power to order works to be dismantled at the incumbent’s or churchwardens’ personal expense or to impose fines. While this might sound a bit heavy-handed, it is very rare (and of course happens all the time in the secular planning system).

Many minor works can be done without a faculty: ‘List A’ works which a parish can do on its own initiative and ‘List B’ works which an Archdeacon can authorise. The Chancellor also issues Churchyard Regulations which indicate which memorials are given general permission (these vary from Diocese to Diocese). In the Diocese of Norwich all faculty and List B applications must be made through the Online Faculty System. This can look a bit daunting at first, but in practice is fairly straightforward, and my Church Care colleagues within the Parish Support Team are there to help if you get stuck, or if you need help or advice with other aspects of the faculty system.

The author...

Mr Nicholas Cannon

Care & Development of Church Buildings - Church Care and Development Manager (DAC Secretary)

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