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Juridical status of the religious bodies

Because one church is established in England, English law about ‘the Church’ often means that body, the Church of England. No other church in England (or, with the exception of the Church of Scotland, elsewhere in the United Kingdom) has anything that the state would recognise as ‘ecclesiastical law’.

For religious bodies other than the Church of England and the Church of Scotland, the applicable legal principles are those of the general law of charities and especially of charitable trusts. The non-established churches are essentially organised as voluntary associations, and their property is held by trustees (which may be registered companies) under the ordinary secular law. They have no special status.

Their canon law (if they use this term; most do not) has the status of a contract between their members. Property matters are generally managed through the ‘trust’, that ubiquitous device of English property law; but, especially in the larger churches where some complex division of functions is required as between national and local organs of the church, this may be supplemented by a private Act of Parliament.

For the same sort of reason, there is no formal listing of churches ‘recognised’ as such by the State. Places of worship may be registered for a variety of purposes, mainly the solemnisation of marriages (Places of Worship Registration Act 1855). Nor has English law a fully-developed notion of public law status or rights; the notion of a church as a corporation under public law is meaningless to the English lawyer.

There can be, of course, problems in determining whether a particular body does constitute a church. The Church of Scientology wished to register a building as a place of worship, but the Court of Appeal held that this involved the assembly of persons to worship God or to do reverence to a supreme being or deity; instruction in a secular philosophy was not sufficient. A humanist body, the South Place Ethical Society, was held for similar reasons not to be entitled to charitable status; it did not exist for the advancement of religion. The Mormon church (the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints) would seem to qualify as a church, but its temple in England, which is only open to Mormons ‘in good standing’ especially recommended for the purpose, was held not to be a place of public religious worship for rating (local tax) purposes.

The general position, therefore, is that the churches have the same rights as any other voluntary association to enter into contracts and hold property, to discipline their officers and members (using internal tribunals if they so wish), and to operate social welfare or other charitable (or indeed commercial) enterprises. Anglican bishops who are members of the House of Lords cannot vote in elections for the House of Commons, but the rest of the clergy have few privileges or disabilities. There are some special provisions affecting all churches, but paradoxically the privileged position of the Church of England as an established church compromises its autonomy in a number of respects.

D 11 September 2012    ADavid McClean

CNRS Unistra Dres Gsrl

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