Jones v Archbishop of Wales

by Philip Jones

(2013) Church in Wales Provincial Court, unreported.

A Welsh parish held its annual vestry meeting as usual, chaired by the Vicar.  There were 34 candidates for election to the parochial church council (‘the PCC’).  The Constitution of the Church in Wales limits the number of elected PCC members to a maximum of 25:  Chapter 4C, Regulation 13(2).

This meant, of course, that a vote should have been taken to decide which of the 34 candidates should be elected to the PCC.  However, the Vicar, for whatever reason, declined to take a vote.  Instead he simply declared all 34 candidates elected.  He retired shortly afterwards.

The Archbishop, who was also the local diocesan bishop, was informed of the constitutional irregularity.  He decided to replace the 34 PCC members with 15 new PCC members appointed by himself (10 fewer than the permitted maximum of 25).  He did, however, permit the parish electors to nominate the 15 new members to him.  He therefore convened a special vestry meeting.  The special vestry meeting was held, a vote was taken and the 15 candidates with the most votes were nominated to the Archbishop, who then appointed them to the PCC.

Mr Jones was a parishioner (though not one of the 34 PCC members).  He objected that the Archbishop had no right to replace the PCC members in such a fashion.  He accepted that a constitutional irregularity had occurred at the annual vestry meeting (though it did not seem to him a very serious one).  He maintained, however, that two wrongs do not make a right.  If the annual vestry meeting or the Vicar had acted unconstitutionally, that did not entitle the Archbishop to act unconstitutionally as well.

Chapter 9, s.22 of the Constitution of the Church in Wales provides that the Church court

‘shall have power to hear and determine … (b) complaints against Churchwardens and lay [PCC members] in their role as such, and disputes with regard to their election’.

Mr Jones argued that, if the Archbishop was unhappy about the irregularity in the election of the 34 PCC members, he should have taken the matter to the Church court under Chapter 9, s.22 , and awaited the court’s determination.  He had not done this.  Instead he had taken direct action without any reference to the Church court.  Moreover, the action was draconian and therefore required clear authority.  The Archbishop had effectively sacked 34 people.

In justifying his action, the Archbishop relied on another provision of the Constitution: Chapter 4C, Regulation 5.  Regulation 5 provides that

‘If it is brought to the notice of the Diocesan Bishop that:

5.1 the Annual Vestry Meeting has not been held; or

5.2 Churchwardens, [PCC members], or the parochial representatives on the Diocesan Conference or the Deanery Conference have not been elected or appointed

the Bishop may appoint Churchwardens, [PCC members] or parochial representatives as the case may require …’.

The Archbishop’s view was that Regulation 5 was engaged because ‘elected or appointed’ meant ‘elected or appointed in accordance with the constitution’.  Elected PCC members must be elected ‘in accordance with the provisions of the [Constitution]’: Chapter 4C, s.9.  In this case, of course, they had not been.  This meant that they had not really been elected at all.

Mr Jones did not accept this interpretation of Regulation 5.  He argued that Regulation 5 was in the nature of a default power (or ‘lapse’ power).  If a moribund parish cannot be bothered to hold an Annual Vestry Meeting or elect a PCC, then the Archbishop can act in its place.  That was not the case here.  The annual vestry meeting had been held, and the PCC had been elected.  The large number of candidates indicated that the parish was far from being moribund.  There had been an irregularity in the PCC elections, but Regulation 5 did not empower the Archbishop to correct constitutional irregularities.  That was the function of the Church court.

Thus Mr Jones argued that the Archbishop’s interpretation of Regulation 5 took no account of Chapter 9, s.22.  If Regulation 5 permits the bishop to intervene directly to correct an irregular PCC election, then what is the purpose of the jurisdiction conferred on the Church court to determine disputes over PCC elections?  The jurisdiction would be superfluous.

However, the Provincial Court agreed with the Archbishop.  It flatly rejected Mr Jones’s interpretation of Regulation 5:

‘We do not agree that the Regulation is to be construed in such a limited way.  The words of the Regulation contain no such express limitation … Regulation 5 confers remedial powers upon the Diocesan Bishop where a parish has failed to fulfil its obligations, in this case with regard to the election of lay members of the PCC … a purposive construction of Regulation 5 lends no support to the restricted interpretation of the Regulation for which [Mr Jones] contends.’ (para 17).

The 34 PCC members had therefore not been sacked by the Archbishop, because they had not been appointed in the first place:

‘The purported appointment of [the] 34 members of the PCC … was unconstitutional and its effect was that there were no lay members of the PCC able to take part and vote in its decisions without being liable to challenge on the ground that the PCC was not a properly constituted body.’ (para 18).

But what about Chapter 9, s.22 and the jurisdiction of the Church court?  The Provincial Court accepted that ‘it would have been open for the [Archbishop] to bring a case in [the Church] court had he thought fit to do so’ (para 14).  However, the Archbishop was not obliged to take this course, because

‘it was not necessary.  He was empowered by Regulation 5 … to remedy the defective election.  That being so it is unnecessary to consider what the result of an application to the [Church] court under Chapter 9, s.22 might have been’ (para 22).

On this view, the Constitution of the Church in Wales provides not just one remedy for parochial indiscipline, but two alternative remedies.  The Church court and the bishop each has a separate power to remedy an irregular PCC election.

This in turn raises the question of what would happen if the Church court and the bishop were both to exercise their separate powers in respect of the same PCC election.  What if one parishioner complained to the Church court under Chapter 9, s.22, while another asked the bishop to exercise his supposed power under Regulation 5?  Which remedy would prevail over the other, the court’s or the bishop’s?  What would happen if the court and the bishop disagreed over whether there had been an irregularity at all?  The Constitution provides no answer to these questions.  A strange omission, if the Provincial Court’s interpretation is correct.

Having held that the Archbishop possessed the necessary power under Regulation 5, the Provincial Court had no difficulty in concluding that he had acted reasonably in exercising it.  In particular, there was nothing unreasonable about the Archbishop limiting the number of elected PCC members to 15.  Mr Jones’s objection was therefore dismissed.

Mr Jones is the author of this blog.  His account of the case should, of course, be read with this caveat in mind.  The complete text of the Constitution of the Church in Wales may be found on the Church’s internet website.