The Dual Function of the Parochial Church Council: Representative and Trustee

by Philip Jones

‘My view is that the [parochial church council] does not represent the laity but is part of my staff’ (tactless incumbent in the case of St. Peter, Roydon (1969) 2 All England Reports 1233, quoted at p.1235)

Parochial Church Councils (‘PCCs’) are the successor of two earlier parochial institutions

(1) the Vestry and

(2) the Church Trustees,

rather as the Church Commissioners are the successor of two ‘parent’ institutions.  The comparison is admittedly inexact.  The Ecclesiastical Commissioners and Queen Anne’s Bounty were dissolved altogether by the Church Commissioners Measure 1947 (s.2).  Vestries and Church Trustees were not dissolved when PCCs were created, nor were all the functions of Vestries transferred to PCCs.  However, the PCC’s functions were inherited from the Vestry and the Church Trustees.

Like the Court of the Arches, the Vestry took its name from the place where it originally met.  It was a corporation at common law (Still and Bunn v Palfrey (1841) 163 English Reports 624 at p.626).  In Wilson v M’math (1819) 161 English Reports 1260 it was noted that ‘at the common law, every parishioner who paid to the church rates … and no other persons had a right to come to these [vestry] meetings’ (p.1261, quoting).  The ratepaying parishioners met with the incumbent or other parochial minister, the minister being ‘the first, and … integral, part of the parish’ (p.1263).  The Vestry taxed itself by voting the church rate.

In Lee and Parker v Chalcraft (1821) 161 English Reports 1439, it was further noted that ‘The assessment of the parishioners to a [church] rate … is the very object of their meeting in Vestry.  They assess their rate with their minister at their head to consider this question’ (p.1442).  The agreed church rate was then supposed to be confirmed by the Church court, though this legal formality was ‘unfortunately often omitted’.

Compulsory church rates were abolished in 1868.  This rendered the ecclesiastical Vestry somewhat superfluous.  Thenceforth the parishioners’ care of their church ceased to be a legal duty in any meaningful sense, and became instead a voluntary labour of love determined by religious piety rather than rateable value.

The Compulsory Church Rate Abolition Act 1868 therefore provided that ‘trustees may be appointed in any parish for the purpose of accepting … and of holding any contributions which may be given to them for ecclesiastical purposes in the parish’.  The Church Trustees were the incumbent and two parishioners.  One parishioner-trustee was chosen by the benefice patron, the other by the bishop.  The Church Trustees were also a corporation.

The PCC was first constituted on a legal, statutory basis by the Church of England Assembly (Powers) Act 1919 (schedule, para 2(1)(i), 12, 13, Appendix II).  The membership of the PCC is now determined by the Church Representation Rules scheduled to the Synodical Government Measure 1969.

The PCC’s functions, as distinct from its constitution and membership, were first provided in a separate Measure of 1921.  That Measure was consolidated with later pieces of legislation on PCC functions in the Parochial Church Councils (Powers) Measure 1956.  Thus the constitution and functions of PCCs are still regulated by different pieces of legislation.

The 1956 Measure expressly refers to the PCC as the ‘successor’ to the Vestry and the Church Trustees (s.4).  Between them, the Church Representation Rules and the 1956 Measure indicate that the PCC exercises two functions inherited from the two corporations from which it is descended:

(1) representative of the parish to the Church and

(2) trustee of the Church’s property in the parish.


The 1919 Act makes clear that the laity are ‘represented’ in the PCC. Like the Vestry the PCC must include the incumbent, also other clergy and lay ministers of the parish.  The PCC also includes lay representatives.  Lay representatives must be Anglican communicants.

The PCC is therefore a partly elective body (though only partly), and its membership is subject to a religious qualification (i.e Anglicans only).  The Vestry, by contrast, was not elected.  Its members represented themselves.  Membership of the Vestry was based on a property qualification, and so could include non-Anglicans.  (Some parishes used to have select vestries but, as their name implies, the membership of these bodies was selective, not elective.)  The Church Trustees, of course, were not elected by the parishioners at all, only by the bishop and the patron.

The right to elect PCC members is itself subject to a religious qualification.  Lay electors must be members of the Church of England (or prepared to declare themselves such) who either live in the parish or habitually worship in the parish church (Appendix 1, rule 1).  Their names are entered on the electoral roll of the parish.  Lay representatives must themselves be parish electors (rule 10).

parochial church meeting must be held annually, on or before 30th April, just after Easter.  All persons on the electoral roll may attend and participate in this meeting, but ‘no other lay person shall be so entitled’ (6.2).

This annual meeting, unlike the PCC, cannot claim any descent from the Vestry.  The PCC, like the Vestry, is a corporation (1956 Measure, s.3), but the annual meeting is not.  Like the electoral roll from which it is drawn, the annual meeting is a completely new creation of modern synodical government.  It provides the basis of lay representation in synodical government.  Its sole function is electoral.  Thus it elects representatives to the PCC and to the deanery synod.  It elects (or appoints) an independent examiner or auditor to scrutinise the parish finances.  (It also elects sidesmen to assist the churchwardens, though sidesmen have no involvement in synodical government.)

The annual meeting has certain rights to information, but the only apparent purpose of these rights is to inform its choice of representatives.  Thus Rule 9 provides for reports to be made on the proceedings of the PCC and the deanery synod during the past year and ‘the activities of the parish generally’, and on the fabric, goods and ornaments of the parish church (or churches).  The PCC accounts and financial statements must also be ‘furnished’ to the annual meeting (1956 Measure, s.8(1)).  As a general rule, electors are allowed to see the minutes of PCC meetings, but the PCC may deny them access to minutes that it deems confidential (Appendix 2, 12(f)).

Electors may ask questions and initiate discussion at the annual meeting.  Provision exists for special or extraordinary parochial meetings to be convened in addition to the annual meeting (rules 22(1) and 23(1)).  However, no parochial meeting can fetter or veto any decision of the PCC.  The PCC’s obligation is limited to ‘tak[ing] into consideration any expression of opinion’ by a parochial meeting (1956 Measure, s.2(3)).  If the electors are unhappy with their PCC’s decisions, all they can do is vote in new representatives at the next annual meeting.

The 1956 Measure formerly provided, at s.8(3), that the PCC accounts required the ‘approval’ of the annual meeting, but this toothless provision (if the meeting refused to approve the accounts, this still had no effect on the PCC) was repealed by the Miscellaneous Provisions Measure 2005.

If the PCC is the representative of the parishioners, the power of the Church authorities to intervene in parochial elections should be minimal.  PCC elections are not required to be confirmed by a Church authority.  Once elected, PCC members hold office automatically from the conclusion of the annual meeting (rule 16(1)).  However, there are appeals procedures for settling disputes over votes and elections, and over entries on the electoral roll (rules 44 and 43).

The bishop has a rarely used power under the Vacation of Benefices Measure 1977 (s.10(6)) to disqualify persons from serving on PCCs (rule 10).  Persons who have been disqualified under secular law from being charity trustees are likewise disqualified from the PCC.  Following the very recent Safeguarding and Clergy Discipline Measure 2016, the bishop will also be able to disqualify, or to suspend an already-elected PCC member, if the individual concerned is considered to present a ‘significant risk of harm’ to children or ‘vulnerable adults’.

The 1956 Measure provides that the incumbent and the PCC are required to ‘consult together on matters of general concern and importance to the parish’ (s.2).  This may do no more than make explicit what was implicit in the constitution of the Vestry.  However, the 1956 Measure also integrates the PCC into the modern synodical process.  Thus the PCC

(1) may give advice to the diocesan synod and the deanery synod on any matter referred to it, and also raise matters with those synods, and

(2) should also make known and put into effect any ‘provision’ made by those synods, but this is ‘without prejudice to the powers of the council on any particular matter’ (s.2).

The representative function of the PCC is exercised in many different contexts, e.g

(1) choice of liturgy, under the Worship and Doctrine Measure 1974, s.1(3)

(2) choice of Bible, under the Prayer Book (Versions of the Bible) Measure 1965, s.1(1)

(3) choice of ministerial vesture during divine service, under canon B8(6)

(4) choice of incumbent, under the Patronage (Benefices) Measure 1986

(5) pastoral reorganisation procedure, under the Mission and Pastoral Measure 2011 and

(6) the faculty procedure

The 1956 Measure also confirms the PCC’s ‘power to make representations to the bishop with regard to any matter affecting the welfare of the Church in the parish’ (s.7(5)), though such a power hardly requires statutory authority.

The PCC is not the only representative of the parish.  The lay representative to the deanery synod also represents the parish in synodical government.  Churchwardens continue to be elected by all resident parishioners, regardless of religion, as well as by those on the electoral roll (Churchwardens Measure 2001, s.5(1)), a wider electoral franchise.


Being trustee for the Church in the parish is rather different from being representative of the parish.  As trustee, the PCC represents the Church authorities rather than the parishioners.

The objects of the PCC’s trust are stated in the 1956 Measure.  The inherited objects are stated at s.4(1)(ii)

‘(a) the financial affairs of the church including the collection and administration of all monies raised for church purposes …

(b) the care, maintenance, preservation and insurance of the fabric of the church and the goods and ornaments thereof

(c) the care and maintenance of any churchyard …’.

S.4(1)(ii) suggests that these objects were formerly the responsibility of the churchwardens rather than the vestry.  Hence the PCC is the successor of the churchwardens, as well as the Vestry and the Church Trustees.  However, the churchwardens exercised their responsibility as agents or executors of the parish.  The old legal duty to maintain the church and churchyard was imposed on all the parishioners.  The work involved was indeed organised by the churchwardens, but it was paid for by the parish, which meant the Vestry.  The churchwardens had no financial liability to pay for the work.  They were required to collect the church rate and then use the funds to pay for the church and churchyard, but it was the Vestry which voted and paid the rate in the first place.

As well as this inherited trust, the 1956 Measure created a new missionary trust for the PCC, stated at s.2(2)(a)

‘co-operation with the incumbent in promoting in the parish the whole mission of the Church, pastoral, evangelistic, social and ecumenical’.

The original version of s.2 provided for the PCC to ‘co-operate with the minister in the initiation, conduct and development of Church work within the parish and outside’.

In St. Peter, Roydon, cited above, the consistory court held that this duty of cooperation meant that the PCC ‘must pay proper regard to the wishes or suggestions of the minister … but, having done that, they must be free to differ from him if, in their view, the honest discharge of the particular duty requires them to do so’ (p.1235).

The incumbent and the PCC jointly determine how the money raised in church collections is to be spent (s.7(4)).  If they cannot agree, the bishop decides (s.9(3)).

To perform its trust, in relation to the church and churchyard and to missionary work, the PCC has a broad power ‘to frame an annual budget of moneys required for the maintenance of the work of the Church in the parish and otherwise, and to take such steps as they think necessary for the raising, collecting and allocating of such moneys’ (s.7(i)).  It may also ‘levy and collect a voluntary church rate’ (s.7(ii)).

The PCC can acquire property, whether real or personal, ‘for any ecclesiastical purpose affecting the parish’ (s.5(1)).  This resembles the power conferred on the Church Trustees by the 1868 Act.  However, consistent with its modern missionary function, the PCC can also acquire property for educational schemes, ‘facilities for the spiritual moral and physical training of persons residing in or near the parish’.

The PCC’s trustee function is much more closely controlled by the Church than its representative function.  All dealings with the church and churchyard are, of course, subject to the faculty jurisdiction exercised by the ever-vigilant ecclesiastical courts.  Any acquisition of property requires the consent of the diocesan authority (s.6).  Although the PCC is a body corporate (s.3), it is not allowed to own real or investment property.  It may acquire such property, but the property must then vest in the diocesan authority (s.6).  The PCC is managing trustee of the property, but any dealings with it will require diocesan consent, though a recent change in the law suggests that minor dealings may not require such consent (Ecclesiastical Property Measure 2015, s.8).  The PCC’s exercise of powers concerning educational schemes also requires the consent of the diocesan authority (1956 Measure, s.5(5)).  The 1956 Measure suggests that the PCC can only own deposit accounts and short leases (i.e periodic tenancies).

PCC accounts must be ‘laid before’ the diocesan authority annually (s.8(4)).  The bishop or archdeacon, or any person authorised by them, have the right to see all PCC minutes, whether confidential or not (Appendix 2, 12(e)).  However, the PCC’s annual budget, unlike the church rate, does not require to be confirmed or approved by the diocesan authority.

Just as they retain a representative function independent of the PCC, so the churchwardens retain certain distinct responsibilities for the care of church and churchyard.  The 1956 Measure also preserves the churchwardens’ supposed property in the goods and ornaments of the Church (s.4(2)).  The administration of ecclesiastical charitable trusts was not transferred from the Vestry to the PCC (1956 Measure, s.4(1)(i)).  Such trusts are now regulated by the Incumbents and Churchwardens (Trusts) Measure 1964.

The Code of Canon Law 1983 suggests that the trusteeship exercised by the PCC in the Church of England may be exercised by two separate committees in the Catholic Church.  Every Catholic parish must have a parochial finance committee (canon 537).  The local bishop may also establish a parochial pastoral council, under the chairmanship of the incumbent (the ‘pastor’), through which lay parishioners may ‘give their help in fostering pastoral action’ (canon 536).

The constitutions of both committees are determined by local law, so the bishop could provide that the same committee should serve both as finance committee and as pastoral council.  He could also permit parochial elections on the Anglican model.  However, the 1983 Code is clear that lay parishioners enjoy only a consultative (i.e non-binding) vote in the pastoral council.  Also parish committees can have no representative function in the Catholic Church.  The incumbent alone represents the parish (canon 532).