The Easter Offering: Duty and Charity

by Philip Jones

[At] the Offertory, so many as are disposed, shall offer unto the poor men’s box every one according to his ability and charitable mind.

And at the offering days appointed, every man and woman shall pay to the Curate [i.e the incumbent] the due and accustomed offerings.’  (Book of Common Prayer 1549, rubric)

There seem to be 2 widely held assumptions concerning the Easter offering, that:

(1) it is the collection taken at church services on Easter Day and

(2) the proceeds are part of the incumbent’s official income, at least if the incumbent wishes to claim them.

The 1549 rubric quoted above suggests that this assumption is mistaken.  The rubric indicates a clear distinction between the Easter offering and the normal offertory collection, including the collection taken on Easter Day.  The Easter offering is separate from, and additional to, the offertory collection.

Moreover, the two payments are different in character.  The offertory collection is a voluntary charitable donation for the relief of poverty.  The Easter Offering, by contrast, is a ‘due’ payment, not a gift determined by charitable disposition.  A due is a duty (just like a duty on imported goods).  The Easter Offering is a compulsory payment, a tax payable to the incumbent.

As the rubric implies, Easter was not the only ‘offering day’ in the middle ages.  Phillimore relates that there were originally 4 offering days in all, Christmas, Easter, Whitsun-Pentecost and the feast of the dedication of the parish church (Ecclesiastical Law, 2nd edition 1895, p.1243).

However, from 1552 onwards, Easter is the only offering day referred to in the Book of Common Prayer.  The revised rubric provides that

‘yearly at Easter, every parishioner shall reckon with his parson, vicar or curate … and pay to … him all ecclesiastical duties, accustomably due …’.  The word offering no longer appears.

This revised wording, of course, makes more explicit the compulsory nature of the payment, and its difference from the voluntary donation for the poor.

Phillimore suggests that the Easter duty was a common law right of all incumbents (p.1243).  Therefore an incumbent did not have to prove his right to payment.  An Easter offering was a larger payment than the common law duty, but it was payable only if the incumbent could prove an immemorial custom in the parish for payment of the offering (i.e a custom dating from 1189, very difficult to prove).

Victorian legislation permitted individual parishes ‘to enter into a parochial agreement for the commutation of Easter offerings’ (p.1244), i.e to cancel the parish offering in return for payment of a one off lump sum to the incumbent.

Although reference to Whitsun as an offering day was removed from the Prayer Book in 1552, Pentecostals (Whitsun offerings or duties) may have continued after that time.  The Ecclesiastical Jurisdiction Measure 1963 provides that Pentecostals ‘shall cease to be exigible’ (demandable) (s.82(3)), but does not mention the Easter duty / offering.

The Easter duty / offering referred to in the Prayer Book has not been generally abolished, but it has been effectively destroyed by inflation.  The common law duty was a mere twopence a head (2d), so would now be impossible to enforce in practice.  An immemorial offering (if it can be proved) will only be worth a few pence more.  Common law and customary payments may not be adjusted for inflation (see the case of Bryant v Foot (1867) 2 Law Reports Queen’s Bench 161).

On our analysis, therefore, the incumbent’s only legal right is to the compulsory, though negligible, Easter duty.  He has no a priori common law right to keep the voluntary Easter collection for himself (any more than collections taken on other Sundays).  Even though it was removed from the rubric as long ago as 1552, the word ‘offering’, with its connotation of voluntary donation, has served to conflate the two payments artificially, encouraging a perception that they are one and the same.  However, they are clearly distinct in law.

The rubric concerning the offertory collection has changed since 1549.  It now provides that ‘the money given at the Offertory shall be disposed of to … pious and charitable uses’.  This, of course, allows a broader scope of use of the money than that available in 1549.  The money can now be applied to many uses other than the relief of poverty.  However, it is hard to argue from this that the incumbent’s personal benefit constitutes a ‘pious and charitable’ use.

The Parochial Church Councils (Powers) Measure 1956 empowers the parochial church council (‘the PCC’) ‘jointly with the minister to determine the objects to which all moneys to be given or collected in church shall be allocated’ (s.7(iv)).   If they cannot agree, the bishop decides instead (s.9(3)).

This power was originally expressed to be ‘subject to the directions contained in the Book of Common Prayer as to the disposal of money given at the offertory’.  The incumbent and PCC (and the bishop) therefore remained bound by the rubric.  They could decide how, exactly, the collection money was to be spent, but it still had to be spent on pious and charitable uses.

This restriction on the use of the collection money was removed in 1988, so the incumbent and PCC are no longer bound by the rubric at all.  However, it is arguable that, even in its amended form, the 1956 Measure does not confer an unfettered discretion on the incumbent and the PCC.  It suggests that the collection money must still be applied for the benefit of ‘objects’, i.e purposes or causes, rather than the benefit of particular people.

It has been pointed out that the rubric in the Book of Common Prayer applies only to the collection taken at Holy Communion.  The Prayer Book makes no provision for collections taken at Morning and Evening Prayer and other services.

In the case of Marson v Unmack (1923) Probate 163 the Court of the Arches suggested that ‘Collections … other than … the offertory, may lawfully be made for objects determined by agreement between the incumbent and the PCC.  Such objects may be and … ought to be announced to the congregation before collection …’ (p.169).  Again, the reference is to ‘objects’, and the Easter collection is not specifically discussed.

Apart from the wording of the 1956 Measure, it is arguably inconsistent with the incumbent’s trusteeship of the collection money for him to be able to determine that it should be paid to himself, even with the agreement of the PCC and the bishop, and even if the congregation is fully informed.  There is a clear conflict of interest.  A trustee may not profit from his trust.

If the incumbent’s claim on the voluntary Easter collection has no basis in common law it obviously requires a statutory basis.  It might therefore be appropriate to amend the 1956 Measure to provide this.

Moore’s Introduction to English Canon Law (3rd edition 1993) suggests that nowadays incumbents do not bother to claim the Easter collection, ‘since such offerings merely result in a pro tanto reduction in the [stipend] paid by the diocese’ (p.92).  Thus the stipend is simply reduced by the amount of the Easter collection money so the incumbent is no better off.

The Terms of Service Regulations 2009 confirm that an incumbent’s right to be paid the national minimum stipend is not absolute, but is subject to ‘any [other] income received by the office holder from other sources which is related to or derived from the duties of the office’ (reg 11.1).

Nevertheless the question of the Easter collection may still be relevant, even if incumbents no longer benefit personally.  A large sum of donated money is at stake.  If the incumbent makes a purported covenant or assignment of the Easter collection (to the diocese or elsewhere), this will be invalid if he is not entitled to the money in the first place.  (Nemo dat quod non habet).  Likewise, any decision on the allocation of the money, taken under the powers conferred by the 1956 Measure, may be flawed if it is influenced by the mistaken belief that the incumbent has a legal claim on it.