Thistleton Church's management team and volunteers have learned a great deal since 2016 about the process of changing status to a chapel of ease; raising funds; planning and completing building works; developing a heritage project; and making the church the centre for the community. We don't pretend to be experts; we have met lots of challenges along the way and we are learning new things everyday. But we hope that some of these experiences might be interesting and even helpful to other churches. Please bear in mind that Thistleton is in the Diocese of Peterborough and other dioceses may have different procedures.
Why become a chapel of ease? The parish church is central to the framework of the Church of England. Many churchgoers worship regularly at 'their church' and would be reluctant to see an end to regular services. But Thistleton had reached the point where the congregation was tiny and no-one new was coming forward to join the PCC and take on the roles of Churchwarden, secretary etc. Some churches end up closing altogether through a lack of support and funds and are unaware of the chapel of ease status. While we would never encourage any church to actively move to a change of status we think it is worth considering the chapel of ease as an alternative to closure. The start of our journey was to present the local community with options and ask them what they wanted: to carry on as a parish church for as long as possible; to close; to ask the Churches Conservation Trust (CCT) to take over; or to become a chapel of ease. We were told that if CCT took over, the church would effectively just be open for visitors as only two services a year could be held and no community events and as the church was the only public space in the village, that wouldn't help us at all. The position of CCT may have changed since 2016 so may be worth looking at now but at the time the chapel of ease seemed to be the best solution.
The process of becoming a chapel of ease The next step was to find a parish willing to merge with Thistleton so that the PCC would take over. Thistleton was one of six churches in a group and we were fortunate that the largest parish, Cottesmore, was willing to merge providing it wouldn't mean more work or any expense! The solution to that was to set up a 'Friends' organisation. The National Churches Trust (NCT) produce a useful 'toolkit that helped us to establish the Friends of Thistleton Church (FOTC): https://www.nationalchurchestrust.org/sites/default/files/2022-03/AFriendsGroupforYourChurchFINAL2014.pdfit' NCT also produce a model constitution that helped us to set out our charitable objectives. https://www.nationalchurchestrust.org/sites/default/files/2022-03/AFriendsModelConstitutionGuidanceFINAL2014.pdf A constitution was necessary a) to open a bank account and b) to apply for registration with the Charity Commission. Once Cottesmore PPC was sure FOTC was a viable solution the Rector (i.e. the incumbent) applied to the Diocese for the formal merger of parishes. This was done under the provision of the Mission and Pastoral Measure 2011. Basically this entailed ensuring that both Thistleton and Cottesmore PCCs supported the change, consulting the Rural Dean and Archdeacon, then making a recommendation to the Bishop. Once the official bit started the process took about six months.
How does a chapel of ease differ from a parish church? We were told that a parish can only have one parish church so any additional church in the parish become a chapel of ease meaning (unsurprisingly) a chapel for the ease of local parishioners and might be useful if for example the parish is geographically large and travel to the main church is difficult. Technically a chapel of ease can have services as often as the incumbent wants to hold them but in reality services are limited to the major festivals like Easter, Christmas and Harvest. The church can remain fully licensed for weddings, funerals and baptisms although as a precaution our Rector contacted the Bishop to ask for permission to continue with these services to avoid having to apply for special licences.
What are the financial implications? Chapels of ease aren't that common so to avoid any doubt or confusion we checked with the Church of England at national level. We were told that any existing money held in a general account by the old PCC (Thistleton) i.e. for running costs would be transferable to the new PCC (Cottesmore) once the merger was complete. But any money in an account for the purpose of repairing Thistleton Church (like a Fabric Fund) could only be used for Thistleton Church i.e. it could not be used by the new PCC for their parish church. As for the future, Thistleton Church would no longer have to pay Parish Share and the new PCC would be responsible for all running costs. However, in return, any 'church income' - collections at church services, regular giving to the church and any fees - would go to the new PCC. Cottesmore PCC would not have agreed to the merger if it meant taking on Thistleton's running costs so FOTC undertook to raise the money to cover all costs. Parish Share was more controversial. Thistleton was one of six parish churches and the Parish Share was actually a Benefice Share that was split among the six churches with the split roughly related to the size of each parish. As Thistleton was tiny, our share was only 3% of the Benefice Share: in 2016 this was around £67,000 so Thistleton's contribution was just over £2,000. The change of status meant that the £2,000 had to be absorbed by the other five churches, not necessarily by Cottesmore, and this caused some consternation. However we pointed out two things: firstly, the expected 'church income' based on previous years of regular giving (including an annual bequest from a charitable trust) plus collections from six services should be more than £2,000 so the Benefice would not be disadvantaged. Furthermore, the Benefice Share was 'what it was' irrespective of whether Thistleton was open, closed or a chapel of ease. If Thistleton closed the Benefice Share would still be £67,000 so there was no advantage in closing Thistleton. From the FOTC perspective, there was no objection to all 'church money' going to Cottesmore; we acknowledged we would continue to have access to the Rector's services, and he expertise of the PCC, and were happy that they receive the money.
Setting up a Friends group As stated above, FOTC found the guidance of the NCT very helpful. One particular piece of advice stood out which can be summarised as 'just because something works well in one church don't assume it will work in yours and vice versa'. We decided to be an independent organisation rather than a sub committee of the PCC for the practical reason that we would have started off under one PCC then moved to another and that sounded complicated from a constitutional perspective. Secondly, we wanted to apply for charitable status as that would help us when applying for grants (see below). Thirdly, while recognising that Thistleton Church's depended on the cooperation of Cottesmore PCC we knew it depended even more on the financial acumen of the Friends and we wanted to ensure financial independence. FOTC drafted a constitution as this was needed to open a bank account and we asked every household in the village (all 47 of them!) to consider joining FOTC. The main reason for membership was to demonstrate that we had community support as we expected this to be an important factor when applying for grants. The second reason was to establish a starter fund. While not compulsory we asked every member to consider giving an initial donation of £12. Individuals in more than half of households joined and many gave more than £12 resulting in an initial membership of over 50 people and a starter fund of over £1,500. We were solvent! We have not maintained an annual membership or subscription; a member is a member until they withdraw and new people in the community are invited to join. To keep the community engaged with the church we arrange annual meetings (or more frequent if required) with the community and produce a newsletter about three times a year. They are consulted on any plans to develop the church building.
Fundraising When FOTC was formed, the trustees were very enthusiastic to arrange events but we were given some good advice by another Friends group in the area: don't try to do too many fundraising events. We decided at the outset that any fundraising should be 'fun' and that the trustees would try to involve volunteers and not do everything themselves. There was debate over whether it was better to do several small scale events requiring little effort or just one or two large scale, resource intensive events each year. Eventually we developed a matrix that involved comparing resource and risk with reward. If something required a lot of resource - either volunteer input or financial investment or time - and if there was a lot of risk involved - the event might be cancelled in bad weather for example - the potential reward should be worth the effort and risk. Conversely something might be quick and easy to run and involve little or no financial outlay and was worthwhile doing even if the rewards were small. An example of the former might be a village fete or a game shoot and an example of the latter would be something like a coffee morning or second hand book sale. As a very small village it was also important to try to do things that attracted people from outside the village. A population of 100 people would struggle to consistently raise funds among themselves.
Grants Fundraising was sufficiently successful in the first year to make us think about aiming beyond just keeping the church open and to develop plans to improve it but we knew that fundraising alone would not be enough and started to look at grant opportunities. Searching funding databases revealed that there were limited opportunities to apply for funding for 'churches' but if we looked at what goes on in a church the opportunities increase. For example, community grants are available for organisations that provide community support or services. Arts grants are available for the arts. Heritage funding is available for heritage projects. FOTC decided early on that if the church was going to be kept open it was poor value to just use the church for six services a year; if we were raising funds to keep the building fully insured and maintained it should be used for more than a few hours each year. So we started to think about how the building might be used and what funding that might attract. Hence we have received community grants to improve the church building because it is used for community events. We have attracted National Lottery Heritage funding to protect the physical heritage of the building and to research and promote its history. And we received a grant from the Scops Arts Trust to run a music festival.
Repairing and developing the church building The church had suffered from historic water ingress caused by slipped or missing roof slates and damaged rainwater disposal goods so the priority was to make the church watertight and prevent further water ingress. The next priority was to remove rotten wooden pew platforms and replace the exposed areas of floor with stone. This led to the nave floor being at the same level throughout and created a more flexible space. Installing central heating where there had been none improved the space further by making it warmer and useable all year round. The next stage of development is to install a compact servery area and build a small toilet extension. Raising funds to do the work is not the only challenge; gaining permission to do the work can be a much more difficult and time consuming task. ChurchCare have a useful website with resources about how to care for church buildings, how to get the most from the building and how step by step guides to project planning: https://www.churchofengland.org/resources/churchcare Most churches are listed buildings and special permission is required to carry out repairs or changes to listed buildings. The Church of England has ecclesiastical exemption meaning that churches don't have to apply for permission from local authorities but they do have to follow Faculty Jurisdiction Rules. The Rules set out: what works can be carried out without permission, known as List A; what works need approval from the Archdeacon (List B); and everything else needs a Faculty application. The latest version of the Rules can be accessed by following this link: https://www.churchofengland.org/sites/default/files/2020-04/FJR_2015_as_amended_by_FJ(A)R_2019.pdf
Faculty Application Some Faculty applications take very little time, others can take years. Some dioceses, but not all, have an online application process. Peterborough does not and we find that the process for major works is something like this. Start by contacting the Diocesan Advisory Committee (DAC) Secretary to outline your plans. We did this in 2017 and the DAC sent a sub group of members to look at the church and discuss our proposals. they told us what they thought would be unlikely to be approved (installing a toilet inside the existing building) and what might (adding a toilet extension). The next stage was to complete a Statement of Significance and a Statement of Need. A statement of significance is a document that describes how the building has evolved over time, when the various parts of the building were constructed, when any notable additions were made to the interior (e.g. pews, pulpit, organ, stained glass, etc.) It summarises what is important about the character of the building and what impact any proposed changes would have. The statement of need sets out the reasons for the proposed work and why needs cannot be met without making changes. There is no statutory form for either but ChurchCare provide further information and templates for both: https://www.churchofengland.org/sites/default/files/2022-02/CCB_Statements-of-significance-and-needs.pdf The next task is to ask the church approved architect to draft OUTLINE plans and submit these to the DAC together with the statements of significance and need. What follows is a written dialogue between the applicant and the DAC where the DAC raise queries and the applicants provide satisfactory answers. The process can take several iterations and at some point the DAC Secretary sends the proposals to heritage organisations for consultation. They may raise additional queries and even objections. If they are not addressed, even if the DAC allows the application to proceed, there is a risk than approval may not be given and the Faculty not granted so it makes sense to do your best to satisfy everybody's concerns during this phase. Eventually the DAC is satisfied that the application had a reasonable chance of being approved and the Faculty application form is provided; this has to be submitted with the architect's detailed plans to the Diocesan Registry where they will be reviewed by the Chancellor. The DAC Secretary will also provide public notices which must be completed and displayed in the church for 28 days to give the public chance to comment of the proposals. Confirmation that this has been done is then sent to the Diocesan registry.