Lockdown has had a huge impact on churches, parochial church councils (PPCs) and other church bodies. Before the Coronavirus pandemic, there was no provision for virtual or electronic meetings. How has that changed?
What are the rules around holding virtual church meetings?
The Coronavirus pandemic has highlighted many difficulties, not least how ill prepared companies, national institutions and the Church of England were for lockdown.
No-one had given any consideration to the fact that at some point it might not be possible for people to meet together physically. Thus, the rules which govern those bodies did not always allow for meetings to take place lawfully via video conferencing. The Government was so concerned by this that it passed an emergency Act to allow companies to meet electronically, but that is time limited initially until 30th September 2020.
The Church Representation Rules (CRR) which were updated and implemented on 1st January 2020, make no provision for electronic or virtual meetings. Yet, three months later the omission of such an important power would become so obvious to us all that we wondered why no-one had included it. The vision of hindsight is always clear.
The new Model Rules for PCCs, which were brought in by the Church Representation Rules (CRR), all require personal attendance at a meeting at a time and place to be designated by written notice in advance, with votes on resolutions being carried out by a show of hands. It implies physical presence and nowhere in the Rules is there any ability for the use of modern media by which to communicate. Although the CRR allows PCCs to conduct business by correspondence (Rule M29) it does not authorise the use of virtual church meetings via the likes of Zoom or Microsoft Teams.
How can PCCs conduct their business?
The Charity Commission kindly provided guidance to charities that enabled the undertaking of business via electronic means as long as resolutions were followed up in writing and then discussed at the next meeting at which PCC members were present. This is what most PCCs have relied on during the lockdown.
As we come out of lockdown, we are still restricted in the number of people who can meet indoors together; so how can PCCs be certain that they are not breaching CRR and thus be in contravention of their constitution? This was something that was vexing many in the Church of England as this issue affects not only PCCs but also Deanery Synods and Diocesan Synods.
Luckily help is at hand as a Diocesan Bishop has power under Rule 78(5)(b) of CRR to modify the procedure for a meeting and thus authorise virtual or digital meetings, electronic discussions, and voting by the click of a button rather than the requirement for physical meetings. The powers in Rule 78 provide some much needed flexibility during these difficult times.
The Bishop of Exeter has signed separate Provisions under Rule 78 for parochial church councils, deanery synods and also for diocesan synod thereby enabling the proper functioning of those bodies for the next 12 months. The Provisions have been time limited for one year with a view to everyone being able to go back to physical meetings as being the normal method of conducting business in the future once we are all able to meet freely again. Copies of the Provisions can be obtained from the Diocesan website.
It is a relief to all that we can continue to conduct business in a lawful way and it is hoped that General Synod can push through some urgent changes to CRR so that there can be more flexibility in CRR should we have such a crisis again. No-one wishes to have to impose the obligation on our Bishops to create new rules during a crisis, but luckily on this occasion they can.
If you’re thinking about re-opening your church soon, we cover the things you’ll need to consider in this article.
This article is part of our Adapt & Thrive initiative.