English church law has required since 1603 that every parish church hold a weekly Sunday service and Holy Communion at some time each week. Now that is set to change.

There are rural clusters of parishes (benefices) with a solitary priest serving as many as 20 parish churches, which makes it impossible to fulfill the law.

General Synod has now relaxed the requirement. Synod overwhelmingly supported a recommendation from its task group that simplifies church practices. The Rt. Rev. Pete Broadbent, Bishop of Willesden, said the law was out of date.

“At the moment, if you have 12 parishes you need a special dispensation [from the bishop] not to hold morning and evening prayers in every church,” he said.

Broadbent added that the change would make honest people of clergy who were flouting the technicality of the law. “People can’t look after loads of parishes, but [canon] law doesn’t recognize that reality.”

The need for realism grows from changing demographics. In 1960, just 17 percent of parish churches were part of multi-parish groups. The number had swelled to 71 percent by 2011, according to church statistics.

Some dioceses with clergy shortages try to recruit more laypeople to lead services, but they cannot celebrate Holy Communion.

Two lay members of synod voted against the change and one abstained. The change now awaits assent by the Queen.

John Martin

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