Charity law draws no distinction between one religion and another. If a group of people hold a belief in a god, promote spiritual doctrines, and hold meetings or services, they are classified as a charity. Their business can include the provision and maintenance of buildings and the promotion of their beliefs through evangelism.
The Charities Act of 1993
This Act at present requires all charities whose assets are located in England and Wales to register as charities if their total income from all sources currently exceeds £1000 per year or if they occupy land and buildings. Most Christian assemblies meet this criteria and therefore have a duty to register with the Charity Commissioners who will regard them as ‘Open Brethren’ churches.
Some may be concerned about registration and fear that restrictions may be imposed which will conflict with scriptural principles and practices. It should be remembered, however, that a primary function of the Charity Commission is to ensure that there is no abuse of charitable assets. Since we collect monies and use them to fund evangelism, maintain buildings, and support missionaries and full-time workers, we have the clearest duty to be above reproach. The Charity Commission is there to help and, if necessary to protect us in these endeavours. As a trustee of an ‘openbrethren’ property holding trust, in which some ninety assembly properties are vested, I have always found the Commissioners to be helpful, watchful and courteous in their dealings with us. They have a clear and supportive understanding of our scriptural doctrines and of the ways we meet and administer our affairs.
How to Register as a Charity
In order to register as a charity it is necessary to complete an application form. The Charity Commission will provide an information pack upon request which contains advice and explains how to register a charity. It will need to see a copy of the trust deed and have summary information about the nature of the work of the fellowship. Evangelism, maintenance of a building, support for missionaries, etc., are terms with which the Commission is familiar. Copies of accounts must be provided to show how we use and distribute monies we have collected. The Commission is not interested in prying, rather it wishes to ensure that funds are used for the purposes of the charity. Wise and godly treasurers will, I am sure, have no hesitation in demonstrating that their work is done properly and honestly. Other details required are clearly set out in a checklist.
If this process seems difficult, the Charity Commission will provide helpful advice and model documents which can be adapted. There are also Christian believers experienced in these matters who can help and who for a modest fee will prepare applications for local churches. After an application to register is made, a letter of confirmation will be received from the Charity Commission together with a registration number.
Notwithstanding a fellowship’s lawful duty to register as a charity, many benefits will follow, including the opportunity to use Gift Aid and reclaim income tax paid on gifts donated. When legal problems arise in respect of the buildings we occupy, their resolution may be much easier if the fellowship is properly registered as a charity.
Charities, of course, must have trustees and many readers of this article will be trustees of assembly buildings, chapels, camp sites or other charitable institutions. A few years ago an aged believer, a man with whom I had worked in evangelism in Bristol many years ago, telephoned me in some distress. He was, he said, the sole surviving trustee of a Gospel Hall near the city which no longer functioned. ‘What will happen’, he asked, ‘if I move away and cannot be located; I am too old to deal with the matter now’. I told him that the hall (the Lord’s property, in respect of which he is a custodian) would legally be transferred to the state. I explained that this sometimes happens. I did not tell him that when it does the Charity Commissioners invariably transfer any ‘open brethren’ building back to an ‘open brethren’ property holding trust. However, I did put him in touch with an experienced local person who visited him and assisted in taking the burden from his shoulders. There was a happy and satisfactory conclusion in this case but it could have been otherwise.
It is essential to ensure that the number of trustees of any charity is kept to at least the minimum required by the trust deed. Trustees should be competent, godly and trustworthy persons. If such cannot be found, then a transfer of trusteeship to one of the several ‘open brethren’ property-holding trusts which exist in England and Wales might well be a wise course. It has been known for small assemblies to falter, come under the influence of those whose interest is to gain control of a building, and for the building to fall into the hands of those whose teaching and objects are quite different from that of the original trust. The fact that we have promoted a nondenominational stance for scriptural reasons does leave us open to abuse. We need to be aware of this and to take care.
Responsibilities of Trustees
A question arises as to the responsibilities of trustees and the administration of affairs where the property in which they meet is held by a property-holding trust or where trustees of the building are not members of the fellowship, perhaps meeting elsewhere. In such instances, and there are many, there exist in effect two separate trusts: one for the building and one for the assembly (the fellowship). The ‘building’ trust will no doubt have a trust deed drawn up when the property was first acquired. Its trustees will be responsible to ensure that it is safe, properly maintained and insured. Legal ownership of the property will be vested in those trustees, who will need to maintain good communication with the leaders of the fellowship occupying the building.
The fellowship itself, however, will collect and distribute funds. It will see to the day to day running and maintenance of the building and look after safety issues (including the moral safety of children and young people). We cannot escape responsibility for these matters. Our common practice is for elders or deacons to be responsible for them. It is wise therefore, irrespective of whether a fellowship is registered or not, to have a trust deed or written statement which sets out such details as doctrinal beliefs, rules of membership, names of elders/deacons, policies for child protection, health and safety, and financial conduct. Should difficulties subsequently arise, a proper basis upon which they can be considered and resolved will then be available.
One of the most important duties of trustees is the proper accounting for monies. Accounts, however simple, should be kept up-to-date on a daily basis. Details relating to banking and distribution of monies should be clearly set out and followed. One person may operate as treasurer but the decisions as to how distribution is made is best defined in writing to avoid confusion or misunderstanding and to ensure that, in the event of any suspicion being cast, absolute honesty can be demonstrated. Accounts should always be audited or independently examined by a suitably qualified person and presented for all to see. The operating of church accounts is a public not a private matter. Failure to comply could lead to criminal prosecutions and bring discredit upon the witness of the fellowship. In these matters we must therefore be above reproach.
Many years ago, in speaking with an elder of a large Gospel Hall assembly, I found that the building was uninsured. He told me that the assembly ‘trusted the Lord in such matters’. I explained that I had recent experiences of a property which was seriously damaged by vandalism and of another which had been seriously damaged by fire. A change of mind ensued and insurance cover was taken. When, a year or two later, a serious storm caused damage to the property, the insurers made the matter good.
Trustees have a duty of care to ensure that land and buildings are suitably insured. There are two types of insurance: one for loss or damage to property and the second for liability to third parties. It is normal for the latter to cover claims of up to £5,000,000. Incidents may be rare but should a storm cause a tile to fall and result in a serious personal injury or even a fatality the consequences for an uninsured fellowship could be phenomenal.
Health and Safety
Linked to insurance is safety. We invite members of the public to our meetings. We are concerned for their spiritual welfare. Equally, we should be watchful to ensure that any negligence on our part does not cause them to trip or otherwise injure themselves. Electrical and heating appliances should be safely maintained and regularly inspected. Fire exits should always be kept clear and never blocked and suitable extinguishers installed. We live in a society where litigation is common and it is eminently wise to make sure that our properties, including walls and fences are safe.
Churches in England and Wales, whether they like it or not, are deemed in law to be charities because they advance the Christian faith. Trustees, by whatever name they are known, are subject to the law relating to charities. This imposes inescapable responsibilities which require our earnest and prayerful consideration and attention.
This article is a summary. Most of the matters touched upon could be expanded to give further information about the duties of trustees. Questions may well arise in readers’ minds. I will endeavour to respond to inquiries and help as I am able if they are sent in writing or by e-mail to this address: 1 Church Rise, Maisemore, Gloucester, GL2 8JE or [email protected] If I cannot help I will try to suggest contacts or agencies who can.