FIEC is a family of churches who seek to proclaim the gospel, longing to see more people come to know Christ as Lord and Saviour across our nation. The Bible is our authority on all matters of belief and practice and has much to teach us about how we run our churches; it also calls us to be obedient to the rulers and authorities the Lord has put in place in our nation (Romans 13) so we must also run our churches under the legislation of our land.
In practice, in the UK, this means every Independent church is a charity, which is governed by charity law. Each church should have a governing document – but it may be referred to by different names. It may be called a constitution, a trust deed or articles of association. This document will set out the legal structure of the organisation and how it should operate.
Some churches may also have a church handbook or church rules. These sit alongside the constitution / trust deed / articles of association and usually covers more details of how the church runs – perhaps how you choose elders or your practices on matters like baptisms.
These documents will usually either include or reference your Basis of Faith.
Do you know where this document is and what it says? Does it reflect how you operate in practice?
If you do not know where your governing document is or your governing document does not reflect how you operate then you will need to seek further advice (see this page on the Edward Connor Solicitors website).
Charity structure and registration
In law, charities with an income of over £5,000 are required to register with the Charity Commission, unless they are excepted by their affiliation to certain umbrella bodies. Smaller FIEC churches, that is, with an income of under £100,000, have been covered by this exception; the exception will end in 2031 so after that date all churches with an income of over £5,000 will need to register. More details on the excepted charities can be found on the Edward Connor Solicitors website in the article Are you ready to register with the Charity Commission?. Even those who qualify as an excepted charity and who are not required to register, must still comply with charity law.
All charities, whether registered or not, operate within a recognised charity structure. The most common structures are unincorporated association, a charitable trust or a charitable incorporated organisation; occasionally larger churches may be registered as a charitable company. Charities are regulated by the Charity Commission for England and Wales or the Office of the Scottish Charity Regulator (OSCR) in Scotland.
Unincorporated Association: An unincorporated association is a group of people who come together for a common purpose; historically most churches were formed as unincorporated associations. It does not have a separate legal status, and its members are personally liable for any debts or obligations. This means that any contracts such employing staff or renting a building are entered into by the members or representatives of the members such as the trustees. Unincorporated associations can register as a charity to enable them to benefit from things such as gift aid
Charitable Trust: A charitable trust is a simple and common structure where assets are held and managed by trustees for charitable purposes. Charitable trusts can be established through a trust deed. Sometimes unincorporated association are linked with a charitable trust, which holds a property on their behalf.
Charitable Incorporated Organization (CIO): A CIO is a legal entity that can enter into contracts, own property, and provides limited liability to its members. Most churches registering for the first time will now register as a CIO and there are a number of advantages for existing churches to convert to a CIO (see this page on the Edward Connor Solicitors website for more details).
Operating as a charity
Every charity must have trustees (though they may be called different things) who have a responsibility to ensure that the charity is run in accordance with the law and Charity Commission guidance. Details on the responsibilities of trustees can be found on the gov.uk website: The essential trustee: what you need to know, what you need to do (CC3)