Rural churches no longer have to hold a weekly Sunday service after the Church of England voted to a change to canon law.
The original law, which dates back to 1603 and was written into modern canon law in the 1960s, obliged all parish churches to hold a Sunday service.
During a meeting of the General Synod on Thursday the change to Church law was approved by a vote of 20 bishops to zero, 92 clergy to zero and 118 laity in favour, two against and one abstention.
The proposal was first made by the Bishop of Willesden, the Rt Rev Pete Broadbent in 2016, who chairs the Simplification Task Force.
The task force, formed in 2014, aims to bring forward proposals for simplifying the process of the Church of England.
Rev Broadbent argued changing the law would reflect the current practice of priests who look after multiple churches in their parish and are unable to hold a Sunday service in each one.
Previously a rural priest, who could be responsible for a group of up to 20 churches known as a multi-parish benefice, would need to apply for permission from a bishop to not hold a Sunday service in each church, Rev Broadbent said.
The number of multi-parish benefices in England have risen in recent decades reflecting declining church attendees and clergy.
According to the Church of England’s Church Growth Research Programme published in 2016, 71% of parishes were multi-parish churches in 2011, compared with 17% in 1960.
Following the vote, Rev Broadbent said: “You’re meant to get a dispensation from the bishop, this just changes the rules to make it easier for people to do what they’re already doing. It stops the bureaucracy.”
Under canonical requirements, every priest was required to hold a morning and evening prayer and a communion service, every Sunday in every church they looked after.
Rev Broadbent said: “That doesn’t happen. This is tidying up what does happen. This was just one (amendment) where we said, ‘out of date, doesn’t work, we’re operating differently in the countryside now therefore lets find a way of making it work’.”
When asked if the decision will affect elderly churchgoers in rural locations, who may have to travel further to attend a service, Rev Broadbent said: “No, because at the moment this is already regularised and it’s already happening.
“If you’ve got 20 churches, you’ve got a pattern of services on a Sunday where you say ‘well we’ll have a communion over there on the first Sunday, and communion over there on the second Sunday’ … this is just making that clear.