Dating back from before the reformation times churches in England and Wales have been ministered by either a salaried “vicar” or a “rector” who was paid through a tax or tithe from his parish. The rectors were personally responsible for the maintenance and repair of the chancel of their church, the rest of the church building being maintained by the parish members. There was a “market” of sorts in rectorships; monasteries and Oxbridge Colleges could buy or receive them and thereby became liable for chancel repairs. After the Reformation in the time of Henry VIII the parish lands were subdivided and sold but the repair liability, which goes with the land, persists to this day.
Back in 2003 Andrew and Gail Wallbank, who lived in Aston Cantlow, received an unexpected demand for almost £100,000 to fund repairs to the chancel of their local church; which, as you can imagine, must have come as a bit of a surprise. They challenged it through the courts but ultimately lost the case and were landed with a bill of about £350,000, which then included legal costs as well as the repair bill.
Since then, when moving house or buying land, the solicitor handling the transaction is supposed to discover whether there is a an associated liability to fund repairs to the chancel of the local church. If there is, it is common to take out insurance to cover the risk (thus avoiding the kind of nasty surprise that befell poor Mr and Mrs Wallbank).
If you are a resident of the Parish of Somersham, or thinking of moving into the area, you will be pleased to know that the Parochial Church Council has recently completed a piece of research which demonstrates that there are no liabilities on lay people to repair the Chancel of St John the Baptist.
Here is the report. It makes interesting reading.