News & Insights // Farmer faced with church repair bill may get grant aid

A farmer who faces a potential £100,000 bill for repairs to a medieval village church under the requirements of an ancient religious statute has been thrown a lifeline by English Heritage, which is considering his application for grant aid.

The move will bring sighs of relief from scores, possibly hundreds, of landowners similarly burdened with archaic church maintenance responsibilities. All are lay rectors, a title linked to land ownership which in a former age implied status and a right to receive a share of tithes and taxes, but now carries only the less desirable "privilege" of paying for church chancel repairs. The parochial church council at Aston Cantlow, Warwickshire, decided last year to resurrect the statute and require its lay rectors, Andrew Wallbank, 60, and his wife, Gail, to pay for major chancel restoration work at the church, where Shakespeare's parents are reputed to have married. Mr Wallbank and his wife, a teacher, inherited "rectorial" farmland in the parish of St John the Baptist, Aston Cantlow.

It is leased to tenants, and the couple, who live 60 miles away at Caersws, Powys, were unaware of the full burden attached to ownership. English Heritage, the building's watchdog, has not previously entertained applications for grant assistance in such cases on the basis that most lay rectorships lie in "monied" hands such as those of the Church Commissioners and aristocratic families.    The decision to consider the Wallbanks' application recognises that there are exceptions where "ordinary" individuals can face large bills. A High Court ruling on the Aston Cantlow situation earlier this year affirmed this. The couple have submitted an application for £111,000 to cover the repair costs.

By Maurice Weaver