On the evening of 25th April the Editor of The Ringing World received the following email communication from the Diocesan Secretary of the Diocese of Chester:

I have been made aware of an article on your website that misrepresents the views of Chester Diocesan Board of Finance.

We have been running courses on Real Time information and employment status issues. We are aware that employment status has not changed and have made this clear, but talking about tax inevitably leads to questions about employment status. These status issues have mainly related to cleaners, organists and the like. Bell ringers was not one of our examples. Attendees at the courses, parishes, bell ringers and others have been attempting to get us to state categorically that bell ringers are not employees. We are not in a position to do this and in response we have referred to HMRC advice. We are not able to determine employment status on behalf of parish employees. No instructions have been issued. Parishes have been advised to use the employment status indicator provided (ESI) to help in determining employment status. We don't think it is possible to make a definite statement as to whether or not all bell ringers are employees. Ultimately their employent status will depend on the particular arrangements in place and the various tests of employment (some point more towards employment eg use of church bells, at a particular time and place, but these may be outweighed by a selection of others such as the ability to send any substitute). Employment status issues are complex and we advise parishes that if in doubt they should contact HMRC for advice.

It appears you have been incorrectly informed. Please can you explain this article, and amend it appropriately.

The article says that HMRC advice has been sort. Clearly if HMRC is prepared to issue guidance on this we will pass on such advice to parishes.

George Colville
Diocesan Secretary

and shortly afterward this was followed up with:

To clarify Bell ringers was not one of our examples. We have included bell ringers in a list of possible employees (as it was raised with us) but only as a possibility not as an instruction.

George Colville
Diocesan Secretary


The Editor then asked Mr Colville to explain precisely how he felt that Steve Coleman's article, entitled Wedding Fees and The Daily Telegraph, “misrepresents the views of Chester Diocesan Board of Finance”:

Dear Mr. Colville,

Thank you very much for your emails - I did try to telephone you earlier today, but your secretary said that you were in a meeting and unavailable.

The article on our website was originally printed in The Ringing World (p.375 of the Friday, 19th April edition of our weekly magazine). The article was written by Mr Steve Coleman, who is a bell ringer and an acknowledged expert in tax and financial matters - particularly as they relate to church bell ringers. In conjunction with the Central Council of Church Bell Ringers we asked him to research and write the article in response to some correspondence in The Daily Telegraph newspaper, with which you will no doubt already be familiar (3rd April, p.17; letter from Mr. Ashley Pugh of Northwich entitled “Brides and Bellringers” and follow-up letters on p.21 of 5th April edition under the heading of “The taxman plots oppressive persecution of parish clerks and bellringers”). I can provide you with copies of the text of those letters if that would be helpful.

In the course of his research, Mr. Coleman has spoken at length with several concerned (and, in some cases, angry) people in parishes of the Diocese of Chester, including PCC Treasurers and Tower Captains, and has thereby developed a fairly consistent view of what appears to have taken place in terms of their interaction with the Diocesan authorities over this matter. He had detailed accounts of the courses on Real Time information and employment status issues and the slides used to illustrate points at them. His article was written in good faith.

I am curious to know please precisely how you feel that Mr. Coleman's article “misrepresents the views of Chester Diocesan Board of Finance”?

Whatever was actually said at the courses run by the Diocese, it seems quite apparent that many people attending them came away with the clear impression that bell ringers were to be designated as “employees” in relation to dealings with HMRC. With very few exceptions (I can think of only two cases nationwide) bell ringers are most certainly not employees of the church, and indeed the Church of England's own central Guidelines make this perfectly clear. May I refer you please to the document issued by Church House, which was last revised on 17th December 2012, entitled “A Guide to Church of England Parochial Fees”, paragraph 22 (tax advice at 22e).

It seems quite evident to me that the Diocese of Chester appears to be out of step with the rest of the Church of England in the way it is dealing with these matters, and I am a little surprised that you appear not to have sought advice from either the central church authorities at Church House or the Central Council of Church Bell Ringers.

Steve Coleman intends to write a follow-up article once he has received written confirmation clarifying certain matters with HMRC. In the meantime, I know that he would be very happy to discuss his research with you directly. His telephone number is:  [number given].

Once again, If you could please clarify in writing the precise wording and phrases of the article that you believe “misrepresents the views of Chester Diocesan Board of Finance”, then we will perhaps seek legal advice and will, of course, gladly issue a swift clarification and correction should that be deemed appropriate.

Robert Lewis
The Ringing World


The reply was as follows:

Dear Mr Lewis

“As a result they gave instructions to parishes to tax ringers on their wedding fees.” No such instructions issued.

“No one with any knowledge of employment law thinks the Chester Diocesan Office is right.” I guess it depends on what you think our view is. We are convinced that it is important to clarify employment status. Others do agree, it appears since you have written to HMRC you agree as well.

“The Office takes the view that HMRC have told them that bellringers are employees and that’s that.” We don’t take such a view. HMRC has not instructed us that all bell ringers are employees. Some can be employee as you accept below. It depends on the circumstances hence the ESI and seek HMRC advice if in doubt.

I am only seeking to change the references misrepresenting our views. Ringing World will need to take responsibility for the remainder of their article and we offer no comment.

George Colville
Diocesan Secretary


The Editor invited Steve Coleman to make a considered response to the complaint. Here it is:

Wedding Fees and The Chester Diocese

by Steve Coleman (26 April 2013)

Just to clear up this misrepresentation point, I was told by a number of Chester Diocese Churchwardens and PCC Treasurers that they’d been clearly told at a Diocesan seminar that bell ringers were employees. I’m sure they were telling me what they believed to be the truth, but of course, I completely accept Mr Colville’s assurance that they were mistaken.

I was also told that they had been shown a series of visual aids relating specifically to bell ringers and which showed that HMRC also classified bellringers as employees. But I completely accept Mr Colville’s assurance that they were mistaken in that too.


But that apart, Mr Colville’s email causes me more concern rather than less. Churchwardens and PCC Treasurers have a very hard job indeed. There are ever more regulations that they have to comply with, and those regulations are getting ever more complex. The individuals who undertake these posts are all volunteers, often with little or no experience of many of the issues they have to deal with, yet they do their very best to discharge their duties punctiliously and in accordance with the law.

Indeed, in many cases they only take on a post because they know that if they don’t, no one else will. I have the very greatest respect for them, and without them the Church of England couldn’t keep going.

Diocesan Support

So, in turn, it must surely be the job of the Diocesan Officials to support them. And that support must include supplying clear and authoritative advice which can be relied upon. But in the case of bell ringers Mr Colville says that the Chester Diocese hasn’t even attempted to supply such advice and it didn’t intend to either. Instead, each and every PCC was to work it out for themselves. And this, despite the clear statement issued centrally by the Church of England that bell ringers aren’t employees.


I’m concerned too and no doubt Mr Colville will correct me if I’m wrong that no advice appears to have been given as regards the implications as regards maternity leave, unfair dismissal, redundancy payments, paid holiday leave, minimum wage regulations, and all the other ramifications if a PCC does decide that its ringers are employees. Tax is the least of their problems

So I really can’t think that the Chester Dioceses approach is right at all. I don’t want to sound too strident about this, but to my mind, Mr Colville and his colleagues should have addressed this entire issue fully before causing so much grief and sleepless nights to his PCC Officers.


The Ringing World hopes that this clears up any misunderstanding – there was no intention whatsoever to misrepresent the views of the Chester Diocesan Board of Finance.

BB BellBoard
Central Council of Church Bell Ringers