The church rate was a tax formerly levied in each parish in England and Ireland for the benefit of the parish church. Out of these rates were defrayed the expenses of carrying on divine service, repairing the fabric of the church, and paying the salaries of the officials connected with it.
The church rates were made by the churchwardens, together with the parishioners duly assembled after proper notice in the vestry or the church. The rates thus made were recoverable in the ecclesiastical court, or, if the arrears did not exceed £10 and no questions were raised as to the legal liability, before two justices of the peace.
Any payment not strictly recognized by law made out of the rate destroyed its validity.
The church rate was a personal charge imposed on the occupier of land or of a house in the parish, and, though it was compulsory, much difficulty was found in effectually applying the compulsion. This was especially so in the case of Nonconformists, who had conscientious objections to supporting the Established Church; and in Ireland, where the population was preponderantly Roman Catholic, the grievance was specially felt and resented.
The objections of the Nonconformists were not only on principle. The Church of England received financial support from Parliament, while their own congregations were totally dependent on voluntary contributions. They did not want to have to support another parish as well as their own. Enforcement of the rate was not uniform across the country. Resolutions were passed protesting against the rate, and societies to abolish the church rate were formed all over the country. In 1836 at a public meeting in London, a central committee, the Church Rate Abolition Society was formed to co-ordinate the efforts of local Societies.
In 1837, Parliament made two concessions to the Nonconformists, a more acceptable marriage ceremony, and the civil registration of births, deaths and marriages. But the parish rate remained compulsory until 1868. The Whig leader in the House of Commons, Lord John Russell, supported the rate. But in 1856 The Times called the government's attention to what the editor believed was a civil war raging throughout the country on the church rate question.
Eventually, in 1868, the Compulsory Church Rates Abolition Act was passed. By this Act church rates are no longer compulsory on the person rated, but are merely voluntary, and those who are not willing to pay them are excluded from inquiring into, objecting to, or voting in respect of their expenditure.
As of May 2012[update], the Act is still on the statute books and Parochial Church Councils may continue to levy voluntary rates under it by virtue of the Parochial Church Councils (Powers) Measure 1956.
- J. P. Ellens: Lord John Russell and the Church Rate Conflict: The Struggle for a Broad Church, 1834-1868; (1987) The Journal of British Studies, Vol 2. pp 232-257.
- "Parochial Church Councils(Powers) Measure 1956 - 1956 CHAPTER 3 4 and 5 Eliz 2" (PDF). The National Archives. 5 July 1956. Retrieved 30 May 2012.
- "Raising a Voluntary Church Rate". Hampstead: The Parish Church of St John-at-Hampstead. Retrieved 30 May 2012. "In 1986 (Hampstead's Millennium year) our church raised a voluntary rate towards the appeal for redecorating the interior of our Georgian building. The response was so good and the feedback so positive that we have continued to raise this rate every year since. We do, however, only make the appeal for the benefit of the maintenance of the building. It has never been suggested that money so raised, from people of other faiths and none, should be used for the running costs of the Parish."