Families are being threatened with bills for thousands of pounds to repair churches, thanks to laws laid down by Henry VIII in the 16th century.
Households with no connection to the Church have been amazed to find themselves presented with demands for money, said MP Peter Luff (Con Mid Worcestershire).
He urged Ministers to change the law to end the practice – as he warned it was driving a wedge between the Church of England and local communities.
The MP spoke out in a Commons debate after homeowners in the village of Broadway, Worcestershire, suddenly found themselves presented with letters warning they were liable for the cost of church repairs.
Although the threat has since been lifted, it could come back at any time because the Church of England has the legal right – and possibly an obligation – to make residents pay.
The arrangements which led to the notices being issued date back to the dissolution of the monasteries under Henry VIII, who seized their assets for himself.
Some monasteries had been responsible for maintaining their local church, so Henry ruled that whoever purchased the land associated with the monastery would become the “lay rector”, making them responsible for the upkeep of the chancel, the space around the church altar.
Purchasers included major institutions, such as Eton or the colleges of Oxford or Cambridge, who have continued to pay for repairs to church chancels.
But in other cases, land was sold on again and again over the centuries, and the liability was forgotten.
The issue suddenly re-emerged in the 1990s, when a court ruled that a couple who had bought a farmhouse in the village of Aston Cantlow, Warwickshire, were liable for £230,000 repairs to a nearby church.
As a result, the Government ruled in 2003 that any liabilities connected to a property would lapse once that property was sold – unless the local parochial church council registered its claim before 2013.
But that effectively placed parochial church councils under an obligation to register the liabilities – otherwise they could be held in breach of their duty under charity law to maximise their incomes. With the deadline approaching, thousands of homeowners have been shocked to receive notices from their parochial church council warning them that they are liable for repair bills.
Mr Luff told MPs: “As the deadline looms, the reality is becoming clearer for many small and unfortunate landowners. Evidence that I have seen from the Land Registry suggests that there has been a rush of registrations.
“It is believed that about 5,200 churches are entitled to claim the cost of chancel repairs from the lay rector.”
His constituents in Broadway had received notices from the Land Registry informing them that the parochial church council had registered them as lay rectors with responsibility for the mediaeval church of St Eadburgha, which dates back to the 12th century, he said.
Mr Luff added: “It is a real plight. The chancel of a medieval church can constitute about one third of the total church building. A repair bill of £200,000 would not be uncommon. In the case of Broadway, a regular bill every decade or so for about £7,000 can perhaps be expected.”
Even homes nowhere near the local church could be liable, he said.
“It is important to realise that there is generally no easy way of telling whether the liability attaches to a property unless it has been registered. Proximity to a church is no measure of the likelihood that the liability attaches to a property. The land could be anywhere, town or country. It just had to be purchased by the right person when Henry VIII sold it in the late 1530s.”
The parochial church council had only taken action because it believed it had to - but it had “made enemies of a large number of local people”, Mr Luff said.
For his constituents, the dilemma was resolved when the vicar of Broadway, the Rev Michelle Massey, concluded that it would be “un-Christian” to enforce the liability. However, in principle there is nothing to stop that decision being reversed.
Mr Luff said the solution was to give parochial church councils the right to renounce their right to the liability permanently, something they cannot do at the moment.
He told Ministers: “They must find a way to ensure that the liability is fairly applied and that the outrageous arbitrariness of this archaic law is ended.”
Justice Minister Helen Grant said the Government had no immediate plans to change the law. She said: “I will keep the matter under consideration and will monitor developments carefully.”
But Mr Luff said he would continue his campaign. Speaking after the debate, he said: “I have been offered a personal meeting with the minister and I fully intend to follow up what was raised in the debate.”