When Andrew and Gail Wallbank inherited a farm nestling in the heart of rural Warwickshire, they welcomed it as a nest egg for their retirement.
That gift, however, has seen them handed a bill estimated at #500,000 and the prospect of putting their feet up further away than ever. Mr Wallbank and his GP wife first learned of the responsibility in 1990 when they say the church – which has a congregation of just 25 – asked them for #6,000 to repair the chancel.
Believing the law no longer existed they refused to pay, but by 1997 the figure had soared to more than #95,000 and the couple launched a legal battle to contest the claim.
In the final judgment against the couple, the judge said the courts must "take the law as they find it".
The Wallbanks, who have already had to pay more than #100,000 legal costs for earlier court hearings, were ordered to meet the cost – estimated at #200,000 – of the latest battle as well as the #200,000-plus cost of repairs to the church.
Last night Mr Wallbank – still a keen church-goer at his parish in Wales, where the couple have a sheep farm in Carno, Powys – said the enormity of the bill they were faced with had still "not really sunk in".
He said: "We feel pretty bad about the Church and I think it is doing them an awful lot of harm. In a way we have a lot of sympathy – we know the difficulty of finding the money to keep those buildings going – but this is the wrong way of going about it.
"It has left a very nasty taste somehow, considering the Church is about charity. A lot of Church people feel as sick about this as we do."
In 2000 the High Court found in favour of the Church but a year later the Court of Appeal backed the couple, ruling that their obligation to pay for church repairs was unenforceable because it contravened the Human Rights Act and the European Convention on Human Rights.
But in June last year the Church of England went to the House of Lords, which ruled that the medieval law still stood and ordered the Wallbanks, who lease the arable farm, to pay up.
After the judgment, the Wallbanks said that they had tried to make a gift of the ancient glebe land.
Now their only hope of raising the money, according to Mr Wallbank, is by selling off the 176-acre Glebe Farm.
"The next course of action is to say we are not physically able to pay this money without selling Glebe Farm, and we won't be able to do that unless they release the new owners from future liability", he said.
"We know other areas where the Church is releasing the lay rectors without payment at all. I'm certain this is a decision they can make at their discretion."
Mrs Wallbank added: "The law is in a mess. The Church is not living by its teaching and is hiding behind an archaic law."
William Shakespeare's parents, John Shakespeare and Mary Arden, are believed to have married in 1557 in the church
A spokesman for the Birmingham Law Society described the law as "uncertain, discriminatory and capricious".
In 1982 the General Synod of the Church of England resolved that chancel repair liability be phased out over 20 years, and in 1985 the Law Commission recommended that it be abolished