Hilary Homfray joins Anthony Collins Solicitors after working for Birmingham City Council for 14 years. With more than 60,000 properties, she was kept busy!
The firm was established around 40 years ago by licensing lawyer and Christian Anthony Collins, who wanted to fuse his professional life and his faith to serve the needs of religious organisations.
The firm now acts for a wide range of primarily Christian churches and organisations, led by Sarah Hayes in the faith communities team.
Hayes is a consultant at the firm and also ordained as an Anglican priest. Like Adeshile, she insists belief is not essential to her role, although she says understanding the particular demands of faith is beneficial for her clients.
“The key for our clients is sustainability with ethical alignment,” says Hayes, “They want to know how they can make an impact in their local community, but in a way that reflects their beliefs.”
Hayes helps draft constitutions for faith groups to accurately reflect their values, whilst co-existing with statutes such as the Equality Act 2010.
The debate about religion and the law was intensified recently by the case of gay couple Michael Black and John Morgan when a B&B owner refused them a room on the basis of her religious views on homosexuality.
Although high-profile, advice on whether a gay rights organisation can use a church hall, for example, are rare instructions. The bulk of enquiries from its religious clients involves Anthony Collins Solicitors negotiating a balancing act between legal structures and faith.
Added to that conundrum, when working with Anglican churches, is the consideration of the Church of England’s own legislative statutes – known as ‘Measures’ and approved by Parliament – that have the same force as Acts of Parliament and affect issues such as the use of churches, procedures for closing them and the partnership churches form with statutory bodies.
“There’s work for lawyers around building development and how faith-based organisations engage with communities, “ says Hayes. There’s also a gradual acclimatisation to the changing relationship between church and clergy, which is moving more into line with the employer-employee framework rather than clergy being seen as self-employed or employed directly by God.”
Hayes says there is also some interesting work coming in from the crossover area of faith and finance, with the firm providing legal advice on setting up social investment schemes to address the problem of poverty, rather than simply donating money to charities.
One of the skills of working in the field of religion involves negotiating cultural issues that can differ from client to client, says Hayes.
Remaining distinct is one such consideration, enshrining an organisation’s expression of faith within a legal structure.
“The Church of England has huge, fantastic assets visible in many streets,” she says.
“They cost a lot of money to maintain, and congregations are often small and not wealthy. In some cases there are few physical assets available for community use. So to retain them there needs to be creative use of the buildings and effective engagement with surrounding communities. But there are lots of rules around the use and development of consecrated ground and worship space – this is where we come in.”
This piece originally appeared in The Lawyer on 5 November 2012. A copy of this article can also be found on their website – click here to view.
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