by Jack O'Sullivan
COVENANTERS may once again make donations to the Church via the traditional method of open-plate collections.
In a major retreat, the Inland Revenue has bowed to Church demands. But it has added the proviso that in any dispute the burden of proof lies with the Church to show receipt of pledged money.
The compromise was hammered out at a meeting last month between top Revenue policy makers and representatives of Churches Main Committee, which negotiates on behalf of 45 mainstream Christian and Jewish churches.
"It is a very satisfactory agreement", said Bernard Thimont, CMC secretary. "They have agreed to look at each collection on a common sense basis and accept that a reasonable proportion of the take is covenanted, even if it came informally in open collection."
This means that the tax authorities have relaxed their earlier demand that proof should be available of actual individual donations. This insistence has caused hundreds of Catholic parishes countrywide to adopt new complicated and costly numbered envelope schemes over the past two months.
Now the Revenue seems content provided the proportion of Church income upon which tax is refunded is broadly in line with what might be expected, given the number of covenanters in a parish.
Archbishop Michael Bowen of Southwark is vice-chairman of the CMC, which has sent out a report on the April meeting to Church finance officials, which should arrive today.
The report warns churches that to stay out of future trouble they should maintain "documentary proof of payments" (ie use bankers
orders or cheques).
Alternatively, they should adopt a system which provides "prime facie proof of the true passage of money under individual covenants".
In other words, explained Mr Thimont, it is permissible to have open-plate collections, provided churches can show that a tax claim is "reasonable" in the light of the level of covenanting.
. Fr Peter Wilson, assistant treasurer at Northampton, one of four dioceses under special investigation by the Revenue, this week welcomed the relaxed provisions. But he warned: "Parishes would be very unwise if they do not use the numbered envelopes." They would help in providing evidence of receipt of donations if demanded by the Revenue in the future.
Fr Wilson said the latest concession would not effect the ongoing Revenue inquiry into past abuses of the covenant system. The four dioceses, which also include Leeds and Hexham and Newcastle face possible back payments of hundreds of thousands of pounds. The sub-committee of diocesan finance officers met tax inspectors last week to discuss the issue but no details were released.