Some light reading for the weekend
This year, L&RUK has summarized twenty-two consistory court judgments relating to the reordering of churches, (with more to come in the June round-up). Such petitions require considerable detail regarding the proposal and, if approved, these are generally subject to a number of further conditions. It is interesting, therefore, to contrast current practice with a faculty granted in 1854 which gave an incumbent carte blanche in undertaking a major reordering of what is now classified as a Grade I church.
The Reverend William John Butler was the incumbent at SS Peter and Paul, Wantage from 1847 to 1880. Prior to Butler’s appointment, the vicars of Wantage usually visited the town only about twice a year. Commenting on his immediate predecessor, a contemporary report states: “the Dean of St. George’s Chapel at Windsor was the last of the favoured few to whom Wantage fell. He arrived with a carpet bag at the Bear Inn, received his tithes, and returned without leaving either his carpet bag or his blessing behind him”. The parish was therefore at low ebb spiritually, and the church building had long been neglected. The town fared little better: all were subject to Butler’s attention.
Post-Reformation, the chancel, transepts and their chapels were no longer used or boxed off into high pews, galleries had been added to three sides of the nave, and services conducted from centrally-positioned, three-decker pulpit. The chancel remained unused apart from on “Sacrament Sundays” and was in a poor state of repair.
Substantial internal changes were planned under the Tractarian influence of Fr Butler – not entirely dissimilar to those depicted in Plates I to III of Deformation and Restoration. He employed the diocesan architect G E Street (a member of the choir according to Betjeman, himself a (later) parishioner) and was advised by the distinguished ecclesiastical lawyer, Dr Robert Phillimore (as he then was). Butler sought to rebuild the chancel, introducing a clerestory and new east window designed by Street, remove the three galleries and high pews, and instal low benches in the nave. The pews were problematic both in the “monopoly on seating” they created, and in their size – the height of 4’ 10” [1.47m] – was said to “admit of persons indulging in drowsiness and give opportunity for laughing and whispering and other irreverent behaviour”.
It was against this background that the faculty application was made, but not before a necessary, but unsuccessful, meeting of the Vestry. This was described in Butler’s letters:
“On the previous day handbills had been printed and circulated, and the [Town]Crier sent round with his bell, and a proclamation inviting the people (Protestants) to come and oppose Popery, etc. Then the Wesleyan Preacher stimulated all within his reach, and gave his men half a day to come and vote at the Vestry.
By these unscrupulous measures, for which I ought to have been prepared, a strong party of Dissenters of the worst kind were brought to the Vestry, and in a very short time it was packt with enemies, ready for anything”.
Nevertheless, a faculty dated 19 October 1854 granted Butler the effective carte blanche propounded by the Bishop and Dr Phillimore, giving him:
“ …full power and authority to take down and remove the whole or any part of the present Pews and galleries in the said Church, and instead thereof, to carry out the plan and specifications hereinbefore mentioned by repairing the whole area of the Nave, Aisles and Arches of the said Church and to re-pew area with suitable uniform wooden seats allowing ample space for kneeling therein;
To remove the present and relay the floor of and parts of the Church with tiles or other appropriate materials; To restore and re-plaster or otherwise plainly replace the inner walls of the whole fabric or any of them; To renew the windows and doors whenever such renewal is necessary: And to provide a complete arrangement for warming and lighting the whole Church. Further, to remove such tombs, monuments and monumental inscriptions as may be necessary for carrying the improvements into effect”.
In comparison to present day faculty considerations, Fr Butler was given a very free hand in the execution of the proposed reordering, albeit after a degree of “consultation” had been undertaken via the Vestry meeting. Today there would be mandatory public notices and consultation with the amenity societies. However the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB) – the UK’s oldest building conservation body, was not founded until 1877, and the Victorian Society was as late as 1958.
Consequently, the main conduit for such objections in Butler’s day was the Vestry Meeting (i.e. the Annual Church Meeting), and this was attended by a significant number of non-parishioner townspeople. [The Local Government Act 1894 transferred all the remaining ‘civil’ responsibilities from the parochial Vestries to new civil parish councils, thus limiting the Vestries to wholly church-related matters; the Parochial Church Councils (Powers) Measure 1921 established PCCs as successors to the vestries on most church matters]
Nevertheless, in their revised form Vestry Meetings are still a mandatory component of church governance and are open to all those living within the parish and those on the electoral role. However, they do not normally provide a focus for non-parishioners for airing their grievances, least of all for lobbying by a minister of another denomination.
With regard to the latter point, however, there was no love lost between churches in Wantage: Butler is said to have employed the Sisters of the CSMV to remove “No Popery” graffiti from the town, but equally, he seized the opportunity afforded by a vacant plot of land to construct Holy Trinity, a new Chapel of Ease, to prevent “the Dissenters” from gaining a foothold in Charlton village: plans by Butterfield, November 1847; foundation stone laid, April 1848; first Mass celebrated, August 1848. An exemplar for “church planting”?
Nevertheless, the refusal of the Vestry to approve the reordering was taken into consideration by the consistory court; Butler’s letters note that the surrogate for the chancellor “had in fact made up his mind to give judgement against the Faculty. The Bishop, however, made him see that the consistory court ought to act as a protection against a foolish or wicked majority”. Currently, the courts are wary of unsubstantiated claims, for example Re All Saints Sharrington  Norwich Cons Ct, Ruth Arlow Ch. in relation to the “heavy editing” and lack of causal evidence in the letter of an expert witness, and the unknown circumstances in which letters of objection had been written.
It is perhaps significant that the 1854 Petition concerned fabric and furnishings rather than ornaments, and as such did not address the controversial issue of ritual. Ironically, as Dean of the Court of Arches, Sir Robert Phillimore was involved in the cases of ornaments and ritual, including those of the former curate at Holy Trinity, Charlton who became a priest at St Alban, Holborn, Alexander Herriot Mackonochie, one of the few clergy to have been immortalized by the poet William McGonagall..
Footnote for choristers
Street’s reordering of the church was accompanied by replacing the “west gallery musicians” with a surpliced choir, a move that was initially resisted by the choristers themselves as well as others. The organ in the west gallery was taken down in 1856, and a small temporary instrument installed in the Lady Chapel. It was replaced in 1860 with a new instrument by Robert Allen of Bristol, (enlarged by Gray and Davison in 1880) in the Fitzwaryn Chantry, adjacent to the chancel. Initially, the choir sang beneath the crossing, although they subsequently moved “experimentally” to the chancel.
Ironically, in less than 140 years, the use of the church building has reverted to the pre-1847 situation. Butler’s Victorian organ was redesigned and further enlarged by Kenneth Jones of Bray and moved back to the west end of the church, along with new collegiate-style choir stalls either side of the central aisle. As before, a degree of experimentation was undertaken on the best place to locate the stalls, and during the period without a permanent instrument, it was necessary to purchase a small chamber organ. Now as then, however, the tower crossing remains the best location from which to sing.