Reconsideration of pews vs upholstered chairs

Pragmatic solution reached on replacement chair design

Following a consideration of the extensive research and consultation undertaken by the petitioners, the Chancellor granted an amendment to an earlier faculty in which he had specified un-upholstered chairs as a replacement for the pews that were to be removed. The two judgments and their implications on the “pews vs chairs debate” are reviewed below.

Re Holy Trinity, Long Itchington [2016] ECC Cov 7

The petitioners wished to remove the Victorian pews from a Grade II* listed church and replace them with wooden, Alpha A1LSE chairs, upholstered in a “wine coloured” material. In support of their replacement, the petitioners claimed that the movement of free-standing but long and heavy pews was “an exercise which requires a number of parishioners. It is an exercise which is neither easy nor necessarily safe”. The Victorian Society and Historic England both accepted that the pews were of no particular merit, but objected to them being replaced with upholstered chairs, though they did not wish to be parties opponent.

In Pews, perceptions and practicalities, we noted that in common with other recent cases – Re St Matthew Salford Priors [2016] ECC Cov 4; Re All Saints Shawell [2016] ECC Lei 3; Re St. Peter & St. Paul Rustington [2016] ECC Chi 6 the petitioners at Holy Trinity, Long Itchington, had sought chairs of a particular design, upholstered in a given colour, based on their perceptions of need. However, the faculty granted in each of these cases was for un-upholstered chairs of a different design, although this was to be agreed between the petitioners and the Diocesan Advisory Committee, and in default of such agreement, to be decided by the Court.

Re Holy Trinity Long Itchington [2018] ECC Cov 3

Reviewing his earlier judgment, Chancellor Stephen Eyre concluded that in 2016, the objectives which the Petitioners sought to achieve by removal of the pews could be achieved through the introduction of un-upholstered chairs; such chairs would have a lesser impact on the special significance of the Grade II* listed church than would the introduction of the proposed upholstered chairs. On the material provided to the court, the use of upholstered chairs could not be justified because it involved greater harm to the special character of the church than was needed to achieve the objectives of the reordering [1].

Subsequently, following a lengthy period of assessment and consultation, the petitioners sought amendment to the faculty such that it would authorise the introduction of Alpha LAMU wooden chairs with a dark stain finish and an upholstered seat and back pad, the latter being in a wooden frame; the colour of the proposed upholstery was Nappa Sanghera, “that is a red albeit one which to [the Chancellor’s] eyes appears to be a red with brown or ochre tones as opposed to a more vibrant red colour” [2].

The Diocesan Advisory Committee, the Acting Archdeacon Pastor, and the congregation had been consulted and there were also discussions with the Victorian Society. The Chancellor noted:

“That period of assessment caused the petitioners to accept the unsuitability of the Alpha A1LSE chairs which they had originally proposed. However, the petitioners contended that the assessment also revealed difficulties in the introduction of wholly un-upholstered chairs” [6].

The court considered the submissions on the Victorian Society [7], the DAC [8], and the response of the petitioners [9]. Commenting on the latter, the Acting Archdeacon Pastor contended that the upholstered rear of the seats would not, in his assessment, have “any noticeable detrimental effect on the character of the church” and that he saw “no advantage to be gained by having plain wooden seat backs” [9]. Additionally, the Chancellor made a site visit as a result of which he noted that the church contains a considerable quantity of red furnishings, and the floor tiles in the nave were of three colours: black, a brownish red, and a very light brown or fawn colour, which “were present roughly in the proportions of 1:1:2” [10].

In analysing the evidence, it was necessary to continue to have regard to Re Duffield: St Alkmund [2013] 2 WLR 854 as modified in Re Penshurst: St John the Baptist (2015) 17 Ecc L J 393; and with reference to the court’s judgment in 2016, determine whether there has been a change in circumstances such that a different assessment should now be made. The Chancellor concluded:

“[14]. …it is just and expedient to authorise an amendment to the faculty. I am satisfied that the previous restriction whereby the faculty only permitted the introduction of wholly un-upholstered chairs would result in the works authorised by the faculty not being carried out. The Parochial Church Council would not be able to fund the acquisition of high quality un-upholstered chairs and those un-upholstered chairs which could be afforded would not be acceptable because of the concerns of the worshipping community as to their comfort and safety.

The result would be that the pews would remain in the church and the benefits which I found justified the harm which would be caused to the church’s special character would not be obtained. In those circumstances I have concluded that the introduction of chairs with an element of upholstery is the minimum that is necessary to achieve those benefits. This, in turn, means that such introduction is permissible because it does not involve more harm to the church’s special character than is necessary to achieve the requisite benefits.

I have double checked this conclusion by considering afresh the Duffield, St Alkmund questions. In doing so I am satisfied that the degree of harm likely to be caused to the church’s special character is justified in the light of the limited extent of that harm and the benefits to be obtained and the fact that for the reasons just stated those benefits cannot be obtained by works which would be less harmful to that special character”.

Having reached this conclusion on the principle of “permitting the introduction of seats with an element of upholstery”, the Chancellor then considered the extent to which the seats would be upholstered [16-18] and the colour of the upholstery [19], again with reference to Duffield, St Alkmund.

“[20]. In those circumstances I direct that the faculty granted in 2016 be amended to permit the introduction of LAMU chairs with wooden frames stained in a dark colour (such as medium oak or a darker shade) with upholstered seat and backpads with upholstery in the proposed Nappa Sanghera colour. I also extend the time for performing the works authorised by the faculty to 30th April 2019”.

Comment

It is important to emphasize that the judgment in Re Holy Trinity Long Itchington [2018] ECC Cov 3 is specific to the facts of the case, and does not represent a change in the approach of the court, the guidance of the Church Buildings Council, or the Victorian Society; indeed the latter “remains of the view that entirely un-upholstered seating remained “by far the most appropriate form of replacement seating in the context of historic church buildings” [6].

Nevertheless, the outcome of this particular case represented changes in the positions of the actors involved, although the principles on which the court assessed the information before it remained the same, viz. Re Duffield: St Alkmund as modified in Re Penshurst: St John the Baptist. Critical to the final outcome was the petitioners’ re-evaluation of the type of chair required based upon their perceptions of need, further consultation and discussions with stakeholders, and the presentation of these findings to the court.

David Pocklington

Cite this article as: David Pocklington, "Reconsideration of pews vs upholstered chairs" in Law & Religion UK, 18 May 2018, https://lawandreligionuk.com/2018/05/18/reconsideration-of-pews-vs-upholstered-chairs/

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