Resolving another “upholstered chairs” impasse

In August 2017,  we posted The last word on the “pews chairs” debate……or would that be too much to hope for? which, in anticipation of a negative response, concluded “[w]atch this space”. Readers of our monthly round-up of consistory court cases will be familiar with the continuing saga, as will be the frequent regular participants in these proceedings – Chancellors, DACs, Amenity Societies, Church Buildings Council. The issues raised in the recently circulated Re St. John the Evangelist Ashton Hayes [2020] ECC Chr 1 will therefore come as no surprise. The judgment was summarized by the Ecclesiastical Law Association:

“The petitioners wished the Chancellor to vary a faculty granted in 2018 in respect of the choice of chair to be used in the internal reordering of the church, by approving their suggested choice of the (upholstered) Alpha SB2M chair in substitution for the previously intended Trinity ‘Abbey’ (un-upholstered) chair. The Church Buildings Council, the Victorian Society and the Diocesan Advisory Committee were not in favour of upholstered seating. The Chancellor was satisfied that the proposed alternative seat had a good ‘track record’ and that it was acceptable for this particular church. He accordingly granted a faculty.”

On the matter of the upholstered chairs, The Worshipful David Turner QC commented, inter alia:

“[1]. Not for the first time in the diocese has it become necessary to seek to resolve an apparent impasse which has arisen in connection with the choice of chair proposed for use by a parish following internal reordering of the church.”

“[35]. The topicality (and, frequently, difficulty) of chair selection is amply demonstrated in the plethora of reported Consistory Court cases, some of them my own.”

“[36]. Aesthetic considerations are notoriously difficult to weigh. For every expert who opines something is fine or worthy, another may be found to venture the opposite view.”

“[37]. Chancellors, regrettably, disagree amongst themselves, with their DACs and with the views of the amenity societies and the CBC [1]. The world outside the church frequently looks on in such debates in baffled incomprehension at what is often considered, to borrow the phrase, a ‘first world problem’.”

He cited with approval two recent judgments of Mynors Ch – Re St. John the Baptist Suckley [2020] ECC Wor 3and Re All Saints Worcester[2019] ECC Wor 1 – which addressed the very chair in question in the instant case. He commented [emphasis added].

“[53]. The ‘aesthetics’ debate is a particularly difficult one. Here I am confronted with a stark conflict of view between the parish leadership, supported by their architect, who ‘firmly support’ the suggested chair and the Victorian Society and CBC who, on the grounds of their generally given advice, guidance and views oppose it, in effect, ‘on principle’.

[54]. I am very familiar with the published guidance to which I have had regard [2]. Guidance remains guidance, not legislation [3].

The arguments against the choice of chair are summarized in [55] to [65], on which the Chancellor concluded:

“[66]. I have decided on all the available evidence, and not without some hesitation, that the proposed chair change should be permitted. It is an acceptable chair in the context of this church in my judgment.

[67]. I have to a significant degree been reassured by the opinion of the architect directly involved, though, of course, I readily recognise his understandable wish to provide support to his client. The element of inflexibility in the, again perfectly reasonable, stance of the Victorian Society and CBC on the ‘upholstered/un-upholstered’ debate I find less than wholly convincing.

Comment

By their nature, consistory court determinations are fact and situation specific;  whilst the “upholstered chairs” issue is far from resolved, approval is being granted in an increasing number of cases, often in the face of opposition from one or more parties. However, attitudes towards upholstered chair are gradually changing.

In the instant case it was noted that the suggested upholstery fabric has been in use since 2002, was successfully established in some 200 other Anglican churches and at least one cathedral nationally [21].

An in Re All Saints Worcester [2019] ECC Wor 1, Chancellor Mynors commented:

“I am not convinced that un-upholstered chairs are intrinsically better. They have not been used historically, of course, but that was largely because they were unavailable in large quantities until relatively recently…I suspect that it is always possible to criticise a historic church that has been filled with a large number of matching contemporary chairs, of whatever style, as looking slightly like a modern conference centre.”


Notes

[1]. In contrast to Re St. John the Evangelist Ashton Hayes, in the recently reported Re Holy Trinity High Hurstwood [2021] ECC Chi 5, The Worshipful Mark Hill QC observed [emphasis added]:

“[23]. …whilst the evidence clearly supports the replacement of the benches with chairs, it does not, in my assessment, justify the introduction of upholstered chairs. The CBC guidance on this is clear and must be given appropriate weight (although I leave open the question of whether it constitutes ‘statutory advice’ within the technical meaning of that term as applied in planning and other cases).”

[2]. Church Buildings Council Guidance Note Seating, amended 23 October 2018, states:

6. Selecting new seating: The view of the Church Buildings Council:

With many years of experience and having seen a range of completed schemes, the Church Buildings Council generally advocates the use of high quality wooden chairs (i.e. un-upholstered) and pews where seating is necessary.”

[3]. This aligns with our view of the the legal status of CBC Guidance which we considered in an earlier post.

Cite this article as: David Pocklington, "Resolving another “upholstered chairs” impasse" in Law & Religion UK, 18 August 2021, https://lawandreligionuk.com/2021/08/18/resolving-another-upholstered-chairs-impasse/

 

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