Baptismal fonts – wanted, unwanted and re-discovered

Since our post They bury fonts, don’t they? in 2015 we have covered many examples of the movement, the replacement, and sometimes destruction of baptismal fonts. This update was prompted by recent CFCE considerations of submissions in relation to Chichester Cathedral and Gloucester Cathedral. These are reviewed below in addition to summaries all of the consistory court judgments relating to fonts, Guidance from the Church of England and links to other L&RUK posts in this area.

Chichester Cathedral

The Chapter of the Cathedral Church of the Holy Trinity, Chichester applied on 7 July 2021 for approval to revise the setting of the cathedral font to address health and safety issues and to improve accessibility and liturgical function (9 September 2021). The baptismal font was made in 1983 by John Skelton, a renowned sculptor and letter carver who spent 50 years working in Sussex. The bowl of the font is made from the beaten copper which was chosen to reflect and harmonize with the painting “The Baptism of Christ” by Hans Feibusch that hangs on the west wall. Around the edge of the bowl is the text “One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism” (Ephesians 4:5) hand-carved into the stone by Skelton. The main body of the Font is greenstone from the Polyphant quarry in Bodmin Moor, Cornwall, which has been providing stone since Norman times.

The font currently sits on a single step plinth which has been a trip hazard to the visiting public. Throughout much of its life the font has been roped off or had access otherwise impaired. It also functions imperfectly as a liturgical feature during baptisms due to the step plinth. It was proposed to remove the plinth and lower the font to floor level. A visual ‘echo’ of the removed plinth will be created around the font set flush with the surrounding floor. This will include the use of existing black slate plus pale Purbeck and a darker grey Purbeck, bedded and pointed using a lime-based mortar on top of a new 200mm concrete slab to spread the load of the font.

The proposals for both lowering and the addition of a drain were the product of much deliberation and feedback, including input from CFCE delegation members when they visited in 2019. However, the Cathedral Fabric Advisory Committee (FAC) considered the implications and potential methodology for adding a drain and concluded that this was too high risk an intervention.

Historic England made no comment in its written representation dated 28 July 2021 in respect of the above proposal. At a meeting of the Cathedrals Fabric Commission* the above proposal and representation were considered and the Commission decided to approve the application subject to the certain conditions.

[* The date of the meeting “28 March 2019” in the report does not align with others within this proposal]

Gloucester Cathedral

The Cathedral Church of St Peter and the Holy and Indivisible Trinity, Gloucester applied on 2 September 2020 for approval to relocate existing Lady Chapel furniture and replace it with a set of new furniture designed by the Cathedral Architect. This includes the creation of: a new altar; a base for the Lancaut Font; and a candle stand and lectern for the Lady Chapel Sanctuary. (15 December 2021). The Lancaut font is made from cast lead and can be dated from the years 1120 to 1140; it was originally in the church of St James’, Lancaut, ad was transferred to Gloucester Cathedral in 1865 when the church was abandoned.

The SPAB made no comment in its written representation dated 8th September 2020. At a meeting of the Cathedrals Fabric Commission held on 15 December 2021 the above proposal and representations were considered and the Commission decided to refuse the element of the application for a new font base for the following reasons:

1. That the design of the font base was too intricate and would detract from the aesthetic significance of the font.
2. That detailed workings were not provided to show that the wood and metal base would be strong or stable enough to support the font.
3. That it is not liturgically necessary for the font base to match the other liturgical furnishings and may be desirable for it to be of a different design

Consistory court judgments

Introduction of new fonts and disposal of old fonts

Re All Saints Winterton [2014] Lincoln Const Ct, Bishop Ch A faculty had already been granted for undertaking an extensive reordering which included the removal of an Edwardian font. The present proposal was to place a medieval font where the Edwardian font stood. The Chancellor considered what should be done with the Edwardian font, pursuant to the first petition, which included in the schedule of works the burial of the Edwardian font where it stood. The Chancellor decided that it was not appropriate to bury the Edwardian font, but that it should be re-sited in another part of the church. The judgment contains a brief discussion about whether a church can have two fonts. The first petition was amended to delete the proposal to bury the Edwardian font.

Re St. Bartholomew Kirby Muxloe [2015] Leicester Const Ct, David Rees Dep. Ch. Replacement the stone font with a new font of controversial modern design. Censure of those acting without faculty. The Deputy Chancellor commented “I have to say that I am not being facetious when I suggest that it looks more like a toilet than a font.” (Readers may wish to form their own opinion on the aesthetics of the design). The CBC had indicated that if the faculty were granted, the stone font would need to be broken up and buried in the churchyard, according with a traditional view for the disposal of a vas sacrum. However, the Deputy Chancellor indicated that it is not an absolute rule that a redundant font should be so treated, Re St Peter’s Draycott [2009] Fam 93. He directed that the redundant stone font together with its wooden cover should be moved forthwith to the diocesan store, and gave the parish twelve months to explore alternative ways of disposing of the stone font.

Re St. Peter Shipton Bellinger [2015] Winchester Const St, Clark Ch. Chancellor granted a Faculty for the removal of a large Victorian font and its platform from a position near to the main church door of a small medieval church and the placing of a new, much smaller font of Purbeck stone at the east end of the nave. As to a proposal to bury the old font, the Chancellor did not consider that appropriate and made the faculty subject to the following conditions: “(a) every reasonable attempt should be made to transfer the font to another church or chapel, (b) failing such transfer, museums should be contacted, (c) failing a museum, sale on the open market should be considered, (d) whatever disposal is contemplated, my prior consent will be required.”

Re St. Peter Shipton Bellinger [2015] Court of Arches (Winchester)  This was an appeal by the Victorian Society against the judgment of the Chancellor of Winchester Diocese of 12 March 2015, granting a faculty to replace the existing, Victorian font in the church with a new font made of Purbeck stone. The Court decided that the Chancellor had erred and acted unfairly in his purported application of the written representations procedure, and that his judgment on the merits was flawed by several errors of law. Accordingly, the Court ordered that both his judgment and the resulting faculty be set aside.

Re Eastern Green St. Andrew [2018] ECC Cov 6 Petitioners sought to remove the existing stone font installed in 1975, currently situated at the north-east end of the nave, near the pulpit. This would be replaced with a new portable solid-oak font, incorporating the original font bowl and cover. The Chancellor granted a faculty, subject to a condition that when not in use, the new font should be positioned at the west end of the church. He also authorised the disposal of the stone font, and if it could not be used in another church or appropriate setting, it was to be buried in the churchyard.

Re St Philip Scholes [2016] ECC Lee 5 A font constructed from breeze block and clad in marble had been removed from a 1996 unlisted church and broken up without the authority of a faculty, and the stainless steel bowl incorporated into a moveable wooden font, contrary to directions of the court. These consolidated proceedings were largely an enquiry into how “such an unhappy situation” arose, and the grant of a confirmatory faculty. However, these considerations gave rise to a number of subsidiary matters including the law relating to the disposal of fonts, discussed here. The “rare lapse” from the CBC in its “impoverished response” allowed counsel for the petitioners, Miss Ruth Arlow (as she then was), “to make the bold submission that not merely was the advice of the CBC much delayed, perfunctory and unhelpful, it was also wrong in law”.

Re St. Michael & All Angels Blackheath Park [2016] ECC Swk 13 The proposals were for a major re-ordering of this “remarkable” Grade II* church. The local authority objected to one aspect of the scheme, the removal and burial of the existing font; Historic England expressed a reservation about the proposals for the new font. Neither objector wished to be a party opponent. The Chancellor concluded that the better course in this particular case would be to place the old font into storage, and a faculty for the re-ordering scheme was granted on this basis. The judgment contains a review of recent decisions relating to the disposal of fonts.

Re St. Michael & All Angels Maxstoke [2018] ECC Bir 3  The vicar and churchwardens sought a faculty for the reordering of the Grade II* church; the only contentious item was the removal of the Victorian font which had not been used for many years, a Georgian font being used for baptisms, owing to lack of sufficient space for families around the Victorian font. It was proposed that the font would be used as an area for children; the Victorian font would be placed either outside the church (an option not favoured by Historic England and the Victorian Society) or alternatively an offer could be accepted for it to be stored in Maxstoke Castle. Faculty was granted with requirement that evidence was to be obtained as to whether the placing of the font in the churchyard would result in severe damage due to weathering, in which case the Chancellor would direct that the font be stored in Maxstoke Castle.

Moving Fonts within church

Re St. Mary Lenham [2014] Morag Ellis Comm. Gen. (Canterbury) The petitioners sought to remove the font from the west end of the church to the chancel and to remove one pew from the west end of the church. The judgment contains a discussion of liturgical tradition and the provisions of Canon Law regarding the siting of a font. Faculty granted.

Re St. Peter Bratton Fleming [2012]   A faculty was granted for moving the font to a position in an area immediately to the west of the main church entrance and to remove three pews and install a redundant choir stall frontal in order to create a Baptistery area around the repositioned font. Although supported by the DAC, the Archdeacon, the CBC and a significant number of individual parishioners, the proposal was hotly contested by a number of local residents, five of whom became party opponents. The Chancellor noted: “The current application, whilst it relates to a relatively discrete and uncomplicated plan, has generated a file of documents, with arguments for and against, which is some two inches thick. I have read all of this paperwork.”

Re St. Paul Seaton [2018] ECC Car 1 A faculty was granted for the removal of the existing damaged stone font from the front of the church and its replacement with a new portable font incorporating the stainless steel bowl and cover from the old font. The rationale was to permit the placement of the (new) font in a better position for baptism services, with improved sight-lines; and the movement of the font out of the way when the space at the front of the church was required for large services, concerts and other events. A faculty was granted on condition that the new font should stand in the same position as the old font, except when it needed to be moved for special services and events.

Re St. Bartholomew Aldbrough [2019] ECC Yor 7 Petitioners sought to: reposition font and removal its plinth; and (2) remove eight pews. The DAC noted that due to the close proximity of the font to the rear pews, its plinth caused a tripping hazard (and one corner already bore warning tape to prevent this). The plinth was not original to the font and therefore it had no objection to its removal; the repositioning of the font was also perfectly reasonable. The Chancellor was satisfied that the removal of the plinth and the moving of the font will have no appreciable impact on the historic character or the historic interest of either the font
or the church.

Re St. Andrew Ferring [2020] ECC Chi 5 The  petitioners sought permission for the installation of a new font bowl and a new stained glass window, which would replace a clear glass window near the font. There were two letters of objection in respect of the window. The bowl, which is of a modern design, will fit “snugly within the font” and appears uncontroversial; it was the proposed stained glass window which has drawn adverse comment in the form of two emails.

Re St. Andrew Hingham  [2020] ECC Nor 2 The petitioners sought permission to install lavatories and re-locate the kitchen servery, and remove 10 pews from the end of the nave and 6 pews from the east end of the nave of the Grade I church. There is a total of 60 pews, all from the Victorian Arts and Crafts Period with finely carved pew ends. The objective of the reordering was to improve health and safety (trip incidents of around font due to congestion), create a better area for families during baptism, and to provide a more usable area for a wide range of activities alongside the provision of worship.

Re St. Mary Chinley [2021] ECC Der 3 The Deputy Chancellor granted a faculty for the removal and disposal of three pews from the back of the church, replacing them with moveable tables and chairs; removal and disposal of the wooden pulpit; and moving the stone font from the back to the front of the church. The font and pulpit both came from a small Victorian chapel of rest of St Mark, in the parish of St Mary Cromford, which was demolished in 1970 (i.e. not from St Mary’s itself). There were health and safety/insurance issues to be addressed with the insurer as it was proposed that that the work, including the moving of the stone font, would be done almost exclusively by volunteers .

Re St. Margaret Stoke Golding [2021] ECC Lei 3 A faculty was granted for  the  relocation  of  the  font  from  its  existing position at the west end of the church to a new position at the east end of the south aisle adjacent to the Lady Chapel. The font had to be temporarily removed to enable flooring works to take place under the authority of a separate Faculty, and the Petitioners wished to use this as an opportunity to relocate the font permanently within the church. The rationale for the move was that the existing position of the font requires the minister to stand in a cramped and restricted space; in addition, the congregation had to turn in their pews to view a baptism (as in most churches); and the proposed new position would allow more space around the font. The Chancellor was satisfied that the petitioners had made a good case for the proposal.

Guidance from the Church of England

ChurchCare has produced a Guidance Note on fonts which was last updated on 26 November 2021 and includes a link to the House of Bishops note on Baptism and Fonts. This states:

“The Wording of the canon (Canon F1 Of the Font) that a font is used for water for baptism and for no other purpose has encouraged a widely-held view that a font not required for baptism must, as a matter of law, put beyond use – either by burial or by breaking it up. The Court of the Arches, in its ruling over Draycott, made clear that this is not the meaning of the Canon.

What is meant is that while the font is present in the church it will only be used for water for baptism. It is not intended to be used as a restriction on what might happen to a font that is no longer required…”

This is echoed in the Guidance produced by the Representative Body of the Church in Wales on Disposal of Fonts and Altars (3 March 2020), although it stresses that neither burial nor breaking up, putting a font beyond use, “is recommended by the Representative Body”.

Posts on fonts in L&RUK

They bury fonts, don’t they? 7 April 2015.

Last rites for fonts – continued, 17 April 2015.

Assessing “modest harm” in secular and ecclesiastical courts, 9 December 2015

Burial and destruction of unwanted fonts – further clarification, Points arising from recent judgment on disposal of fonts, 31 May 2016.

“They don’t exhume fonts, do they?” The dilemma of discovering an “unwanted font”, 10 March 2020.

Comment

Although the above considerations are not completely unanimous, in general, the following conclusions may be drawn:

  • There is an Important distinction between the treatment of the font bowl and its plinth;
  • Canon F1 relates to use of the bowl of the font in church;.
  • No restriction on burial of font in churchyard, though often a last resort;
  • There is a legacy of poorly-sited fonts which can result in health and safety issues, and problems in access and their liturgical use.

Postscript

An indication of the practicalities involved in the burial of a font is provided by the media coverage of the 16th Century font at St Andrew’s Church, Chippenham, which was unearthed during construction work in the churchyard.

Cite this article as: David Pocklington, "Baptismal fonts – wanted, unwanted and re-discovered" in Law & Religion UK, 25 February 2022, https://lawandreligionuk.com/2022/02/25/baptismal-fonts-wanted-unwanted-and-re-discovered/

 

1 thought on “Baptismal fonts – wanted, unwanted and re-discovered

  1. Pingback: Religion news 28 February 2022 - Religion Media Centre

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.