Illegal disposal of pews: Church of St Michael, Bath, Twerton-on-Avon

In a guest post, Shirani Herbert, Legal Correspondent of the Church Times, reviews the errors, irregularities and illegality following the removal of pews under licence

Re: Church of St Michael, Bath, Twerton-on-Avon, [2024] ECC B&W 1

What happens when property belonging to a church is disposed of unlawfully by a third party and is unlikely to be retrieved?  In those circumstances, a confirmatory faculty seems completely ineffective, and the Consistory court has to accept the reality of the situation and hope for the best. The court refused to grant a faculty which would include “bestowing a cloak of subsequent legality to cover a wrongdoing”.

The Church of St Michael, Bath Twerton-on-Avon in the Diocese of Bath and Wells is a Grade II* listed Victorian building with a surviving medieval tower and doorway. Its finely carved oak pews formed part of an integrated ensemble of fittings and decoration dating from 1885.

In May 2017 the Archdeacon of Bath, the Venerable Andy Piggott, issued a licence for minor temporary re-ordering under rule 8.2 of the Faculty Jurisdiction Rules 2015.  Among other things, the licence permitted the removal of all the pews, subject to the condition that they were to be “stored safely and kept in good condition.”

In compliance with that condition an arrangement for storage of the pews was made with Bath Abbey, which was already storing numerous pews in connection with its own re-ordering project. Initially, the pews from both sources were kept in an aircraft hangar, but they were later transferred to a storage facility in Tormarton.  The pews belonging to St Michael’s church were not labelled.

The Archdeacon’s licence expired on 31 August 2018. By then, the pews ought to have been returned to the church, or there should have been a petition (or at least an interim faculty or licence under Part 15 of the Rules) for their removal. Instead, nothing was done.  Accordingly, from that date onwards the absence of the pews from the church was illegal. [11]

Due to an oversight by the staff of Bath Abbey, the entire stock of pews in storage was sold in 2022 to a Mr Owen Thomas of the Courtyard, Heather Farm, Bath, for what was described as a “donation” of £1,500. Mr Thomas could no longer be contacted at that address.

In December 2023 the Reverend Richard White, the current Rector of the team ministry within which St Michael’s Church is situated, and Chris Tatchell, a churchwarden, petitioned for a confirmatory faculty for the removal and disposal of the pews, including the transfer to one Owen Thomas.

In the Bath and Wells Consistory Court, Chancellor Timothy Briden said that the pews from St Michael’s had never been removed from the jurisdiction of the Consistory Court. The court’s powers, including those relating to injunctions and restoration orders (see sections 71 and 72 of the Care of Churches and Ecclesiastical Jurisdiction Measure 2018) continued to apply to them.  [18]

It followed that the disposal of the pews to Mr Thomas without a faculty was itself a prima facie breach of ecclesiastical law for which the staff of Bath Abbey appeared to have been responsible. Since they were not parties to the current proceedings, the Chancellor said that it was “inappropriate to make conclusive findings against them in their absence; but on any view of the matter the unauthorised disposal was a wrongdoing.”  [18]

Similar considerations applied to Mr Thomas and to anyone to whom he transferred the pews from St Michael’s. Legal title to the pews in the hands of the ultimate recipients remained defective insofar as the transactions which had taken place were in contravention of ecclesiastical law.  [18]

The likelihood was that the collection of pews had been dispersed following sales by Mr Thomas, since the Victorian Society had identified what seemed to be one of the pews on a website. It was generally recognised that the prospect of reclaiming the complete set of pews was “effectively non-existent.” The Chancellor said that the court was therefore obliged to “look at the reality of the case.” For those reasons the confirmatory faculty authorised the removal, but only the removal, of the pews.  [24]

The disposal of the pews by Bath Abbey, and probably others, would not be included in the faculty for two reasons. The first was that it would be inappropriate to cover with the cloak of subsequent legality the wrong which had been done. The second was that the hope of recovering at least a small number of the pews and bringing them back to the church could not yet be ruled out.  They must therefore remain within the jurisdiction of the Consistory Court, which would continue, for the purpose, inter alia, of making a Restoration Order, for six years after the discovery of the relevant facts in May 2022: see sections 72 and 73(2) of the 2018 Measure.  [25]

It was a condition of the faculty that the petitioners use their best endeavours to locate and recover a sample number of the missing pews and, upon such recovery, apply to the Consistory Court for directions.  [26]

Shirani Herbert

Cite this article as: Shirani Herbert, “Illegal disposal of pews: Church of St Michael, Bath, Twerton-on-Avon” in Law & Religion UK, 18 June 2024, 

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