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Arches Court overturns permission for font sale

23 April 2009

by Shiranikha Herbert Legal Correspondent

WHERE a church is listed, there is a presumption against the grant of a faculty that would adversely affect the character of it as a building of special architectural and historical interest, and it is for those seeking the faculty to prove a necessity for change.

Applying those principles the Court of Arches refused a petition for a faculty for the sale of a font at St Peter’s, Draycott, and for the pro­ceeds to be used for repairs, redecoration, and refurbishment of the church.

St Peter’s is listed Grade II in the list of Buildings of Special Archi­tectural or Historic Interest. It was consecrated in August 1861, and from the outset it contained a sub­stantial font made of Caen stone, which was donated by the Revd John Yatman of Winscombe. The font is by William Burgess, and is Romanesque in style. It has a square limestone cap with foliage, allegorical figures carved in relief on the sides, and a lead-lined bowl. It rests on a truncated column of polished gran­ite, which stands on a square limestone plinth.

In December 2006, the Revd Stanley Price, Priest-in-Charge of Rodney Stoke with Draycott, to­gether with two churchwardens, petitioned for a faculty to accept an offer of £100,000 from a private collector to purchase the font; to accept the collector’s offer of £10,000 to provide an exact copy of the font to be placed in the church in place of the original; and to apply the proceeds to completing repairs, redecoration, and refurbishment of the church.

The PCC voted unanimously in support of the petition, but it was opposed by the Victorian Society. The Bath & Wells diocesan advisory committee did not recommend the sale. The Council for the Care of Churches advised that the font was not redundant, that a sale at the request of a private collector was objectionable, that a sale was wrong in principle, as the font was one of the few items of quality within the church, and the strong and continuing connection of the font within the church should remain. The curator of Cardiff Castle, from his professional perspective, recom­mended that the font should remain as an important feature of the church.

In the Consistory Court of Bath & Wells, Chancellor Timothy Briden rejected the petition on the grounds that sale to a private collector “would expose parishes to unacceptable pressures”, and that behind “the apparently generous offer might sometimes be concealed the buyer’s immediate prospect of a profitable resale”. The Chancellor was satisfied, however, that the petitioners had established compelling reasons for the sale of the font, and went on to consider an alternative scenario not raised by the petitioners, namely sale to a public museum or collection or, failing that, sale by public auction.

He directed that a period of six months be allowed for funds to be raised by interested institutions, and, failing acquisition for the benefit of the public, for sale by auction on terms, including a reserve price. It would be a condition of disposal that there would a replacement font within the church.

The Victorian Society appealed to the Court of Arches. The Dean of the Arches, the Rt Worshipful Sheila Cameron QC, sitting with Chan­cellor Sir William Gage and Chan­cellor Mark Bishop heard the appeal. They concluded that, in assessing the weight of the case of financial need for funds to carry out church repairs, Chancellor Briden was “too readily persuaded” that it amounted to a “financial emergency”.

There was, the Court of Arches said, “a substantial difference be­tween ‘financial need’ and ‘financial emergency’.” “Financial emergency” meant “an immediate pressing need to carry out urgent critical work for which funds are not, or cannot be made, available”. Chancellor Briden’s view of financial emergency coloured his approach to the balancing of the points for and against sale of the font, so that he did not put clearly into the balance all the factors in favour of retaining the font.

Those additional factors were that the font was part of the heritage and history of the church and of all who had been baptised in it; that the font was given expressly for the admin­istration of the sacrament of holy baptism and had been in use since 1861 and was not redundant; that it was a fundamental feature and principal asset of a fine church; that the proposal for sale arose out of an opportunistic offer by a collector, and there was no evidence that it would have been pursued without that unsolicited offer; that the inevitable consequence of a sale at auction would be that the font would pass into private ownership and would no longer be accessible to the public; and that the church would be diminished in interest by the dis­appearance of a work of considerable architectural, artistic, and historical importance.

Consideration of those factors should, in the view of the Court of Arches, have led Chancellor Briden “to hold that, notwithstanding their present lack of funds, the petitioners had not discharged the weighty standard of proof required to justify the sale of the font”.

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