The High Court has ruled that a residuary gift left for the benefit of “the Ancient Catholic Church known as the Church of the Good Shepherd at present meeting at Rookwood Road London N16 in the London Borough of Hackney” was invalid, on the grounds that the church, which had been a thriving entity in the 1950s, had become defunct.
The case concerned the will of Pamela Schroder, who died on 2 January 2008. She had devoted her time and finances to the church, and was the designated keeper of its archives. She had conducted services there until a few days before her death, and described herself as “sole custodian of the church”.
The church was founded by one Harold Nicholson. In the 1940s there were several movements schismatic from Rome, some of which were comprised in the Catholic Apostolic Church, known as the Catholicate of the West. Mr Nicholson began a house-church movement in Clapton in the 1930s, moved to Thornton Heath, and in 1943 was ordained a priest in the Catholic Apostolic Church. In 1950, the Patriarch issued a charter to the church, creating it as an independent and autocephalous tropus of the Catholicate of the West, and consecrating Mr Nicholson as its first Primate.
The church left the Catholicate of the West in about 1955, and in 1956 moved to premises in Rookwood Road in Hackney, which had been used as a church for the Agapemonites, but had been disused for more than 50 years. When Mr Nicholson died in 1968, Mrs Schroder’s husband was elected and enthroned as Primate. In 1985, Mr Schroder died, and his wife assumed the title of “Reverend” and began to conduct services.
The value of Mrs Schroder’s residuary estate was worth in the region of £449,000. The parties to the proceedings in the Chancery Division of the High Court were Mrs Schroder’s sister, Dorothy Bultitude, representing the beneficiaries who would take in the event of intestacy, and the Attorney General, representing charity.
It was argued for the Attorney General that the church was capable of being carried on; and that its purposes, as appeared from the constitutional documents, were in essence the promotion of a reasonably traditional form of Christianity — with adherence to the Nicene Creed, the maintenance of the apostolic succession, and the administration of traditionally recognised sacraments, adhering to the Roman belief in the real presence of Christ in the sacrament.
The Attorney General argued that the purposes of the church continued after Mrs Schroder’s death. It was argued for Mrs Bultitude that those purposes ceased on Mrs Schroder’s death.
The Attorney General also argued that the Church continued to exist for a short time after Mrs Schroder’s death, since members of the congregation attended the building in ignorance of her death, and decided to go their separate ways only later.
The judge, Mrs Justice Proudman, said that Mrs Schroder was essential to the activities of the Church. Without her, “it simply ceased to exist.” It became constitutionally defunct on Mr Schroder’s death, and its purposes became defunct in practical terms on the death of his wife. By the time of Mrs Schroder’s death, the church had no activities other than her ministry, a ministry that to all intents and purposes she was funding.
The church under Mrs Schroder was “particularly dogged”, the judge said, “in pursuing its separate path, to the extent of complete separation from all other schismatic institutions”. All the evidence pointed to an intention on Mrs Schroder’s part to make a gift dependent on the continued existence of the church as an institution.
Consequently, her residuary estate was not the subject of a valid charitable gift to an identifiable institution, and devolved in accordance with the laws of intestacy.
The church as it existed at Rookwood Road has now closed. The doors of the building were closed at the time of Mrs Schroder’s death, and remained closed so far as the church was concerned. The building is now used by the Georgian Orthodox Church.