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Obstructing the minister

17 August 2012

Your answers

I have heard it said that it is an offence to impede, delay, or prevent a member of the C of E clergy from getting to church to lead worship. Is this factual, and, if so, where is this law to be found? If factual, does it also apply to delaying or preventing members of the congregation from attending an act of worship?


First, protection of the clergy. The clergy are protected by statute. The Offences Against the Person Act 1861 (36) states: "Whosoever shall, by threats or force, obstruct or prevent or endeavour to obstruct or prevent, any clergyman or other minister in or from celebrating divine service or otherwise officiating in any church, chapel, meeting house, or other place of divine worship, or in or from the performance of his duty in the lawful burial of the dead in any churchyard or other burial place, or shall strike or offer any violence to, or shall, upon any civil process, or under the pretence of executing any civil pro­cess, arrest any clergyman or other minister who is engaged in, or to the knowledge of the offender is about to engage in, any of the rites or duties in this section aforesaid, or who to the knowledge of the offender shall be going to perform the same or returning from the performance thereof, shall be guilty of a misde­meanor, and being convicted thereof shall be liable, at the discretion of the court, to be imprisoned for any term not exceeding two years, . . ." (as amended by the Criminal Law Act 1967, which abolished the difference between a felony and a misdemean­our).

Second, the rights of a parishioner to attend his or her parish church. There was originally a statutory right to attend one's parish church because of the duty imposed by Section 1 of the Act of Uniformity 1551, repealed by Section 1 of the Religious Disabil­ities Act 1846.

In the case of Cole v. Police Constable 443A (1937), reported at 3 All ER 107, however, Lord Goddard stated that it was a common-law right to attend one's parish church. The right does not appear to extend to attending other churches. That case involved a man who was attending a service at Westminster Abbey, not on a Sunday or Holy Day, and was ejected by a police constable on the instructions of the then Dean.

The court (Goddard J) expressed the view that the right of a parishioner to attend his church was an old common-law right and did not arise from a duty to attend church. Westminster Abbey is not, of course, a parish church, but is a Royal Peculiar. Any parishioner having the right to attend church has a right of action in the courts against anyone preventing him or her from exercising that right. See Taylor v. Timson (1888), 20 QBD, 671.

As far as I am aware, it has not been tested as to whether the com­mon law right extends to the church where one's name is on the Electroral Roll, as opposed to one's geograph­ical parish church. Nor has it been tested whether the right extends to attending meetings to elect church­wardens and PCC meetings, both of which are rights in law.

The issue was nearly tested a while ago when some parishioners at a church in Surrey were prevented from attending their parish church because of a cycle race. Certain roads had been closed by means of a (very badly drafted) local Traffic Order that, apparently, did not take parishioners' rights into account. In the event, the matter was settled by sensible compromise, but it could have been a very interesting piece of litigation.
Barry Williams
Beddington, Surrey

We have found some rather tattered architectural drawings of our church from the early 20th century. What is the best way to mend and preserve them?
P. M.

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