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Faculty granted to move font

23 November 2012

THE basic rule for baptismal fonts is that they should be as near the principal entrance to the church as conveniently possible, but there is no legal, liturgical, or theological bar to a font being situated elsewhere, in exceptional circumstances. Nevertheless, mere inconvenience did not amount to exceptional circumstances which justified moving the font away from the entrance, Chancellor Philip Petchey ruled in the Consistory Court of Southwark, when granting a faculty for works to be carried out to Holy Trinity, Wandsworth.

The petitioners - the Vicar, the Revd Gregory Prior, and two parish wardens - sought a faculty for works which included the moving of the font from its position in the south-west of the church to a new place in the north transept, and for the baptistery to be converted into a servery.

The application and force of Canon F1, as regards the location of the font, had been subject to debate, and there appeared to be a widely held view that, in essence, it no longer had any application. The Chancellor said that he disagreed with that view.

There was no legal bar to the font's being located elsewhere, because the Canon envisaged that that the Ordinary might direct that the font may be located elsewhere. But that did not affect what was the preferred position under the Canon.

In practice, the Canon was not straightforward to apply, the Chancellor said, since it might be thought that, all other things being equal, the inconvenience of a font being positioned near the principal door of the church might be circumstances out of the ordinary so as to justify locating it somewhere else.

It might be inconvenient because it got in the way of use of the west end of the church as a "welcome" area, or it obstructed processions, or, if baptism was in the main service, it required people to face the west door, or to process to the font, where there might not be room for everybody. Moreover, it might be possible to point to a change in the practice in the administration of baptism so that it now took place in the context of the main Sunday service.

But, said the Chancellor, "by its clear wording the Canon must be taken to envisage that inconvenience of this kind would be likely to arise, and would not, of itself, amount to circumstances out of the ordinary," and "it was only if the inconvenience is particularly marked, or if the compromise were too great, might it amount to circumstances out of the ordinary justifying moving the font".

In practice, it might be that it was only in respect of Victorian or later fonts that it was likely that there would be proposals for relocation. If the font was earlier, it was likely that there would be a heritage objection to moving it. Thus the natural reluctance that a Chancellor might feel to authorise moving a font from the position it had occupied for centuries might well be justified on heritage grounds, he said.

Part of the proposal was to create a "welcome area" at the west end of the church. The font would not make that area less attractive, but it would make it less useable. The Chancellor said that that was a legitimate reason to justify the moving of the font to the north transept, but it was not, of itself, a circumstance out of the ordinary: many churches had fonts in comparable positions.

What did seem to the Chancellor to make the case special was the fact that, for the past 70 or so years, baptisms had taken place from a portable font at the east end of the nave of this church. A faculty did not appear to have been granted for the introduction of the portable font. None the less, the Chancellor thought that, had an application for a faculty been made 70 years ago, it would have been appropriate to grant it, on the basis that baptism at the existing enclosed font was not appropriate.

But, with or without a faculty, what had happened was that a tradition had grown up of baptisms "at the front". In its new position, the font would speak symbolically of the importance of baptism in a more direct way than when it was enclosed within the baptistery.

A faculty was granted for all the works to the church to be carried out. The Chancellor said that the "carrying out of these extensive works . . . makes it likely that the building will survive into the future as a valued church of heritage interest".

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