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Screen ruling overturned

25 January 2013


Moving: the screen in St Alkmund's, Duffield

Moving: the screen in St Alkmund's, Duffield

THE Court of Arches overruled a decision of Chancellor Bullimore, in the Consistory Court of the diocese of Derby, and granted a faculty permitting the removal of the chancel screen in the Grade I listed church St Alkmund's, Duffield, and the relocation of the screen to the Bradshaw chapel.

The building of the present church began in the 12th century, but significant alterations were made in subsequent centuries. The present internal appearance of St Alkmund's is substantially influenced by changes made in the 1840s, and in the 1890s, by John Oldrid Scott, when the chancel screen was introduced.

The current proposal in its original form was to remove the screen from the church. When opposition to that was voiced during consultations, before a petition to the Consistory Court was lodged by the Vicar, the Revd Dr Mark Pickles, and two churchwardens, the proposal was amended to include the relocation of the screen to the Bradshaw Chapel, which lies at the east end of the north aisle, and is used for prayer.

That chapel is currently separated off by a curtain and rail of no aesthetic merit. The proposal was to remove the curtain and rail, and replace them with the chancel screen, which would be placed on the inner side of the existing arch into the chapel. In order for it to fit snugly, the screen would need to be reversed so that its existing rear faced outwards.

Although the petition was unopposed, Chancellor Bullimore was required to take into account objections from English Heritage, the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, and the Victorian Society, which stated that the removal and relocation of the screen would be highly detrimental to the special architectural and historic interest of the building.

The Court of Arches, consisting of the Dean of the Arches, the Rt Worshipful Charles George QC, Chancellor Rupert Bursell QC, and Chancellor Peter Collier QC, allowed the petitioners' appeal from Chancellor Bullimore's refusal to grant a faculty, on the ground that there were errors in his approach to the effect on the character of a listed building - in particular, his erroneous approach to the assessment of adverse impact on the listed building. The Court of Arches therefore concluded that "the most appropriate course" was to substitute its own determination for that of the Chancellor.

In the court's view, the special architectural interest of the interior of St Alkmund's lay primarily in the building's medieval elements and the spatial proportions derived from them. The Victorian alterations, and in particular those of Scott, had a significant impact on the church's character, which, in the opinion of the court, was not wholly beneficial.

Referring to the special historic interest of the church, the court said that Scott's alterations were of considerable historic interest in showing how the Tractarians set about beautifying churches (as they saw it), by focusing attention on the chancel, and seeking to attach mystery and detachment to that part of the church.

The relocation of the screen would constitute a marked change, and there would be some detriment architecturally to the overall Victorian ensemble of the choir and chancel. Nevertheless, prolonged study of photographs, both before and after the Scott alterations, as well as the court's own observations, led the court to expect that the screen's relocation was likely to benefit the church's architecture as a whole. The court was therefore satisfied that the special architectural character and interest of the building would not be harmed by the proposed relocation of the chancel screen.

There would be greater detriment to the special historic interest of the church because the Tractarian ensemble would no longer be intact. But, with the screen repositioned in the Bradshaw chapel, the court said that "it would require little imagination to envisage what the chapel would have looked liked when the screen was in its original position."

When the petitioners' case was approached cumulatively, and proper account was taken of the commendable ambitions of the "large and thriving congregation", the court considered that the petitioners had established the existence of a pastoral need for the alteration for theological, visual, and practical reasons. The church's present success in attracting large numbers of worshippers should not be used as if it were evidence that there was no real requirement to remove the chancel screen.

There was no justification for requiring chancellors to apply to ecclesiastical buildings a stricter test than was applied in the secular system, the Court of Arches said, and it suggested a new framework of guidelines for chancellors. Chancellors should first ask whether the proposals, if implemented, would result in harm to the significance of the church as a building of special architectural or historic interest.

If the answer to that question was "no", the ordinary presumption in faculty proceedings "in favour of things as they stand" was applicable, and could be rebutted more or less readily, depending on the particular nature of the proposals. If the answer to that question was "yes", the next issue was how serious the harm would be, and how clear and convincing the justification was for carrying out the proposal.

Bearing in mind that there was a strong presumption against proposals that would adversely affect the special character of a listed building, chancellors should consider whether there would be any resulting public benefit that would outweigh the harm. The more serious the harm, the greater would be the level of benefit needed before the proposals should be permitted. That would particularly be the case if the harm was to a building that was listed Grade I or II*, where serious harm should only exceptionally be allowed.

On a proper evaluation of all matters, the court decided that the petitioners were able to rebut the strong presumption against change, and the faculty was granted, subject to conditions. Before the relocation of the chancel screen, a photographic record was to be taken so as to enable the screen's position within the setting of the church to be properly appreciated by subsequent generations and visitors. That record should be kept with the church's records, and copies sent to the diocesan advisory committee.


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