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Court rejects new painting on grounds of style and size

09 May 2014


THE Consistory Court of the diocese of Chichester refused to grant a petition by the PCC for a retrospective faculty to hang a new painting in St Mary and St Nicholas's, Lavant, a Grade I listed building dating from the 12th or 13th century. The painting (above and below), by a local artist, Richard Whincop, depicts the baptism of Christ in a modern setting, and was intended to be mounted on the west wall of the church, adjacent to the font.

The previous Rector had seen Mr Whincop's work at a Roman Catholic Church in Scotland, and had commissioned the painting without having first obtained a faculty. Mr Whincop stated in a note attached to the petition, that he drew upon William Blake's poem "Jerusalem", and that the picture incorporated the landscape of the countryside around Lavant, using local imagery.

The petitioners said that the proposal was to hang the picture where a utilitarian noticeboard currently hung, that it would bring that corner of the church to life, and would link the ministry of Jesus with the act of baptism at the font. They also said that, since being hung in position for a trial period, the painting had received unanimous acclaim, and that some members of the community had been moved to tears by its spirituality and presence.

The Diocesan Advisory Committee (DAC) did not recommend the proposed introduction of the painting, however, and said that its "style was not in keeping with the interior of the building", and that it was "too large for its intended location". The DAC encouraged the parish to consider relocating the painting to the parish-room extension. The Church Buildings Council (CAB) considered that the painting was "theologically interesting, even if not to all tastes", and recommended that a confirmatory faculty be granted for five years, after which time the matter could be reassessed.

As for the introduction of the painting without a faculty, the Chancellor, the Worshipful Mark Hill QC, said that it was "a source of considerable concern that a previous incumbent and churchwardens should have had such cavalier disregard of the faculty jurisdiction".

On the instructions of the Archdeacon, the painting had been removed once it was recognised that no faculty had been obtained. Strictly speaking, the removal of unlawful furnishings also required the authority of a faculty. The Chancellor said, however, that in the particular circumstances he was prepared to overlook that second oversight.

He said that he "took a dim view" of the actions of the previous Rector and churchwardens, but that it would not be proper to allow that conduct to be determinative of the present petition for a retrospective faculty. The issue was whether, if an application had been made prospectively, it would have been granted.

There had been lack of unanimity in the PCC when a decision was taken to seek a retrospective faculty. The public notice had elicited one objector who stated that "there are many within the worshipping members of the church who believe the painting . . . has no place being displayed on the walls of a Grade I listed building".

Whenever a change in a church was proposed, the burden of proof lay on those seeking the faculty to justify the need for the change, and a higher standard needed to be met when the church concerned was Grade I listed. After considering all the information, the Chancellor was of the opinion that the petitioners had failed to discharge that burden of proof.

As for the CBC's "lukewarm" support and suggestion that any permission be limited to five years, the Chancellor said that either the picture had artistic and aesthetic qualities justifying its introduction or it had not, and he was not convinced that there could be "some form of halfway house by which an otherwise objectionable item becomes permissible, but for a fixed-term of years, subject to a review". The faculty jurisdiction must have a long-term view, even when proposals were relatively modest and reversible, he said.

Refusing the faculty, the Chancellor said that, although there might well be a significant majority in the PCC and the worshipping congregation more generally in favour of the picture, the objections on the grounds of size, aesthetics, and suitability for its proposed position in this Grade I listed church all militated against the faculty.

The petitioners had failed to satisfy him that "the visual intrusion of this unashamedly modern image into this fine historic church can be justified".


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