THE practice of burying redundant fonts when a new one is installed came under consideration in the Consistory Court of Southwark in connection with a reordering scheme in St Michael and All Angels, Blackheath Park, in south-east London.
The Vicar, the Revd Alexander Christie, and a churchwarden, and a PCC member (“the petitioners”) applied for a faculty to carry out the proposed works, including the removal of the existing font and its replacement with a new one. St Michael and All Angels is a 200-year-old listed church built in a free Gothic Revival style.
It was not suggested that the proposed works would adversely affect the special architectural and historical character of the church; the proposals were either neutral, or would enhance the character of the building. The only issue was the removal of the font. Greenwich borough and Historic England (formerly English Heritage) objected to the burial of the old font.
It was not clear, the Chancellor, Philip Petchey, said, where the idea originated that the appropriate way to dispose of a redundant font was to bury it. It was likely to have had its origins in the realisation, in the 19th century, that discarded fonts, often of historic and artistic significance, were being used for inappropriate secular purposes. For example, a 13th-century font had been found being used as a pump trough in Nottinghamshire; and a medieval font, which had been thrown out of a church at the time of the Commonwealth, had turned up in a garden in 1952.
Many thought that it was inappropriate that an object that had once had a sacred use should be turned to secular use. In the absence of finding another church to accommodate a redundant font, it might have been thought appropriate by a court that the font should be buried beneath the church floor, or in the churchyard. That might have been regarded as a fitting way to dispose of it, and would have made it impossible for it to be used inappropriately.
The Chancellor said that neither Historic England nor Greenwich borough suggested that the replacement of the existing font at St Michael and All Angels would be so harmful that it should not be permitted. The issue from their point of view was the terms on which it should be allowed.
It was always likely to be difficult, the Chancellor said, to find another church to take a redundant font, because, in all cases, it would have a font of its own. In the present case, no other church was likely to want the redundant font. Nor was any museum likely to want it.
The Chancellor also had reservations about the appropriateness of a font’s ending up in a private collection. If sale were permitted, the font might end up in someone’s garden. It was unseemly that it should be put to that sort of secular use, he said.
It was possible to store the font in the crypt, and that was what Greenwich borough wished to happen. He was “attracted by the petitioners’ approach”, the Chancellor said, that the best way forward was to “decommission” the font by way of burial, and thus achieve finality. What would not be appropriate, he said, was to send the font to a skip.
“With some reservations,” however, the Chancellor concluded that “the better course” in the present case was to require the redundant font to be stored. There could be no strong objection to that course, since the petitioners were able to do that.
A faculty was issued to that effect, and for the reordering scheme. A photographic record was to be kept with the church records of the church as it is now, and those photos were also to be offered to Greenwich borough for its records.