TO CONVERT an altar to serve also as a chest of drawers would be unseemly, and in breach of Canon Law, the Consistory Court of the Bristol diocese ruled when refusing to grant a petition for a faculty in respect of an altar in the Lady chapel of St Mary Redcliffe, a Grade I listed church built between the 12th and 15th centuries.
The faculty was sought so that certain vestments that were heritage items, and were used only rarely, might be stored. Hitherto they had been stored in a cope chest, but they were getting damaged because the excessive number of vestments being stored together made them rub against each other.
The vestments that did not fit in the cope chest without being damaged had then been moved to an area in the crypt, but that area had turned out to be unsuitable for the storage of vestments, as the moisture levels were too high.
The church was planning a project for new facilities, and the opening date for the project was August 2024. It was intended that there would then be suitable storage for these vestments, and therefore the petition was described as “temporary” and “reversible”.
The suggestion was that four oak-faced panels, applied from behind the existing wooden table-frame of the altar in the Lady chapel, would cover the front and ends of the table to ensure that the eight drawers would not be visible on the infrequent occasions when the altar frontal was “stripped”. The panels would be covered by altar frontals of the appropriate colours, and would be visible only when the altar frontal was stripped from it during the Triduum.
The diocesan advisory committee did not recommend the petition, because it felt that “the proposal does not appear to treat the altar with appropriate respect,” and the DAC referred to Canon F2, which relates to the holy table:
1. In every church and chapel a convenient and decent table of wood, stone or other suitable material, shall be provided for the celebration of Holy Communion.
2. The table, as becomes the table of the Lord, shall be kept in a sufficient and seemly manner . . . and shall be covered in the time of divine service with a covering of silk or other decent stuff, and with a fair white linen cloth at the time of the celebration of the Holy Communion.
The petitioners pointed out that an altar in Wells Cathedral currently had an adaptation to house altar frontals, and provided a photograph of it. The Chancellor, the Revd and Worshipful Justin Gau, said that the cathedral was not covered by the jurisdiction of the Consistory Court, and that there was no order from the Cathedrals Fabric Commission for England justifying the alteration.
The petitioners also submitted, by their Fabric Officer, Alan Roberts, that cases relating to St Stephen Walbrook, and St Michael and All Angels, Uffington, “definitely” implied that it was the “eucharistic surface” that was sacrosanct, and not the space beneath, as long as that did not detract from the table’s being “kept in a sufficient and seemly manner.”
The Chancellor rejected that submission, and said that it had never been contemplated in the St Stephen Walbrook case — which concerned a stone altar created by Henry Moore — that the altar or holy table would ever be used for any purpose or use other than as an altar or holy table. In the Uffington case, a petition for the introduction of a dual-purpose altar was refused, and it was said that an “interchangeable use for the altar” would not be acceptable.
The Chancellor said that what was contemplated for the altar in this petition was “interchangeable use”, and he agreed with the DAC that the conversion of the altar into a chest of drawers would be in breach of Canon F2, which required that the holy table be kept “as becomes the table of the Lord . . . in a sufficient and seemly manner”.
The Chancellor added that, even if he was wrong and the temporary conversion of the altar into a chest of drawers was not a breach of Canon F2, he rejected the petitioners’ submission that the altar was the only place where the vestments could be kept in the church, that the church was “tight for floor space”, and that it had no other suitable location for another vestment chest.
The Chancellor said that he had recently made an unannounced visit to St Mary’s, accompanied by the registrar. It was, he said, a magnificent building, and one of the largest and grandest parish churches in the country. It had been preserved with love and care and substantial financial assistance. It had been described by Queen Elizabeth I as “the fairest, goodliest and most famous parish church in England”. It was well heated and ventilated. In any other city it would be the cathedral, the Chancellor said, and the Lady chapel alone was of a comparable size to some parish churches.
It was impossible to accept that there were no other suitable locations for another vestment chest, and “even a short visit identified many areas of clear open space which would not be remotely inappropriate.” The Chancellor said that there were “many other places within the church that share the same conditions and humidity as the Lady chapel”.
The petitioners also stated that a new vestment chest would be more expensive than the conversion of the altar. The Chancellor accepted that, but was satisfied that the petitioners were “not suffering such a financial crisis that the purchase of a new chest will be impossible for them”.