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Judge rules defunct sect was a religious charity

06 January 2017



Dispute resolved: the Ark of the Covenant on Clapton Common, built in the 1890s by the Agapemonites

Dispute resolved: the Ark of the Covenant on Clapton Common, built in the 1890s by the Agapemonites

THE six granddaughters of a former Anglican clergyman, John Hugh Smyth-Pigott, who became the leader of a sect known as the Church of the Holy Agapemony (”the Aga­pemonites”), and was subsequently unfrocked in 1909, failed in their claim in the High Court to the pro­ceeds of sale of a property used by the sect as a church.

The sect was formed in the 1840s by H. J. Prince, a Church of England assistant curate dissatisfied with mainstream doc­trine. He adopted an Evangelical style of preaching that attracted sup­port from the pro­fessional middle classes. Donations from rich follow­ers enabled him to establish a com­munity in the Somerset village of Spaxton.

Prince arranged for some of his leading male followers to enter into “spiritual” marriages with three wealthy spinster sisters, the Not­tidges, thus enabling him to acquire control of their assets.

A fourth Nottidge sister, Louisa, became the subject of High Court litigation when her brother kid­napped her from Spaxton, and at one time placed her in a lunatic asylum, to protect her from Prince’s influence.

By the late 1880s, Prince was growing old, and a successor was needed to lead the sect. Smyth-Pigott assumed that position. He was another disaffected Church of England clergyman who had aban­doned a middle-class curacy in north London to join the then rad­ical Salvation Army, which he had left under a cloud. He focused his preaching efforts on London, and attracted many new followers.

In 1892, a plot of land was pur­chased in Stamford Hill, London, and between 1893 and 1896 a build­ing, called the Ark of the Covenant, was constructed there as a place of worship. A trust was declared in 1892, with 13 trustees, as a parallel with Christ and his 12 disciples.

At evensong on Sunday 7 Sep­tember 1902, Smyth-Pigott declared to his congregation at the Ark of the Covenant: “I am come again for the second time as the bridegroom of the Church and the judge of all men, for the Father has committed all judgement unto me because I am the Son of Man. And you, each one of you, must be judged by me. . . It is not up there in heaven where you will find your God, but in me who am united with the Father.”

That precipitated a riot, and the next day between 5000 and 6000 people assembled on Clapton Com­mon to denounce Smyth-Pigott’s blasphemy, and about 200 of them stormed the church. Smyth-Pigott retreated to the Agapemony in Somerset.

Later, he dis­pensed with his wife, and entered into a “spiritual mar­riage” with Ruth Annie Preece. The sect called him “Beloved”, and he, Ruth, and their children the “Holy Family”.

Smyth-Pigott died in 1927, leav­ing no successor, and the sect de­­clined. Ruth survived until 1956, and the community at Spaxton con­tinued until 1962, when the land and buildings were sold to devel­opers. The sect became defunct in the mid-1950s.

The church in Stamford Hill was then leased by the current trustees of the 1892 trust deed to a sect called the Ancient Catholic Church, and in 2011 was sold to the Georgian Or­­tho­­dox Church for just over £1 million. The trustees held the pro­ceeds partly in a soli­citor’s client ac­­count, and partly on deposit with HM Revenue and Cus­toms, on ac­­ount of any tax that might be due.

In 1965, the church had been registered as a charity for the pur­poses of a religious body, the Agape­monites; but in 2004 the Charity Commission wrote to the trustees saying that the charity registration was wrong, since the Agapemonites were “held not to be a religious body” .

The trustees applied to the High Court for directions as to how the proceeds of sale of the church should be disposed of. Catherine Jane Barlow, Angela Patricia Ruth Webber, Victoria Jane Dyson, Sara Rachel Smyth-Riberio, Ann Buckley, and Margaret Campbell, who are the granddaughters of Smyth-Pigott and Ruth, invited the court to order that the proceeds be distributed to be shared between them on the basis that they were the only people left who had a connection with the Agapemonites.

The question for the High Court was whether the trusts declared in the 1892 trust deed were charitable, as being for the advancement of religion; and, if they were, whether they were exclusively for charitable purposes. It was only then that the privileges attaching to charitable status applied.

It was well established in law that, if assets were held on trust to be ap­­plied for objects that embraced those that were charitable in law, but also for other objects that were not, then that was insufficient.

If the funds were exclusively for charitable purposes, and if it had subsequently become impossible to continue to carry those purposes into effect, the doctrine of cy pres applied, meaning that the funds could be ordered to be applied for other charitable purposes as similar as possible to the original ones. If not, the funds fell to be distributed to others, or to the Crown as bona vacantia.

The judge, Andrew Simmonds QC, said that it was a fundamental principle of this branch of charity law that “the courts do not take it upon themselves to pass value judgements on different religions, or different sects within religions,” and that that “reflects the long tradition of religious tolerance in this coun­try, which has persisted for most of the last three centuries, at least”.

Prince considered himself to be God’s witness, or instrument, or (quoting from a 19th-century judgment about the writings of Joanna Southcott) “an organ of communication with mankind specially selected for that purpose by the Divine Author of his being”.

The fact that those claims were “foolish and delusional” did not dis­qualify the trust from charitable status, the judge said, if it had been established “with a view to extend the influence of Christianity”. It was clear that their beliefs were rooted
in Christianity with references to the Apostles’ Creed and worship­ping the Lord Jesus.

It could be argued, the judge said, that, under Smyth-Pigott’s leader­ship, the sect “crossed a line between eccentricity and downright blas­phemy”, and that that should in­­fluence his decision. “I am not per­suaded that that is so,” he said.

It was difficult to see why Smyth-Pigott’s claim to be the second Messiah should make the difference between charitable and non-charitable status. In any event, the trust had been established in 1892, when Prince was still leader, and ten years before Smyth-Pigott’s declara­tion of his divinity. The cur­rent decision had to be made on what could be gleaned of the Agape­monites’ belief system in 1892, not later on.

The court should not allow the “delusions” of Prince, nor of Smyth-Pigott, nor their “dubious activities”, to obscure the fact that the objects of the 1892 trust deed were to pro­mote the religious activities of a body of people who constituted a recognisable Christian sect, the judge said. The Agapemonites had ceased to exist, and the six grand­daughters did not claim to adhere to the sect’s religious principles. It was therefore no longer possible for the funds held by the trustees to be used for the religious purposes of the Agapemonite sect.

The proceeds of sale of the Ark of the Covenant were ordered by the court to be applied in accordance with the doctrine of cy pres to a charitable scheme to be determined by the Charity Commission.

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