Dispute over Oxford church pew removal rectified

22 June 2018

MICHAEL GARLICK/GEOGRAPH/COMMONS

St Mary’s, Bloxham, in Oxford, where seven Victorian pews had been illegally removed in 2011

St Mary’s, Bloxham, in Oxford, where seven Victorian pews had been illegally removed in 2011

THE Consistory Court of Oxford diocese granted a confirmatory faculty for the removal and storage of seven pews that had been illegally removed, in 2011, from Our Lady of Bloxham, Oxford, a Grade I listed medieval church.

The church, which was described by Sir Niklaus Pevsner as “one of the grandest churches in the country”, underwent a significant restoration by the architect George Street between 1864 and 1866, and the pews and frontals were installed as part of that restoration. Historic England said that, given Street’s practice of designing all of his own furniture, it must be assumed that both were designed by him.

The petition was initially for the disposal of the seven pews, which had been in storage for some years pursuant to an earlier faculty. When the Deputy Chancellor, Christopher Rogers, asked to see that earlier faculty, it emerged that there had not, in fact, been a faculty; so the removal had been illegal. That had been done under a previous incumbent, and with almost wholly different people, and the Deputy Chancellor said that it was “clearly highly unfortunate, to put it mildly”.

The diocesan advisory committee (DAC) reported that it was now impossible to identify the position of the removed pews, which were selected for removal as a result of their poor condition, and that good and effective use was being made of the areas that had been cleared of pews, including a welcome area, and a children’s area. The PCC would be put in a difficult position, practically, were they to be ordered to restore the pews that had been removed illegally.

The Church Buildings Council said that it would defer to the DAC’s report. The Victorian Society said that Street’s furnishings at Bloxham were of the highest quality, and were a significant contribution to the building’s wider exceptional significance, and it was regrettable that the pews appeared to have been stored in such a way as had led to their further deterioration. The Victorian Society said that, if a general reordering of the church was being considered, it would make sense for the pews to be stored until their removal, and disposal could be considered as part of that plan.

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The Deputy Chancellor concluded that the harm caused by the removal of the relevant pews was minor, and that there was benefit in having the cleared areas so as to “be able to do all of the things a modern church has to be able to do”. He agreed with Historic England that a degree of change, and the removal of some pews, were necessary to serve the wider community and to retain the church as a sustainable place of worship, and that, in this case, the harm caused to the church’s architectural and historical significance was outweighed by the resulting public benefit.

In the circumstances, the Deputy Chancellor found that the removal of the seven pews was justified, and therefore a confirmatory faculty was granted for the removal and for their disposal.

He said that, in reaching that conclusion, he had not taken into account the practical difficulties that the parish would evidently encounter were a restoration order to be made. Therefore, even were the changes not justified, he might have had no choice but to grant a confirmatory faculty.

That, he said, “would have been a particularly sorry state of affairs, which [he was] glad had been avoided”. He went on: “While unfortunate . . . none of this is the fault of the current petitioners,” who had to “deal with the mess left by their predecessors”.

The faculty was granted, on the condition that the pew frontals, that had been wrongly removed from the church, were restored to as close to their original position as possible. Should that not be possible, owing to the removal of related pews, those frontals were to be placed somewhere else suitable in the church, to be agreed with the church architect, so that they were sufficiently secured not to amount to a health and safety risk.

In the event of any doubt or difficulty in finding such suitable positions, the matter was to be referred back to the Deputy Chancellor.

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