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Sheep image allowed on churchyard memorial

21 February 2020

Masonic symbols ruled out in another diocese as too likely to offend or upset


A lamb carved on top of a gravestone in Silverton, Colorado

A lamb carved on top of a gravestone in Silverton, Colorado

ALTHOUGH there is a presumption that the sculpture of an animal is outside the scope of what is permitted as a memorial in a churchyard, a sheep is symbolic of a Christian, and is therefore permitted, the Consistory Court of the diocese of Leicester has ruled.

The petition for a faculty authorising the erection of the memorial was brought by Henry and Andrew Wadland, the widower and the son of June Rose Wadland, whose remains were interred in the churchyard of St Andrew’s, Tur Langton.

The petition stated that as “the last farming family from the village to be buried in the churchyard we propose a small sheep lying down atop a plinth”, which was to be inscribed in memory of the deceased with the additional words “The Lord is my shepherd.”

The form of the proposed memorial was not within the ambit of the churchyard regulations, and became the subject of extensive debate at a PCC meeting held last August. Four of the PCC members present voted in favour of the memorial, and one abstained.

The Chancellor, Mark Blackett-Ord, said that the letter from Andrew Wadland in support of the petition showed that he and his father had given serious thought to their proposal. It was not a “mere whim”, and it commemorated the farming background of the family. The material to be used for the sculpture also looked acceptable. Moreover, the sheep as symbolic of a Christian enjoyed the highest authority. The petition was therefore allowed, subject to the conditions that details of the work were recorded in the logbook, and the image was cut in unpolished stone.

In a separate case, the Consistory Court of the diocese of Lichfield refused a petition for a memorial which included a Masonic symbol to be installed in the churchyard of St Mary’s, Canwell, because it might be a potential source of controversy or cause offence to a significant body of Christians.

The petition was brought by Catherine Curran, the daughter of Catherine Mary Smith, who died in 2013 and whose remains were interred in the churchyard. The petitioner’s late father and the husband of the deceased, Herbert Smith, was an active Freemason who became a Grand Master. He died in 1989, and his cremated remains were interred at Burnley Crematorium. A memorial plaque was placed there which included the Masonic symbol of a set square and compasses.

Mrs Curran sought a faculty authorising the installation of her father’s memorial plaque from Burnley Crematorium at the foot of the headstone which was already in place at her mother’s grave. Mrs Curran emphasised her father’s Christian commitment, which stood alongside the large part that Freemasonry had played in his life.

The Chancellor, Judge Stephen Eyre QC, said that he was “not determining the question of the compatibility of Freemasonry and Christianity”, and that there were many, like Mr Smith, “who also engage with conviction in the life of the Church and in Freemasonry”. But there was “an issue about the compatibility of the two activities”. The nature of the controversy was not “simply that some individual Christians happen to believe that the two are incompatible, but that the Church of England through its official structures has confirmed that there are fundamental questions in that regard”.

It followed, the Chancellor said, that the Masonic symbol had the potential to be the source of controversy and offence in this churchyard. It was important that the wording of inscriptions and form of symbols on churchyard memorials were not a source of controversy or of offence to others.

That was not because churchyards should be “places of bland, characterless uniformity”, the Chancellor said, but because they were the resting-place of the remains of persons other than the particular individual commemorated on any given memorial. Those visiting the churchyard were entitled to find it a place of solace and comfort.

That did not mean that a memorial would “not be permitted just because of the possibility that a person of unusual sensitivity or idiosyncratic views would find it offensive or upsetting”. It did mean, however, that wording or symbols that gave rise to “a real risk of offence or upset to a significant body of those visiting the churchyard will not be permitted”. It was, therefore, “not appropriate” to permit memorials bearing Masonic symbols, the Chancellor ruled, and the petition was refused.

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