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Byron quotation ‘not Christian enough’ for church graveyard, Chancellor rules

24 January 2020

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Lord Byron in costume albanese, 1813, by Thomas Phillips, painted when Lord Byron was 25

Lord Byron in costume albanese, 1813, by Thomas Phillips, painted when Lord Byron was 25

AN INSCRIPTION on a headstone in a churchyard has to be something more than an expression of loss: it must convey a message consistent with Christian belief, the Consistory Court of the diocese of Lichfield ruled when refusing a faculty for certain words, including part of a poem by Lord Byron, to be inscribed on a headstone in the churchyard of St Leonard’s, Alton.

The petitioner for the faculty was the widower of Elaine Margaret Chadfield, who died in October 2017 and was buried in the churchyard. He wished to have a memorial plaque that included the words “My much loved wife of fifty years and mother of our two boys”.

It then included the words by Lord Byron: “So, we’ll go no more a roving, For the sword outwears its sheath, And the soul wears out the breast, And the heart must pause to breathe, And love itself have rest.”

The Chancellor, His Honour Judge Eyre QC, said that the starting-point was to remember that churchyards were consecrated to God — Father, Son, and Holy Spirit — and that any structure installed in them must be consistent with that consecration. They were also to provide a fitting setting for the church, and to be a seemly resting place for those interred there.

Particular care was needed in the wording of inscriptions. It was “important to bear in mind”, the Chancellor said, “that the inscriptions would be read not just by those who knew the departed loved one, but also by those who did not”. The message sent to the latter was in some respects “as important as that sent to the former”, he said.

In those circumstances, the message conveyed by an inscription must be consistent with Christian belief, and must be more than an expression of loss, no matter how deeply felt.

The Chancellor agreed with the assessment of the diocesan advisory committee, that the references to “my” and “our” made the memorial overly personal, and the same messages about Mrs Chadfield’s life and her family could be conveyed without those words. Similarly, the reference to “boys” was better made by using the word “sons”. Changing those words would warrant some restructuring of the inscription to “Much loved wife of fifty years and mother of two sons”.

The passage from Byron was part of a secular poem that conveyed no suggestion of Christian resurrection hope, and Mr Chadfield said that it was avowedly an expression of loss. There was no doubt, the Chancellor said, that Mr Chadfield’s loss was intense, and the language proposed was beautiful. None the less, it was language that was not appropriate on a memorial in a churchyard, and could not be permitted “because of the message which it conveys — or, rather, because of its failure to convey a message consistent with the purpose of the churchyard”.

If Mr Chadfield wished to propose an alternative verse to be added to the inscription, that would be considered by way of an application through the registry. He was encouraged to consult the incumbent with a view to identifying a suitable passage from scripture, classical Christian poetry, or hymnody.

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