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Petition for headstone removal dismissed

19 February 2021

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St Leonard’s, Thrybergh

St Leonard’s, Thrybergh

THE churchwardens of St Leonard’s, Thrybergh, in Sheffield diocese, petitioned the Consistory Court for the removal of a headstone that had been placed over a grave in the churchyard after the refusal of permission by the area dean. Nevertheless, the Diocesan Chancellor dismissed the petition, thereby permitting the headstone to remain in the churchyard.

The headstone had been placed over the grave of Joseph Henry Roberts, who died on 9 July 2018 and was buried in the churchyard on 31 July 2018. On 13 April 2019, his son, Nicholas Roberts, applied for permission to install the headstone. On 30 April 2019, the then Area Dean of Rotherham, the Revd Peter Hughes, refused permission.

Nicholas Roberts, who is a monumental mason and proprietor of Roberts Memorials Ltd, says that the refusal was never communicated to him. He installed the memorial on 28 June 2020, without having received permission to do so. He said that he had interpreted the taking of a fee on 1 May 2020, which had been submitted with his application, as an implied permission. He says that the refusal of permission was not communicated to him until 4 July 2020.

Mr Roberts refused to take down the memorial, and also rejected the suggestion by the Acting Area Dean of Rotherham, the Revd Lyn Wortley, that he should put things right by applying to the Consistory Court either to approve the memorial that had been installed, or for permission to remove the memorial and replace it with a memorial of which the Area Dean approved.

Mr Roberts’s response was a forceful communication of his intention to do nothing. A hostile media campaign was started against the church and the Acting Area Dean in particular, and other bereaved families with memorials in the churchyard were wrongly informed that their memorials were at risk of removal.

The PCC met in November 2019, and resolved to file a petition to the Consistory Court for the removal of the headstone. When the petition came before the Chancellor, it became clear that, owing to circumstances, including the national lockdown, Mr Roberts was unaware of the petition, even though it had been displayed on a noticeboard outside the church.

The Chancellor, Judge Sarah Singleton QC, said that it would have been “sensible and fair for Mr Roberts to have been given specific and personal notice of the proceedings, given the direct impact” on him and his mother, who has Alzheimer’s and dementia.

The Chancellor found that Mr Roberts “could and should have known” that the installation of the memorial in the absence of express permission was not acceptable or lawful. Mr Roberts was an only child, who had been left alone to manage his father’s death and the deterioration in his mother’s health. But the Chancellor said that, as a memorial mason, Mr Roberts “must have known that the payment of a fee by him to install a memorial by no means entitled him to assume that his plans had been authorised without express permission”. He also undertook social-media activity that, the Chancellor said, had “caused distress to numbers of people and hostility to local clergy decision-makers“.

Nevertheless, the Chancellor decided that, considering that she would have authorised the memorial, had Mr Roberts gone about things correctly, the petition for its removal should be dismissed. The memorial is thereby authorised to remain in the churchyard. It was ordered that all the costs of the proceedings must be paid by Mr Roberts, in the total sum of £687.44.

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