WHEN unauthorised items are removed from graves in a churchyard, there should be prior consultation so that parishioners are given the opportunity to make their views known and to understand why the action is being taken, the Diocesan Chancellor of Norwich has said.
The case arose from the decision by the Rector of St Edmund’s, Kessingland, the Revd Mandy Bishop, and two churchwardens (“the petitioners”) to remove what they said were unauthorised items from the churchyard; and, if the items were not collected within a reasonable time, to dispose of them. The petitioners invoked the Churchyard Regulations (2016), which permitted the disposal of items that did not comply with the Regulations.
The Consistory Court received about 40 letters of objection when the petitioners applied for a faculty to dispose of items that they had removed from or around graves in the churchyard and placed in another location in the churchyard, pending collection by their owners or their disposal. An online petition with 411 signatures from objectors was submitted to the court.
The petitioners said that, long before removing the items, they had contacted or attempted to contact families of the deceased, or left notices on the memorials. Those opposing the petition argued that the petitioners should have obtained a faculty before removing any of the items, and that such notice as was given to families was rendered useless because of the lockdown imposed by the Government in response to the pandemic.
The opponents said that the enforcement of the Churchyard Regulations was occurring only in this churchyard, and not in two others for which the Rector was also responsible, and that she could not pick and choose which laws applied to which churchyards.
The objectors saw no problem in the existing practice in the churchyard before the arrival of the present Rector, and said that it had been acceptable to two previous rectors, who could not be said to have failed in their duties under the Churchyard Regulations. It was alleged that, in the removal of items from graves, rose bushes had been ripped out, and that, in some cases, the removal of stone vases attached to the memorial had resulted in damage.
The Chancellor, the Worshipful David Etherington QC, granted the faculty sought by the petitioners to dispose of the items on or after 1 January 2021. He also ruled that the petitioners did not need a faculty to remove the items from the churchyard, because they were entitled to say that the Churchyard Regulations mandated what they did.
The issue that was “most central to the objections”, however, and was “behind a good deal of the concerns of the parties opponent”, was, the Chancellor said, “a strong sense that they were insufficiently consulted about what was going to happen, which clearly was a major departure from previous practice, and at a time of lockdown”.
Whereas “what the Rector and churchwardens did was lawful, and, indeed, required of them by the Churchyard Regulations,” the Chancellor said, and “the attraction of carrying out any kind of clean-up in quiet times” was understandable, they had “overlooked a need for greater consultation”.