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Chancellor says no to pink chairs in London church

23 December 2022

Colourful upholstery installed in nave without a faculty


The coloured upholstered chairs

The coloured upholstered chairs

THE Grade II listed Church of St Mary the Virgin, Primrose Hill, must remove some of the coloured upholstered chairs that were introduced into the church without a faculty having first been obtained, the Consistory Court of the diocese of London has ruled.

The church dates from 1872, and was built by Dove Brothers, with a south aisle and chapel added in 1892. The petition for a faculty was presented on 7 August by the Vicar, Prebendary Marjorie Brown, and two churchwardens.

They sought a faculty to introduce 150 upholstered chairs into the church, consisting of 65 white chairs, 65 light blue chairs, ten red/pink chairs, and ten blue/lavender chairs. The petitioners were asked, “How soon will the work start after the faculty is granted?” They gave what the Chancellor, David Etherington KC, described as “the startling answer” that the chairs had already been purchased.

ST MARY’S, PRIMROSE HILLThe coloured upholstered chairs

The first reason given for that was that the Bishop of London, the Rt Revd Sarah Mullally, was due to visit the church for the Dedication Service on 3 July, on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of the consecration of the church. The second reason given was that it had also been believed that the recommendation of the diocesan advisory committee (DAC) was conclusive that the faculty was likely to be granted.

Although the Bishop’s visit was a very important occasion for the church, and they clearly wanted it to be in good order, the Chancellor said that this did not justify the church’s actions. Nevertheless, it gave “an explanation and context to what might otherwise look to be high-handed action and dismissive of” the Consistory Court.

The Chancellor said that he treated the second reason “with more scepticism”. It was “an explanation often given by petitioners when the situation of pre-emption arises”. The DAC’s recommendation was “just that, a recommendation”, the Chancellor said. It suggested that the Consistory Court would be “no more than a rubber stamp”.

On first reading the papers, the Chancellor had been suspicious that the petitioners and the PCC “had simply thought it clever to present the court with a fait accompli in the (mistaken) belief that the court would have to acquiesce because it had no alternative”.

He was now satisfied, however, that this was not the petitioners’ intention, and that it was much more probable that they decided to take a calculated chance because of the need for speed due to the impending episcopal visit. The Chancellor therefore accepted the petitioners’ immediate and unreserved apology.

On the Chancellor’s direction, the Church Buildings Council (CBC) and the Victorian Society were consulted. The CBC said that it recommended high-quality wooden chairs without upholstery, and did not approve of the colours of the upholstery. The Victorian Society did not respond.

The Chancellor was persuaded that the upholstered chairs were acceptable, notwithstanding the views of the CBC. Upholstered chairs were permitted in some churches, and his attention had been drawn to the fact that many churches throughout England had the very chairs proposed by the petitioners. Nor was there any need as such for chairs to be in a particular colour, and it was a matter to be determined by aesthetic considerations.

The issue at this church was specifically about a combination of colours among the seating, where a majority of the chairs were in one of two muted and neutral colours, and a minority of the chairs were in two more dominant colours.

The Chancellor shared the views of the CBC, and went somewhat further than the CBC did as to concern for the overall effect. Whatever the intentions of the petitioners, and however much they might have persuaded themselves that the effect was beneficial because the chairs were said to pick out dominant colours in the ceiling of the church, the Chancellor was doubtful that any objective visitor would view them in the same way.

The overall effect on someone whose attention had not been specifically drawn to the petitioners’ intentions would probably be to cause puzzlement because of what they saw. It would probably induce thoughts that the church had been unable to find enough upholstered chairs of the same colour, and had improvised with what they had.

The Chancellor ruled that chairs in the strong colours of red/pink and blue/lavender would result in harm to the church as a building of special architectural or historical interest. They created a confusing effect, rather than picking out or harmonising with colours within the church’s interior. There was no justification for them, and therefore it was ordered that they be removed from the interior of the church by 31 May 2023.

In regard to the chairs of the more muted colours of white and blue, the Chancellor said that, if they had not already been purchased “at no little expense”, he would probably have ruled that they should be in one muted colour rather than two. But, bearing in mind the money already spent on them, and the level of harm likely to be occasioned, the Chancellor concluded that “the balance by a small but definite margin [favoured] their retention.”

The petitioners were ordered to pay the costs of the judgment.

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