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Commissary General orders PCC and churchwardens to restore pews

04 March 2022

Alamy

The pews in St Leonard’s, Hythe, in 2017

The pews in St Leonard’s, Hythe, in 2017

THE churchwardens and the PCC of St Leonard’s, Hythe, were ordered by the Commissary General of the diocese of Canterbury to restore 27 pews with accompanying cushions and kneelers, and three book-rests, to “the positions they were in” before they were unlawfully removed from the church, and to pay the costs of the application to the court.

The nave pews had been removed from St Leonard’s in the summer of 2020, and stored, partly in the church and partly in a garage. The PCC explained that the pews had been removed to achieve greater flexibility in the church during Covid-19 conditions. The pews had not been fixed, and minor repairs to the flooring had been carried out. The pews were later removed to a storage unit.

On 27 August 2021, Christopher Cooper applied to the Commissary Court of the diocese of Canterbury for a restoration order requiring the Archdeacon of Ashford, the Ven. Darren Miller, to reinstate the pews, on the basis that their removal had not been permitted by a temporary minor reordering licence, and was unlawful.

It then became apparent that Archdeacon Miller had not sanctioned or purported to give permission for the removal of the pews. The Commissary General of Canterbury diocese, Robin Hopkins, then ordered that the Archdeacon be removed from Mr Cooper’s application and the churchwardens and PCC of St Leonard’s substituted.

In a letter of 26 September, the PCC said that the pews would be reinstated later in October. They were not reinstated in October. After an enquiry from the Registry on 29 November, the PCC stated that plans were set for the reinstatement of the pews on 20 December 2021, “subject to any possible further disruptions due to the Covid-19 pandemic”.

The Commissary General ruled that Mr Cooper had sufficient interest to make the application. The PCC submitted that the application could have been avoided if Mr Cooper had sought informal resolution first. But the Commissary General said that, although the application should have been made against the PCC and churchwardens, and not the Archdeacon, it was reasonable for Mr Cooper to make the application in the light of the removal of the pews from St Leonard’s.

The PCC and churchwardens had acted unlawfully, the Commissary General ruled, and “they ought to have known that what they were doing was unlawful, and they ought to have taken steps to check what they were or were not permitted to do before acting as they did.” The PCC had indicated that reinstatement would take place in October 2021, but that did not happen until December. There had not been “sufficiently expeditious action by the PCC and churchwardens to put matters right”, the Commissary General said. The pews were absent from the church without lawful authority for a fairly extensive period, from approximately summer 2020 to December 2021.

After the pews were returned, Mr Cooper emailed the Registry suggesting that they were not all in their original positions. The Commissary General said that he was unable to resolve that uncertainty without causing further delay, but the uncertainty added to the case for making the current order for reinstatement.

It was also ordered that the PCC and churchwardens pay, within 30 days, Mr Cooper’s costs of £305 to £340 in lodging the application, and the costs attributable to the Registry and court time in dealing with it. The Commissary General concluded that, in the circumstances of this case, “it [was] just and equitable to make this costs order.”

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