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Tubular-steel chairs ‘a matter of taste’ for listed church, Chancellor rules

07 January 2022

Holy Trinity, Claygate

The existing chairs in Holy Trinity, Claygate

The existing chairs in Holy Trinity, Claygate

THE Consistory Court of Guildford diocese has granted a faculty for the removal of wooden upholstered chairs at the Grade II listed Holy Trinity, Claygate, near Esher, and their replacement by tubular-steel chairs that are lighter and easier to stack and move when the church is used for other activities.

The wooden chairs are light-coloured and upholstered in red with a shelf at the back for a Bible, hymn book, and service papers. They were not uniformly beyond their useful life. The tubular-steel chairs were more contemporary, some with arms, and it was proposed that they would be upholstered in a graphite grey colour. Both the design and the colour of the steel chairs had been approved by the PCC and the DAC and by a process of consultation among the congregation of about 500.

The proposed new chairs were about half a kilo lighter than the current ones, but the significant difference between them was the relative bulk of the wooden chairs, which could be stacked in a stack of five, whereas the new chairs could be stacked 25 at a time and could be manoeuvred using a custom-built trolley: a “dolley”. That permitted greater manoeuvrability and occupied about 20 per cent less space when stacked.

That was the driving factor behind the PCC’s decision to replace the existing chairs. The church was used for several activities that required the seating to be configured to suit the activity. Moving the chairs was physical work for the volunteers, some of whom were elderly.

Two letters of objection had been received regarding the new proposal. One objection was that the effect of the introduction of tubular-steel, grey-upholstered chairs would reduce the church to an appearance of a conference centre or waiting room, draining the interior of colour. Another objection related to the fact that, unlike the existing chairs, the proposed ones did not have a place to lodge Bibles, hymn books, or papers.

Neither of the objectors wished to become a party opponent to the petition, but the Chancellor, the Worshipful Andrew Jordan, said that he had taken their views into account in reaching his decision.

The petitioners said that each member of the congregation had been notified by letter of the intended petition for a faculty, and, of the 500 notified, only the two present objectors had raised objections.

The petitioners also conceded that none of the steel chairs had a shelf to hold books and papers, but said that such a shelf would prevent the chairs’ being stacked in stacks of as many as 25 at a time. The existing chairs could not be manoeuvred by a trolley, and had to be taken by hand to the place where they would be stacked. In contrast, the custom-built trolley could be moved to where the chairs were located, to stack them and move them on.

The Chancellor said that he was familiar with this church, and aware of the appearance of warmth that the current chairs generated. He also appreciated how familiarity was itself an important principle. But it was not possible to gainsay the fact that the existing chairs were ungainly to move, and required much greater human effort. As a chair-mover and stacker himself for many years, the Chancellor said, he was aware of “how time-consuming this can be, often at inconvenient times of the evening and not without considerable effort, sometimes with little assistance”.

The objectors’ resistance to the introduction of the new chairs was understandable, since they were “frankly dull and practical”, the Chancellor said. There was nothing “churchy” about their appearance, although similar chairs were being introduced in increasing numbers in churches in the diocese for the same reasons as those put forward by the petitioners. In due course they would, no doubt, develop their own sense of familiarity, just as the wooden upholstered chairs had done.

But colour or style was “a matter for the PCC to determine as the democratically elected body entrusted with the task of making such decisions”. The Chancellor said that “it would only be in very extreme cases that the court might not defer to the choice of the parish as expressed by the PCC.”

While the proposed grey chairs would provide a more sombre atmosphere to the interior of the church, this would be offset by the white walls and light carpeting. In essence, that was a matter of taste, but should not properly be the subject of the refusal of a faculty, and the petition was granted.

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