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Parish asks for permission to swap pews for orange and blue chairs

13 October 2023


St John’s, Fishponds, in Bristol

St John’s, Fishponds, in Bristol

THE Consistory Court of the diocese of Bristol was presented with a petition last month for a faculty for the disposal of all the pews at the unlisted church of St John’s, Fishponds. Their replacement is to be two sets of upholstered chairs in two different colours: 57 orange and 24 blue. The chairs had been donated from a local Methodist church that had closed.

The petitioners said that St John’s had “nothing of special architectural or historical interest”. The Chancellor, the Worshipful Canon Justin Gau, said, however, that the petitioners did “their building a disservice”. Although it was not listed, St John’s had an “attractive undecorated interior,” he said, and the pews were plain but gave “a pleasing and neat symmetry to the interior”.

The Chancellor also sought the opinion of the Victorian Society, which described St John’s as “a dignified and rather impressive edifice”, and, although it did not “meet the necessarily high criteria . . . to be inscribed on the national heritage list, it [was] nonetheless undoubtedly a distinguished building”.

The Victorian Society did not “in principle” object to the loss of the pews, on the condition that they were replaced by “high-quality new furnishing”. It did, however, regard the proposed chairs as not being of high quality, and that they would “erode the character and appearance of the interior”. Upholstered seating, it said, was not appropriate, because, among other things, these chairs would need more regular refurbishment than seating without upholstery, they were heavy and, therefore, more difficult to arrange and stack, and they could alter existing acoustics. The Society recommended the use of timber seating that was not upholstered.

The PCC of St John’s responded that, while wooden chairs would wear better and last longer, the church building would be maintained to a very high standard, and upholstered seating would be carefully cared for. The Chancellor observed that it was “unfortunate” that one of the pictures that the petitioners had uploaded to the system showed a blue chair “with quite an unsightly stain on it”.

Nevertheless, the Chancellor granted the petition, and allowed what the Victorian Society called the “cast-off chairs” to be introduced. He said that he would not “normally necessarily be prepared” to allow chairs of that style to be introduced; therefore, he granted the petition subject to the conditions that two of the orange and three of the blue chairs were to be adapted to have arms, or alternatively the church must purchase nine wooden chairs with arms.

In the event of any of the newly introduced upholstered chairs’ wearing out, they must be replaced with wooden chairs. The evidence in the case had mentioned the statutory advice issued by the Church Buildings Council in its seating guidance, which advocates the use of timber, unupholstered seating in historic church interiors.

Similar issues arose last year when the Grade II listed London church of St Mary the Virgin, Primrose Hill, introduced 150 upholstered chairs in several different colours without first obtaining a faculty from the Consistory Court of the diocese of London (News, 23 December 2022). The Chancellor, the Worshipful David Etherington KC, refused a faculty for some of the chairs: namely, those that were upholstered in brighter colours (red/pink and blue), and ordered them to be removed from the church.

He allowed the retention of other chairs upholstered in mutual and neutral colours, but 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.

In view of the removal of pews from many churches, frequent issues relating to the style and colour of replacement seating are now likely to come before the Consistory Courts.

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