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Hunt enjoined for stored pews sold unlawfully

28 June 2024

Owing to an error, the parish was not able to retrieve them

Church Near You

ST MICHAEL’s, Twerton-on-Avon, Bath (right), has lost all its Victorian pews. The pews had been put into storage, from which they were sold unlawfully, and it is very likely that the loss is permanent. The Consistory Court of Bath & Wells has granted a confirmatory faculty authorising the removal of the pews, but not their subsequent unlawful sale.

St Michael’s is a Grade II* listed Victorian church with a surviving medieval tower and doorway. Its finely carved oak pews formed part of an integrated ensemble of fittings and decorations dating from the reconstruction in 1885-86 by the architect E. W. Buckle.

On 30 May 2017, during a temporary minor reordering in the church, the then Archdeacon of Bath, the Ven. Andrew Piggott, granted a licence permitting the removal of the pews, subject to the condition that they were to be “stored safely and kept in good condition”. The licence was to expire on 31 August 2018.

In compliance with that condition, an arrangement was made with Bath Abbey — which was already storing numerous pews in connection with its own reordering project — for the storage of the pews from St Michael’s. Initially, the pews from both sources were kept in an aircraft hangar, and they were all subsequently transferred to a storage facility in Tormarten. The pews from St Michael’s, however, were not labelled as belonging to that church.

When the licence expired on 31 August 2018, the pews were not returned to St Michael’s as they should have been. Therefore, from that date the absence of the pews from the church was illegal. There were, however, mitigating factors for the failure of the parish to retrieve the pews. The parish had no incumbent, and the benefice had become vacant; Archdeacon Piggott had retired; and the pandemic had disrupted the life and work of the parish with the mandatory closure of St Michael’s for public worship. Hence the legal requirements were overlooked, and contributed to the poor record-keeping and errors.

A more serious misfortune occurred in January 2022, when the staff at Bath Abbey wished to empty the storage facility and arranged for all the pews in storage to be sold. Consequently, the entire stock of stored pews was sold to an Owen Thomas, of the Courtyard, Heather Farm, Bath, for what was described as a “donation” of £1500. Mr Thomas had proved to be elusive, and could no longer be contacted at that address.

The Team Rector of the team ministry within which St Michael’s is situated, the Revd Richard White, and Chris Tatchell, a churchwarden, applied for a confirmatory faculty for the removal and disposal of the pews and the transfer to Mr Thomas.

The Chancellor, the Worshipful Timothy Briden, said that “with the benefit of hindsight it would have been prudent to label the relevant pews as belonging to St Michael’s,” and that was one of the “lessons to be learned” from this case.

The disposal of the pews to Mr Thomas without a faculty was a breach of ecclesiastical law for which the staff of Bath Abbey appeared to have been responsible, but, since they were not parties to the proceedings, the Chancellor said that it would be “inappropriate to make conclusive findings against them in their absence”.

But “on any view of the matter, the unauthorised disposal was a wrongdoing,” the Chancellor said, and legal title to the pews in the hands of the ultimate recipients remained defective, in so far as the transactions were in contravention of ecclesiastical law.

It was recognised that the prospect of reclaiming the complete set of pews was “effectively non-existent”, but the hope of recovering at least a small number of them and bringing them back to St Michael’s could not yet be ruled out.

Therefore, a confirmatory faculty was granted, authorising only the removal of the pews. The disposal of the pews was not included in the faculty because, the Chancellor said, it would be “inappropriate to cover the wrong which had been done with the cloak of subsequent legality”, and the disposal “must in justice be seen to be an unlawful act”.

The Chancellor repeatedly emphasised “the importance of seeking the recovery of a small proportion of the lost pews so that their workmanship can be enjoyed in their original setting”, and observed that much more could be achieved by searching websites and trying to locate Mr Thomas.

A condition was attached to the faculty that the petitioners should “use their best endeavours to locate and to recover a sample number of the missing pews”, and, if any were recovered, the petitioners must apply to the Consistory Court for directions. It was also a condition that a photographic record of the pews must be kept with the church log-book.

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