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Chancellor scolds church petitioners for ‘contemptuous attitude to the faculty system’

31 May 2024

Consistory Court reluctantly grants faculty for demolished church porch in Bristol


The interior of St Bartholomew’s, Bristol, during its reordering in 2017

The interior of St Bartholomew’s, Bristol, during its reordering in 2017

THE Diocesan Chancellor of Bristol has criticised a group of petitioners from St Bartholomew’s, Bristol, for their “contemptuous attitude to the faculty system”, after the group applied, retrospectively, for permission to demolish and replace the church porch.

The “collective amnesia” of the parties involved in the work, from whom the Chancellor, the Worshipful Justin Gau, struggled to obtain written statements, was “little short of incredible”, he said.

None the less, in the Consistory Court, he reluctantly granted a confirmatory faculty for the work, which was carried out unlawfully at St Bartholomew’s, Bristol, in 2017 and 2018. An area described either as a “porch screen”, a “vestibule”, or a “draught lobby” was demolished, and a pair of wooden doors were removed and replaced with glass panelled doors.

In his judgment, however, the Chancellor said that he wanted to make it “abundantly clear” that he took “a very dim view of the behaviour” of those who had carried out the work, and of their “contemptuous attitude to the faculty system”.

St Bartholomew’s is an unlisted church built in 1894, and is not in a conservation area. In 2017, a faculty was granted for its reordering, after the boiler had broken down two years previously and had still not been repaired. The unlawful destruction of the porch and the removal of the wooden doors took place during that reordering. The congregation later moved into the former Horfield Baptist Church and was seeking an order to close legally St Bartholomew’s for worship.

At the outset of the Chancellor’s inquiries, the petitioners had seemed unwilling to assist him over precisely when the unlawful work was carried out and whether it was done deliberately, he said. But they had subsequently cooperated and engaged a barrister, Jacqueline Humphreys, to assist them, and elected Jane Auld, a retired barrister with ecclesiastical-law experience, as a new churchwarden to deal with the petition.

The Chancellor asked for written statements to be taken from “appropriate parties”, who included the project manager, members of the clergy, members of the congregation, builders, and others who had been involved in carrying out the unlawful work. The Chancellor received little help from them, however, and commented that the “collective amnesia from all involved in this behaviour is little short of incredible”.

The Chancellor reminded the petitioners that the Church of England’s “privileged position of being able, broadly, to police its own planning controls” was a “cherished right” that came with “great responsibilities”.

Ms Humphreys submitted that the unlawful actions had caused little or no harm to the significance of the building as one of special architectural or historic interest, and that the changes had opened up the entrance to give a greater feeling of welcome. She submitted that, as the draught lobby had been destroyed, it would not be possible to make a restoration order, just as in cases in which a font had been destroyed or cremated remains had been unlawfully exhumed.

The Chancellor disagreed. He said that, were he to accept Ms Humphreys’s submission, “a troubling precedent could be created in this diocese simply to destroy items without the benefit of a faculty”. The Chancellor inclined towards the view of the Victorian Society that the unlawful removal of the draught lobby had caused the building to be unlistable.

Since the building was in fact unlisted when the unlawful work was carried out, however, the Chancellor was, he said, “just persuaded” that the harm caused was not so serious that a confirmatory faculty should not be granted. He, therefore, accepted the disproportionate nature of refusing a confirmatory faculty.

The Chancellor accepted the apologies made on behalf of the petitioners by Ms Auld, but noted his irritation at the lack of concern shown by the clergy in the parish and their contractors about what had occurred.

The confirmatory faculty was granted for the removal of the draught lobby and the removal of the original wooden doors on condition that those doors were stored safely so that whoever took on the original building had the opportunity to restore them.

The petitioners were ordered to pay the costs of the petition, including the correspondence costs of the Registry involving a large number of emails to the Chancellor.

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