Church to burn Union Flags

Not in anticipation of a “Yes” in the Scottish referendum, after which there could be quite a few Union Flags [1] surplus to requirements, but as sanctioned in the judgment Re St Mary Magdalene South Bersted [2014] Chichester Cons Ct, Mark Hill Ch. The Union Flags in question were among the redundant or dilapidated items that the incumbent, churchwarden and PCC secretary of the church sought to remove and dispose of, including 4 short free-standing modem oak pews (circa 1967), 3 desks, a portable altar and communion rail, 2 old ‘Glastonbury’-style sanctuary chairs, a wooden cross, 2 wooden candlesticks and 11 standards (flags) and their metal wall fixings.

The standards

The standards – six British Legion banners, a Dunkirk Veterans Association banner, a Royal Artillery Association banner, two Union flags and one with the cross of St George – were said to have become an eyesore. The Church Buildings Council (CBC) was supportive that those banners not wanted elsewhere – the two Union flags and the cross of St George – should be incinerated. The PCC and churchwarden were agreeable to this course of action.

The Flag Institute’s British Flag Protocol for flying the national flags in the United Kingdom (i.e. the Union Flag and the flags of England, Scotland and Wales) also includes instructions for the proper disposal of flags:

When a flag becomes tattered or faded and is no longer in a suitable condition for use, it should be destroyed in a dignified way, for example by burning, tearing or cutting into strips that no longer resemble the original flag.”

With regard to the other standards, the country secretary of the Royal British Legion was agreeable to the incineration of the organization’s six banners and the membership secretary of the Royal Artillery Association agreed to collect the standard of its Bognor Regis Branch and return it to the Association’s base at Larkhill, Hampshire.

The Dunkirk Veterans Association was disbanded in 2000; and in common with the other flags its standard was in such poor condition that it would be unlikely to survive cleaning. However, the Chancellor invited the petitioners to defer its incineration for a period of three months: this would allow for the remote possibility that any publicity attendant upon this judgment leads to an individual with a legitimate interest in the Association offering it a suitable home, whereupon the matter should be referred back to the court for directions.

Other items for disposal

The CBC expressed no objections to the disposal of the modern furnishings as it considered that “these unornamented pieces of unexceptional design were of little or no significance”. The parish put considerable effort into tracing members of the donor family both through the Sussex County Archivist and elsewhere and, satisfied that these objects, either individually or as an ensemble, did not come within the category “treasures”, the Chancellor permitted their disposal. Likewise, the old Glastonbury-style chairs were deemed to be of low significance and not to be considered as “church treasures”.  Valued at £120, their disposal was approved.

Need for a hearing in open court

Important procedurally was the Chancellor’s decision that a hearing in open court was neither necessary nor expedient. Although the judgment in Re St Lawrence, Oakley with Wootton St Lawrence [2014] Ct of Arches stated at paragraph 19:

“it should be borne in mind by chancellors in disposal cases that faculties should seldom be granted without a hearing in open court whether or not the petition is formally opposed”,

in the instant case this was considered unnecessary since:

  • The items in question were of negligible financial or other value and therefore did not come within the category of “church treasures”;
  • The reference to “disposal cases” in the declaratory guidance in paragraph 19 was to be read in its wider context as applying only to “church treasures” properly so described;
  • Public notice had produced no letters of objection from parishioners;
  • The petition was not merely unopposed: it had the active support of the DAC and the CBC;
  • The modest and uncontroversial nature of the petition was such that it would be disproportionately expensive to convene a hearing, particularly when the items in question were of little value. Furthermore, rule 1.1 of the Faculty Jurisdiction Rules 2013 articulated an overriding objective for the transaction of business in the consistory court which included saving expense, dealing with the case in ways which were proportionate to the importance of the case and the complexity of the issues and ensuing that petitions were dealt with expeditiously.


[1] Information on the anorak issue of “Union Flag vs Union Jack” can be found on the Flag Institute’s site, here.

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