They bury fonts, don’t they?

Lucca, San Fred, IMG_1565 (3)

Well, clearly not this 12th century Romanesque font at the Basilica of Ss Frediano e Tommaso, Lucca, Italy, especially with incorruptible eye of Saint Zita keeping watch from the altar of the adjacent chapel. However, the recent consistory court judgement Re St Peter Shipton Bellinger [2015] Winchester Const Ct, Christopher Clark Ch. reminded us of how frequently the issue of burying unwanted fonts arises churches’ plans for reordering, and almost invariably this aspect of the petitions is turned down. Nevertheless, taking this case as an example, it is worthwhile discussing the origins of this practice and other occasions on which this disposal route has been sought.

Why and when were fonts buried?

Fonts are often the oldest surviving part of a church, and an awareness of potential mis-matches between plinth and bowl leads might lead one to question “what happened to the other parts of the original font?” However, it is important to place this in the context of changes in baptismal practice[1]: in the early church, total immersion required fonts which were large basins set below ground level, and it was not until the early Middle Ages when infant baptism by immersion (i.e. partial submersion) and affusion (pouring Holy Water over the head) became general practice, rather than (total) submersion.

Stancliffe notes that the practice of sprinkling in the 18th century, when a few drops of water was considered sufficient, required fonts “no bigger than the holy water stoups of the churches of Italy” and “[t]his is a tradition continued by the supply of so-called ‘portable fonts’, which range in size from a salad-bowl to a complete miniature mediaeval font in plaster of Paris with a bowl no bigger than an ashtray[2]“.

A quick Google scan of the on-line information on the burial of fonts gives a couple of pointers. In his book Fonts and Font Covers, published in 1908, Francis Bond[3] suggests that in the case of pre-conquest fonts:

“Just as the Anglo-Saxon church gave way to a Norman church, so as a rule a Norman font would replace the Anglo-Saxon font. As for the rude old font, it would no doubt be turned out of the church; it might linger for a time in the churchyard, or be turned to domestic purposes, or be broken up; the old men had little respect for their predecessors’ work at any time, and none when it was bad work.

[…]

Therefore it seems probable that if they were carefully looked for in vicars’ backyards, coach-houses, rockeries, and the like, and at the farms and cottages, a very considerable number of fonts might be recovered, which may have been in use in the days of the venerable Anglo-Saxon Church.”

A more recent consideration of the practice of burying fonts is included in Mark Douglas’ thesis[4], in which he draws upon the work of Norman Pounds[5] and David Stocker[6]. Pound notes the social importance of baptism and the sanctity of the font for ordinary people in the late Middle Ages, [263], [added emphasis]:

“At the beginning of their lives they had all been brought to the church to be baptised at the font which stood just within the main entrance. This was something more than a link with the past, for previous generations had all been dipped in the consecrated water of that font, and in the future their own children would submit, no less noisily than they had done, to the same ritual. It stood as a symbol of the continuity of life. They would never let it be destroyed, and if it had to be replaced, it would most likely be buried in consecrated ground.”

Stocker’s work considers the ritual burial and reuse of fonts in Lincolnshire parish churches, and in contrast to Bond suggests that prior to the Reformation none of those studied seem to have been deliberately discarded or reused for profane purposes, stone fonts appearing to possess a `special’ status. He indicates two distinct forms of symbolic burial of font stones: burial below floor level, the preferred method for font disposal in the earlier part of the period; and a later approach in which the font bowl is deliberately left visible, either by being inverted and used as a `base or plinth’ for its replacement, or with the bowl left protruding from the ground and having a later font physically stood within it.

An example of the latter is St Andrew, Ewerby, Lincolnshire, here, which Betjeman describes as a “14th century font … contemporary with the church, but appears to be mounted on the inverted bowl of a Norman font”[7]. Stocker suggests that the burial of an older font beneath or near the new font that replaced it may have symbolized the tradition and continuity of baptismal rites belonging to the church. Douglas comments that there are aspects of this burial and reuse which strongly parallel the symbolic reuse of earlier doorways in later parish church rebuilding.

The CRSBI, (Corpus of Romanesque Sculpture in Britain & Ireland) website identifies the font at Ewerby as an example of the seldom recorded medieval practice of font burial, and in addition to this example, there are four other instances of font burials in the county at Bassingham, Cabourne, Covenham St Mary, and Folkingham, and a further seven sites in Lincolnshire where parts of older fonts are reused as part of a newer font.

Whilst we would not attempt to draw conclusions from this cursory skim through literature of an area quite outside our “comfort zone”, the above comments give some reasons why font were buried or reused during “Middle Ages reordering”, and indicate different practices in how this was undertaken.

Fonts and ecclesiastical law

Canon F 1 Of the font provides that:

“1. In every church and chapel where baptism is to be administered, there shall be provided a decent font with a cover for the keeping clean thereof.

2. The font shall stand as near to the principal entrance as conveniently may be, except there be a custom to the contrary or the Ordinary otherwise direct; and shall be set in as spacious and well-ordered surroundings as possible.

3. The font bowl shall only be used for the water at the administration of Holy Baptism and for no other purpose whatsoever.”

Much of the ecclesiastical case law relating to fonts addresses issues of their location and whether it is permissible to have two fonts within a church: Re St Michael and  All Angels Edenham [2014] Lincoln Cons Ct, Mark Bishop Ch.; Re St Mary Lenham [2014] Canterbury Cons Ct, Morag Ellis Comm. However, some judgements specifically address the disposal of unwanted fonts. In Re St Peter, Draycott [2009] 3 W L R 248[8] the Court of Arches heard the successful appeal of the Victorian Society against the decision of the Bath and Wells consistory court; the consistory court had granted permission to sell the font from a Grade II listed church, either to a public body or by public auction, [photo here]. The context of this proposed disposal was:

  • the font had been in place since the consecration of the church;
  • although large and ornate, the font was the work of a celebrated Victorian architect, here;
  • regardless of the method by which the font was attached to the floor of the church, the principles applicable were those relating to the disposal of chattels under St Gregory, Tredington
  • the Arches Court rejected the view of the CBC that the sacramental nature of the font meant that it could never be sold or disposed of for another use

In this case, the Arches Court held that the Chancellor had been wrong to conclude that: although the parish faced “substantial expenditure” this did not amount to a “financial emergency” appropriate to demonstrate a “good and sufficient ground” for the purpose of the question or the proof of a “compelling financial reason amounting to a necessity” for those purposes.

In Re All Saints Winterton [2014] Lincoln Cons Ct, Mark Bishop Ch, as part of an extensive reordering for which a faculty had been granted, (Faculty 3808), it was intended to move a medieval font to the current location of an Edwardian font in the church.  The Victorian Society objected to these proposals in general, and in particular to the burial of the Edwardian font beneath the re-sited medieval font. The case is interesting as it demonstrates the changing fortunes of the various fonts at this church. The judgement explains:

“2. The medieval font was thrown out of the church, it is assumed, during the time of the Commonwealth in the 1650’s and was lost until 1952 when it was found in a local garden and given back to the church. This font is currently located in the south transept mounted on a Romanesque capital. The font is 13th century and octagonal. It has been used for baptisms since 2000.

3. At the time of the Restoration a new font was commissioned in 1663 and this font was used until 1903 when Miss Fowler donated a new font and the 17th century font was given away. The Edwardian font has local significance because it was donated by a parishioner, and of course has been used for baptisms for about 100 years. The view of the Petitioners is that the steps on which it is mounted are a hazard.”

The Chancellor indicated that a proposal might be worked up to place the Edwardian font in another location in the church, where it would not be used as a font but could ‘co-exist peacefully’ with the medieval font.  If this was not practical or desired, then new plans could be placed before him for the removal of the font from the church to store or to another church. As a consequence and using his powers under the paragraph 19.3 (1)(a) Faculty Jurisdiction Rules 2013, the Chancellor directed that in respect of Faculty 3808, that part of the Schedule which states “and Edwardian font to be buried within the church” shall be deleted from the Schedule of works authorised.

Re St Peter, Shipton Bellinger

© Copyright Miss Steel and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence [9]

© Copyright Miss Steel and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence [9]

The Rector and Churchwardens petitioned for a faculty to authorise the removal of a large Victorian font and its platform, pictured[9], from a position near to the main church door of a small medieval church and the placing of a new, much smaller font of Purbeck stone at the east end of the nave. It was suggested that the existing font was: offered for sale; given to another church or chapel; or failing these options, be buried in a convenient place in the churchyard.

Only two aspects of ecclesiastical law were considered by the court in relation to the disposal of fonts: the Court of Arches judgement in Re St Peter, Draycott, above, and of the relevant Canon. With regard to the latter, the DAC stated that it did not recommend the destruction of fonts, and stated the direction given by their ecclesiastical lawyers that

“In accordance with Canon Law F3 [presumably Canon F1 §3], the font bowl shall only be used for water at the administration of Holy Baptism and for no other purpose whatsoever. If it is not possible to locate the existing font within the Church or have the font used for baptism by another church or have the font stored securely, then the last resort would be to bury the font in the churchyard. We make parishes aware of the need to consider the future of the existing font, when the very rare instance of a parish wishing to introduce a new font occurs and encourage them to consider its accommodation as part of a faculty application”.

The Chancellor granted a Faculty. As to a proposal to bury the old font, the Chancellor did not consider that appropriate and made the faculty subject to the following conditions: “(a) every reasonable attempt should be made to transfer the font to another church or chapel, (b) failing such transfer, museums should be contacted, (c) failing a museum, sale on the open market should be considered, (d) whatever disposal is contemplated, my prior consent will be required.”

Comment

So the answer to the question in the title of this piece is “some used to bury them”, but now, despite a chink of flexibility from some DACs, consistory courts seem very reluctant to permit the practice. Although it has its origins in theology and spiritual anthropology, present day restrictions appear to be achieved through a creative interpretation of Canon F 1 §3  which places limits the use of the font bowl: clearly, a strict reading would also preclude their use as a plinth for a replacement font.

We understand that the Winchester Diocesan Registry has now been informed by the Victorian Society that it intends to appeal the judgement.


[1] S Friar, Companion to Churches, (2011, The History Press, Stroud, Gloucestershire), 201.

[2] D Stancliffe, Baptism and Fonts [1994] 3 Ecc LJ (14) 141-148.

[3] F Bond, Fonts and Font Covers, (OUP, 1908).

[4] M Douglas: ‘The archaeology of memory: an investigation into the links between collective memory and the architecture of the parish church in late medieval Yorkshire, Durham theses, Durham University’, pages 90-91: (PhD thesis, University of Durham, 2003): Available at Durham E-Theses Online: http://etheses.dur.ac.uk/1260/1/1260.pdf.

[5] NJG Pounds, The Culture of the English People: Iron Age to the Industrial Revolution, (CUP, 1994).

[6] D Stocker, (1997) “Fons et Origo: the symbolic death, burial and resurrection of English font stones”, (1997), 1 Church Archaeology, 17-25.

[7] J Betjeman, Best British Churches, (updated R Surman, Collins, 2011), page 398.

[8] Summarized in [2009] Ecc LJ 11 (3), 365-366.

[9] © Copyright Miss Steel and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

Cite this article as: David Pocklington, "They bury fonts, don’t they?" in Law & Religion UK, 7 April 2015, http://www.lawandreligionuk.com/2015/04/07/they-bury-fonts-dont-they/

11 thoughts on “They bury fonts, don’t they?

  1. Jews are required, I read, to bury torah scrolls, tefillin and other objects used for holy purposes, as a respectful and proper way of disposal, when old or damaged or unusable objects. On the Isle of Lewis, some years ago, surplus Gaelic Bibles in the secondhand bookshops were a problem. A large number were so buried, after a religious service, in at least one parish (sorry, reference now lost). English is now dominant, the generations that spoke Gaelic are dying out. When my grandmother was dying in 1974 in Stornoway, all the nurses in the ward spoke only English, all the old, confused, ladies had lost their second language.

    Burial of fonts may well have been in this tradition, thus extreme reverence rather than disposal of rubbish.

  2. Thank you Anne for your interesting comments. Until I started writing the post last week, I accepted mis-matches between plinth and bowl without questioning, despite the location of our choir stalls immediately in front of such an example.

    Should a font be disposed of as “waste”, environmental law will come into play although burial in a churchyard should create relatively few problems in this area.

  3. This is a very helpful post, on an issue where some consistency is needed.

    1.    With regard to fonts new and old, there are a number of scenarios presenting different issues:
    a) a church considering reordering may already have two [occasionally more!] fonts (as Mark Hill notes, the presumption against this is not absolute) – maybe a medieval or even Saxon one, and a Victorian one, and wish to retain them in church; here the question is which one should be used for the administration of baptism, and where the unused one should be placed, with the safeguard of Canon F1.3 that its bowl should not be used for any other purpose. (I recall a few cases where a small ancient font has been relocated as a holy water stoup near the door, but that’s OK. So is another recent case CBC considered where the old font by the south porch became the centrepiece of a permanent display about the sacrament of baptism.)

    b) a church may wish to change its baptismal arrangements by having a ‘moveable’ font up front, or to introduce a baptismal pool in some part of the building (ideally combining this with provision for infant baptism in the same place); here the question is whether the former font remains in situ or is removed. However this is handled, there should be a permanently visible symbol of baptism in the church, and a moveable font that gets pushed out of sight does not fulfil this, which is an argument for retaining the old font (subject again to F1.3). Of course, where a font is in a separate west end baptistery it is likely to remain, unless the parish wants to strip this area out for some other use.

    c) a church may wish to install a new fixed font and dispose of its existing one, either as part of a scheme for redesigning all the liturgical furniture, or because (as at Shipton Bellinger) they regard it as too big and want the space, or see it as a trip hazard (a growing, and often spurious, claim), or simply because they dislike it. If a faculty is granted, this raises the disposal issue in its sharpest form.

    2.    Relocation to another church is the best option, but I imagine it rarely happens, unless the font is an exceptional piece. The Shipton Bellinger font is rather ugly (despite the Chancellor saying it is ‘not unattractive’) and no-one in their right mind would want it! But the Chancellor is right to give this as the first option.

    3.    Similarly, we know that a museum would only take an exceptional piece, which this is not.

    4.    Sale on the open market is unlikely to realise very much, though in this case (unlike Draycott, where the church wanted to make money by replacing the font with a copy) that is not the point. In Draycott, the Court of Arches rejected CBC’s submission that the sacramental nature of a font means that it can never be sold or disposed of for another use (F3 again) though rejected the petition for sale on other grounds because there was no financial emergency. But Clark Ch in Shipton Bellinger used this judgement to claim that ‘careful analysis … shows that it is legally possible to dispose of a redundant font by sale or otherwise.’

    5.    CBC intends to produce some guidelines on this, and we will have to think carefully about this issue. Do we stand by the ‘sacramental nature’ of the font? I suppose it could be argued that a font could be sold, or displayed, with safeguards about its ‘use’, though there is no way of ensuring them. (I think of a former church in Manchester, turned into flats, where the font was deliberately left in situ in the porch, with a discreet sign saying that this was the historic font of the parish where x thousands baptisms had taken place, and please respect it; but it got used for flower displays. But then, this happens in many churches at flower festivals…)

    6.    So finally, burial in the churchyard. Vic Soc may regard this as ‘incomprehensible’, but the DAC advice was right to point out that, while they ‘do not recommend the destruction of fonts’ the lawyers’ direction (F1.3 again) means that burial must remain as the last resort. Clark Ch does not appear to have taken this issue into account in his judgement, merely concluding that it is the very last thing he would wish to authorise. He’s not ruling it out, but I suspect he too regards it as incomprehensible.

    7.    So I suppose that all we are able to say in guidelines is that ‘some chancellors take the sacramental nature of the font, and its implications for disposal, more seriously than others’!

    8.    A footnote: when I was Rector of St Christopher Withington, in south Manchester, and the Bernard Miller church was declared unsafe and worship transferred to the church hall for several years, we deliberately used items that were at hand to create liturgical furnishings – a trestle table for the altar, a lectern from a bookstand on a table, and a handsome large bowl for baptisms – setting up and clearing away every Sunday. We still have that bowl – we didn’t smash it, but would certainly not use it to serve pasta or whatever. But that was an untypical situation; I’m glad to say that the fine Alan Durst font was recovered from the church when it was demolished, and looks wonderful in its new setting when part of the church hall was permanently remodelled as the place of worship.

    Michael Ainsworth (CBC member)

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