Last rites for fonts – continued

Reflecting on our recent post They bury fonts, don’t they? and the comments of the Revd Michael Ainsworth, the dilemma posed by the production of guidance on the subject is readily apparent: the only “hard law” on the disposal of fonts is a creative interpretation of Canon F 1§3 which restricts their alternative use; and other than the rejection of the CBC view on their sacramental nature in In re St Peter’s, Draycott [2009] Fam 93, there is little mention of this aspect in case law. Equally, there is little reference to the case law in the Rt Rev David Stancliffe’s Ecc LJ article Baptism and Fonts[1]. When the disposal of fonts has been considered by the courts, it is generally addressed as a side issue to the main petition/appeal, and few if any reasons are given for discouraging their burial.

However, the disposal of fonts and other items from a church or chapel is a prime consideration in the context of pastoral reorganization, and this is addressed specifically in section 76 of the Mission and Pastoral Measure 2011, [emphasis added]:

76 Disposal of font, communion table and plate, and other contents

(1) Where a pastoral church buildings scheme or pastoral (church buildings disposal) scheme makes provision for a church or part of a church to be demolished or appropriated to any use specified or described in the scheme the bishop shall, unless the scheme makes other provision, give directions as to how the font, communion table and plate used for the purpose of Holy Communion shall be dealt with but, if the church or part is so demolished or appropriated before any such directions are given or fully implemented, the diocesan board of finance shall, subject to any provision of the scheme, be responsible for the care, maintenance and safeguarding of any such items.

(2) In a case to which subsection (1) applies, the scheme may also make provision with respect to the disposal of any other contents of the church, not being tombstones, monuments or memorials commemorating deceased persons buried in the church or in any land belonging or annexed to the church.

(3) Where any items are disposed of in accordance with subsection (1) or (2) the bishop shall, subject to any provision of the scheme, give directions as to how any proceeds of their sale are to be applied.

(4) Where a pastoral (church buildings disposal) scheme or a pastoral church buildings scheme to which section 59 applies [i.e. Other provision by pastoral church buildings scheme for church to be closed for regular public worship] provides for the care and maintenance of a church or part of a church by the Churches Conservation Trust or where a pastoral (church buildings disposal) scheme provides for a church or part of a church to remain vested in the diocesan board of finance, the scheme may also provide for the vesting in and the care and maintenance by the Trust or the board, as the case may be, of any of the contents of the church or provide for the disposal of any of the contents other than any tombstones, monuments or memorials as are referred to in subsection (2).

(5) No faculty shall be required for anything done in pursuance of this section.

The Measure is accompanied by a Code of Practice, although with regard to the disposal of fonts &c, the relevant parts add little more than section 76[2]. Around twenty Church of England church buildings are closed for worship each year, and those currently being marketed for a suitable alternative use are listed here. Draft Pastoral Schemes and Orders currently being considered by the Church Commissioners are listed here, including both parish reorganisation and church building disposal.

Comment

The provisions within section 76 do not per se advance considerations on how unwanted fonts should be disposed of, or the weight that should be placed upon their sacramental nature. But neither do they impose any legal or other restrictions, merely referring to their “disposal”; they place the onus on the means of disposal on the provisions within a pastoral church buildings scheme or a pastoral (church buildings disposal) scheme under the 2011 Measure, or by directions of the bishop in the absence of such provisions, and not the consistory court, S76(5).

In practice, therefore, decisions relating to the fate of unwanted fonts under these schemes are determined through the involvement of a number of bodies at a local, diocesan level, although no doubt the arbiters will take note of legal and sacramental considerations in making their decision. Nevertheless, there exists a procedure within the ecclesiastical law of the Church, to which the faculty jurisdiction is inapplicable, for which the sacramental nature of fonts &c is not an implicit concern [the word “sacramental” is absent from both the Measure and its Code of Practice].

Whilst quasi-legislative guidance will only have persuasive effect, and need not be followed, as in In re St Peter’s, Draycott [2009] Fam 93 in relation to font, and debatably in the more recent Re St. Mary Balcombe [2015] regarding the selection of a contractor. However, its existence nevertheless provides a benchmark against which judgements may be considered.

This post was updated on 27 May 2016 following our considerations of Re St Philip Scholes [2016] ECC Lee 5, here.


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

[2] Sections 21.25 and 21.36, and Appendix 2.6.

Cite this article as: David Pocklington, "Last rites for fonts – continued" in Law & Religion UK, 17 April 2015, http://www.lawandreligionuk.com/2015/04/17/last-rites-for-fonts-continued/

8 thoughts on “Last rites for fonts – continued

  1. Thanks for this further elucidation, David. But my concerns relate more particularly to fonts in churches which remain in normal parochial use where, for whatever reason, the parish seeks to dispose of its ‘historic’ font, and as I suggested previously, it is helpful to distinguish the various scenarios.

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