Church reordering: “salami-slicing” and Theseus’ paradox?

Issues raised by the phased introduction of church reordering

Of the 46 consistory court judgments reported in 2016 to date, the majority concern reordering, (reordering, 44%; exhumation, 26%; churchyards, 30%), and these range  from major building works to more modest internal modifications Generally, reordering is undertaken so that an existing church building can meet present-day demands, and is often justified on the basis of creating a more flexible space for worship and for other activities such as concerts. However, unless a PCC has access to significant funds, it is unlikely that it can undertake a large project in a single stage and a phased development is often necessary. There are two potential problems with such an approach:

  • there is often a suspicion from those opposed to the changes that phased introduction is a merely a means of “salami slicing” – “a series of many small actions, often performed by clandestine means, that as an accumulated whole produces a much larger action or result that would be difficult or unlawful to perform all at once”; and
  • if many changes are made to the church, the resulting building may be fundamentally different from the original, i.e. Theseus’ paradox .

Recently there have been two examples typical of the situations that are currently being faced by the Church of England: St Peter Brighton where a “church plant” has created a thriving congregation and changes are sought to meet these new circumstances; and Holy Trinity Kimberley in which a small congregation is struggling financially and needs to consolidate its assets and develop opportunities for mission. Both cases raise important issues for the Church in balancing the sometimes competing demands of mission and heritage.

Re-ordering at Brighton St Peter

Brighton and Hove has an overabundance of churches; there are many such as St Peter’s where the attendance rarely exceeded twenty and the “cost of keeping [a] jewel of a building in serviceable repair” is beyond the PCC’s reach. It was closed in 2009 and shortly after, Holy Trinity Brompton (HTB), took over the church on a 125 year lease; 30 people moved from HTB to make St Peter’s their regular place of worship; as a consequence, numbers grew steadily, but “many of the internal furnishings were inimical to the mode of worship adopted by the new and growing congregation”. The Chichester consistory court has considered the church’s reordering proposals to date in three judgments: In Re St Peter Brighton [2012] Chichester Const Ct; Re Brighton St. Peter [2015] Chichester Const Ct; and Re St. Peter Brighton [2016] ECC Chi 2, (hereinafter “the 2012 judgment”, “the 2015 judgment”, and “the 2016 judgment”, respectively. In addition, between the 2012 and 2015 judgments there were further faculty proceedings, some of an emergency nature, in respect of urgent and unexpected repairs to the stone work of the tower.

Initially, the church community sought to progress through archdeacon’s licences in 2009 and 2010 for temporary reordering: in its 2016 judgment the court stated that there were: “manifestly unsuitable for an archdeacon’s licence: they are far too extensive, they comprise alterations to the fabric of the building, and perhaps most significantly they were not (nor were they intended to be) temporary in nature”.

Furthermore, no formal approach was made to the court on the expiry of these temporary licences after the statutory period of 15 months, following which their authority for reordering ceased. In its 2012 judgment, the vicar and churchwardens were censured for flouting the jurisdiction of the court [8], which further observed that the petition for regularizing these temporary measures was premature: “the parish’s long term plans for a more permanent reordering are yet to be formulated” [9].

Whilst the works authorized under the archdeacon’s licences were extended for three years (to 2015), during the lifespan of this faculty the Chancellor suspended the archdeacon’s jurisdiction to issue faculties or licences to St Peter’s, and required all matters to be referred to him irrespective of their nature “simply to ensure holistic consistency of decision-making in relation to matters concerning the fabric of the church” [23].

In “an unduly lengthy judgment” in 2015, (due to its unusual history and background and in deference to the strength of feeling evinced by the Victorian Society), the Chancellor congratulated the community at St Peter’s in their marshalling of its resources and generous grants such as £117,000 from English Heritage, to ensure that the tower and other parts of the external structure have been made safe and in a proper state of repair. A faculty was granted for the return of the choir stalls, not to their original place in the chancel, but to the Lady Chapel, a compromise solution with the Victorian Society.

The 2016 judgment considered a faculty for various internal works including stage, light rigging, sound system &c; the contentious issue was the proposed new wall-to-wall carpet and the ‘bland’, black chairs which were considered inappropriate for a Grade II* and important Victorian church in the centre of Brighton. Although the petitioners’ case was predicated upon the eventual completion of a “Building Master Plan” which currently remains inchoate, [19], echoing the “premature” nature of the basis for the church’s 2012 petition. In addition, the Chancellor observed [20]:

“ … The consistory court has granted a series of faculties enabling changes to be made to the fabric of the building, notwithstanding that St Peter’s is a local centre of mission and worship. However, one must be careful that through a process of attrition, the combined effect of a series of individually justified changes may lead to harm to the interior of a Grade II* listed church which plays on important role in the civic life of Brighton. In the instances, the nave pews have all been removed, and the choir pews and chancel furniture relocated to the Lady Chapel. Like the ship in Theseus’ paradox, the fabric may end up being so altered that it ceases to be what it was originally.”

Nevertheless, he granted a limited licence for five years, requiring the petitioners at the end of such period to remove the chairs and carpet and return to the consistory court with “properly formulated proposals for the long term used of the church, its halls and other space within its footprint and for the land within its curtilage” [22], and concluded in the hope that “as this project continues to thrive, this interim solution will give the community confidence to move forward with its future planning” [23].

Reordering at Holy Trinity Kimberley

The judgment in Re Holy Trinity Kimberley [2016] ECC S&N addresses three petitions, of which No. 17880 seeks permission for a major re-ordering scheme including an extensive renovation of the church and the provision of community facilities within the building. The PCC propose to partially-fund the work from the sale of the adjoining dilapidated church hall [47], a situation similar to Re All Saints Filby [2014] Norwich Cons Ct, Ruth Arlow Ch. The sale of the church hall and its associated land that is used for car-parking did not come before the consistory court as this is unconsecrated land and not subject to the faculty jurisdiction. However, the issues form part of the background to the applications and to the objections voiced by three parties opponent [4].

The need for urgent repairs is evident:

”30. Sadly over many years the condition of this building has deteriorated. The choir vestry is unsafe and needs to be demolished … large cracks in the brickwork are visible inside and out. The church is damp and very cold, even with the heating on, as was plainly evident to all sitting through the hearing of this matter. Paint is peeling from the walls and there is evidence of mould on the walls. The only toilet in the building is in the choir vestry and is utterly inaccessible to wheelchair users.

31. Some rear pews have been removed pursuant to an earlier faculty to create some very limited flexible space for noticeboards, a children’s corner, food provision etc. The font is currently sited in the south west corner providing a cramped and unattractive location for baptisms and limiting the use of that space for other purposes.”

Given the age of the church and the deeply-felt nature of the objections, the Acting Chancellor assessed the petitioners’ proposals against the more restrictive guidelines laid down in In re St Alkmund, Duffield [2013] Fam 158 although this was not necessary for an unlisted church [32]. The Acting Chancellor found that there was only limited harm to the architectural and historic significance of the church building [39] and noted:

“[43] The greatest harm to church buildings is for the living, worshiping community using them to decline to a point where there is no need for that building as a place of worship. That is a threat facing the church in Kimberley if mission and ministry is not revitalized and there is no sustained numerical growth”.

The diocese does not regard the church in Kimberley as effectively or efficiently used [44]; echoing the national situation, its priorities are “for church buildings to be used in ways that set the stewardship of the building in the context of the wider challenge of mission and ministry to the people of England. That is, church buildings should be used to serve the common good and stimulate the spiritual and numerical growth of the church” [42]. The Acting Chancellor further noted [46]:

“In my view the proposed re-ordering will provide increased liturgical freedom and significantly enhanced opportunities for mission. It will very significantly improve access to all, including those with reduced mobility. These proposals are very widely supported by both the church and the wider community, although opposed by a few strong voices. The community petition with 200 signatures evidences this and the letter from Mr Lambton provides a particular example. Pastorally, there are good reasons for enabling such a widely supported project to proceed”.

Apart from a concern on mid-week services for Occasional Offices, which was addressed, the remaining six objections (and one particularly odd suggestion [61]) of the opposing parties were dismissed. Dealing with the loss of the church hall and the associated car parking:

[61] Ultimately it is not a matter for the consistory court as to whether a sale should take place. The land is unconsecrated. The parish may do as they wish with it, subject to local planning law. Whether planning permission should be granted for the development of this land is a matter for Broxtowe Borough Council. However, it does appear to me that if the sale of this land is not achieved for the best price possible due to the provision of planning permission, the continued viability of the church building is in significant doubt.”[added emphasis]

Faculties were granted in respect of the re-ordering and the replacement of the organ. The Acting Chancellor rejected a suggestion that the re-ordering should not commence until all the funding was in place.

Comment

Both St Peter’s, Brighton and Holy Trinity, Kimberley, have faced (or are facing) similar problems: the need for extensive building repairs in addition to internal reordering. Direct comparison is difficult, since the changes in Brighton began to be considered in 2009 rather than more recently. In the Kimberley petition, these two issues are substantially interdependent and are being faced by a small (and currently static) congregation which is struggling financially and has not paid its modest diocesan quota in full for the past 3 years [11]. By way of contrast, St Peter’s has a growing congregation and has been able to marshal its resources and grants for the necessary building work for essential repairs in addition to the considerations for reordering. Although a significant level of planning has taken place at Kimberley, the future of the project is dependent upon securing sufficient funding; in contrast, in Brighton the Chancellor noted the inchoate nature of the “Building Master Plan” in his 2012 and 2016 judgments.

These two cases raise a number of more general issues for the Church of England in relation to the sustainable management of its buildings, aspects of which are being considered following its recent Report. Holy Trinity, Kimberley, is perhaps typical of some of the churches in the 15 dioceses where weekly worshipping attendance per building averages below 50 people; St Peter’s, Brighton, demonstrates that whilst succeeding in developing its congregation, it is faced with the demands of maintaining a building where “years of neglect had left the [Grade II*] church in a poor state of structural repair”. The underlying dilemma was summarized in Re All Saints Filby [2014] as:

“[6] … the size and age profile of the current congregation has given rise to concerns that there will not be a viable worshipping community which survives this generation unless a new generation can be attracted to the church. In order to address this concern, the church (in the sense of the people, rather than the building) has taken and is taking steps to reach out to those in its community who do not attend the formal worship which is currently offered”.

The consistory courts fulfil an important role in the consideration of such remedial work and reordering, and in his 2012 judgment Chancellor Hill stressed [21]:

“The balance between mission and heritage, the spiritual and the secular, creates a dynamic tension into which the Consistory Courts are obliged to enter on a regular basis … Not everyone will share this particular style of worship and evangelism … Success in the numbers game promotes the redeeming work of Christ and produces much needed income for the building and its contents. Such success, however, does not give carte blanche to alter the building of which the current congregations are but temporary custodians. It is for the court to balance the competing interests, and the starting point is always a heavy presumption against change” [emphasis added].

In the case of St Peters, the temporary custodianship is quantified in its 125 year lease; elsewhere this is implicit in many judgments relating to reordering, where particular weight (but not absolute priority) is given to the reversible nature of any proposed alterations, particularly where this are to the fabric of the church. Likewise, the 2016 judgment acknowledges the cumulative effects of several petitions, where some might regard Theseus’ paradox as the commutation of a series of “salami slicing” initiatives. However, in reassuring the objectors in Re All Saints Ockbrook [2016] ECC Der 1 the Chancellor observed [2]:

“I make it clear that I cannot prevent the petitioners bringing forward fresh proposals in the future, but also that any favourable decision now on this petition for what is sought, would not make the outcome of a further application more or less likely”.

Since 2013 we have reviewed several examples of phased reordering; but on the basis of the reported judgments, no obvious examples of clandestine “salami-slicing” have been apparent. Nevertheless, there have been a number of cases in which the operation of the faculty jurisdiction has been hindered by the unprofessional approach of the petitioners, and sometimes by their professional advisors and contractors.

The Church Buildings Review Report recommended a number of changes to the legislation and procedures for the support and management of the CofE’s 15,700 churches. A valuable precursor would be the promotion of a better understanding of ecclesiastical law, and the faculty jurisdiction in particular.

Postscript

  • In our round-up of 27 March, we reported that the Government had announced further details on the English Churches and Cathedrals Sustainability Review: a church buildings task force will work with the Church of England to explore new models of financing repairs and maintenance of churches and cathedrals, including reviewing existing maintenance costs and repairs funding from lottery and central government grants. It will report to the Secretary of State for Culture and the Chancellor in April 2017.
  • On 10 May, the Church of England launched an on-line planning and heritage tool at Lambeth Palace; the new service will simplify the planning process for church alterations under the faculty jurisdiction and offers heritage information to researchers and heritage professionals.
  • On 9 June, the Historic Religious Buildings Alliance in partnership and with financial support from PurcellUK is running its 6th training day Managing Major Building Projects in Places of Worship. The day deals with the management of all stages of a building project in a place of worship, from start up through to making sure benefits are achieved over the long term.

Cite this article as: David Pocklington, "Church reordering: “salami-slicing” and Theseus’ paradox?" in Law & Religion UK, 13 May 2016, http://www.lawandreligionuk.com/2016/05/13/church-reordering-salami-slicing-and-theseus-paradox/

3 thoughts on “Church reordering: “salami-slicing” and Theseus’ paradox?

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