The last word on the “pews vs chairs” debate…

…or would that be too much to hope for?

Of the wide range of guidance issued by the Church Buildings Council (CBC), that entitled “Seating” is one of the more prescriptive, and last month we reviewed its application following recent consideration in the consistory courts. A further judgment has been handed down which re-states its advisory status, queries the rationale of an important aspect of this guidance, and raises important issues on the perception of aspects of the petition.

Background

Our post Pews vs Chairs: Application of CBC Guidance considers the binding nature of the CBC Guidance on Seating [“the Guidance”], which was addressed by HH John Bullimore in  Re All Saints West Burnley [2017] ECC Bla 6 and subsequently in Re St. Stephen Burnley [2017] ECC Bla 7. We concluded that whilst there was little doubt that the Guidance is “statutory guidance” since it was produced under S55 1(d) Dioceses, Mission and Pastoral Measure 2007, it was unlikely to have the same binding effect as a statutory provision or a statutory instrument would have. Chancellor Bullimore expanded further on the issue of statutory guidance in this latest judgment, infra.

All Saints Higher Walton

The Blackburn consistory court again considered replacement seating, this time in Re All Saints Higher Walton [2017] ECC Bla 9;  a petition was sought in relation to changes to the heating system, and this was accompanied a proposal to remove the side aisle pews and introduce upholstered chairs which would match those in the centre of the nave, authorised in 2015 [“the 2015 Faculty]. In addition to further consideration of the Guidance, there are three areas of interest: perceptions of the replacement seating; the rationale in the Guidance on removable cushions; and the approach of the Victorian Society.

In passing, it is of interest to note that only a small part of the total cost of the £30k project [i.e. £7,344] was referable to the chairs [3], but consideration of the issues raised dominated the judgment; the proposed changes to the heating were not contentious and were dealt with in a single paragraph [38].

Statutory guidance

In putting forward the Victorian Society’s objections to the proposals, Mrs Sophie Laird comments inter alia [emphasis added]:

“[14]. …These bright red upholstered seats offer no public benefit which cannot be achieved with other good quality un-upholstered seating. These chairs are also (sic) do not conform to the statutory guidance of the Church Buildings Council who state: ‘The Council’s experience is that wooden have the greatest sympathy with historic church environments…Upholstered seats are not considered to be appropriate for the following reasons…”.

The standard footer on CBC Guidance correctly refers to its status as “statutory guidance”. However, to suggested that this requires “compliance with” its content, might be to misconstrue its status. Referring to his recent decisions in the diocese of Blackburn, All Saints, West Burnley and St Stephen, Burnley, Chancellor Bullimore said:

“[17] . …. In the first I tried to explore the legal basis for the concept of “statutory guidance” contained in the Guidance Note that the VS relies on, and my reasons for not considering it was as binding as they did.

With regard to the other judgments he considered in relation to Re All Saints, West Burnley, he said [our emphasis]:

[18]. These three decisions do demonstrate that the consistory courts have been ready to weigh the petitioners’ arguments against the content of the Guidance Note, and not simply treat it as a ‘trump card’. I fully accept that in individual cases, decisions will sometimes go one way and sometimes the other. The [Church Buildings Council also seems to accept that with its use of the phrase ‘generally advocates’ un-upholstered seating in the Guidance, (although it gives no indication what factors or circumstances may lead to the acceptance of the installation of upholstered furniture in a particular case).

This aligns with the footnote to our post on the CBC’s Guidance Note on “Ruined Churches” in which we said:

“Unlike the more prescriptive guidance on seating, the Guidance Note on ruined churches restricts itself to identifying the options for such buildings, rather than giving the CBC’s view on how it believes that should be addressed. Nevertheless, both documents are “quasi-” or “soft-law” issued by a body which itself has statutory status to produce such documents as it deems are necessary, but which are themselves persuasive in nature rather than mandatory“.

[David gives a fuller consideration of quasi law in Quasi Law and Religion, Chapter 7, in “Religion and Legal Pluralism” Ed. R Sandberg, (2014, Ashgate Publishing, Farnham].

Perceptions of the replacement seating

The CBC Guidance states:

“Upholstered seats are not considered to be appropriate for the following reasons: They have a significant impact in terms of colour, texture and character which is not consonant with the quality of a highly listed church”.

Consequently, the colour chosen is an important factor in the selection of appropriate upholstery. It is significant, therefore, that in the judgment All Saints Higher Walton, the colour of the proposed chairs was perceived differently by different parties:

– Chancellor’s Introduction [2]: “…Objections are made by the Victorian Society to the introduction of upholstered chairs, in reliance on the Guidance issued by the Church Buildings Council (‘CBC’), and also particularly in relation to the colour of the fabric, which is a sort of orangey red.

– Statement of Needs [8]:” [The Petitioners] describe them as ‘claret, which I take to be ‘dark red’. They are, as I understand it, the same colour as before“.

– Victorian Society Objections [14]: “these bright red upholstered seats”

– Photographs in the supporting documents [19]: “Looking at this photo, I [the Chancellor] have to say the colour is rather startling in its intensity. The colour appears to me more orange than it apparently seemed to Mrs Laird [Victorian Society], but it has something of the colour of a high-viz safety jacket about it. I would not want claret of that hue!

[We assume that the Chancellor was referring to the high visibility jackets worn by rail workers which is orange (like the colour Aperol) rather than the yellow  (like Yellow Chartreuse) which is more commonly used in the construction industry, BS EN 471].

– the PCC minute re: the 2015 Faculty [21]: “The metal-framed one does not appear to have been made by Alpha Furniture, who in fact eventually supplied the chairs for the nave. This minute also said ‘dark red (the Chancellor’s  emphasis) upholstery as per sample chair is an acceptable colour. However no final decision was made and this will be formalised at the next PCC”.

– The pallet of colours for the fabrics offered by Alpha Furniture is available on its web site.

However, the issue of the colour of upholstery did not appear to be an issue when the replacement of pews was considered in 2015,

“[31]. What I think is noticeable is that Mrs Laird [the Victorian Society] nowhere referred to the colour of the upholstered seats in 2015. I cannot believe she had not at least a verbal description even if no photo or other illustrative material purporting to show it. There is no description of the colour, by name or otherwise, on such of the documents as were retained by the Registry. However it can no longer be demonstrated from the documentation available from that time, that the colour of the fabric on the chairs, was spelled out in some way, although I would find it astonishing that the DAC, Mrs Laird and myself, were in fact unaware of the colour at that time. It cannot now be demonstrated we were in fact aware, but it would have been a serious oversight to be ignorant of that important feature when carrying out our respective responsibilities”.

The colour of the chairs, whatever it was deemed to be, was not favoured by the Chancellor. However, he said:

“…[this] decision is not about my personal views or preferences of course; it has to be a judicial decision, having regard to all the circumstances. The fact is that the petitioners were, as far as I can tell, allowed to introduce chairs of this kind and colour as recently as two years ago. To say now this colour (or type of chair) is not acceptable, would seem to the petitioners and wider congregation, totally wrong, and unprincipled. Further as the DAC comment on the proposals shows, a question of consistency arises. It would not be reasonable to deny the petitioners more of the same sort of chair”.

Position of the Victorian Society

Contrary to the perception that the Victorian Society is against the replacement of pews per se, Mrs Laird stated:

“[14]. …the Society did not wish to object to the removal of the pews, but ‘did wish to object to the proposed upholstered seating. The latest pictures show the new chairs in situ’ (this must be a reference to those installed in 2015) ‘and the negative impact of these chairs is clearly apparent. We wish to, again, object to these inappropriate and damaging chairs”.

This reflects earlier comments of its Director, Mr Christopher Costello, in Re St. Stephen Burnley where, although he viewed a pewed church as significant in relation to the “cohesive Victorian interior” of the building in question, “[t]he chairs chosen are a decent choice if it is accepted that there should be upholstered chairs. At least they have wooden frames and flat rather than rounded tops”. Quoting the CBC Guidance, he indicated that the Victorian Society “would much rather see an un-upholstered chair” [18]; in this case it objected to the blue colour of the upholstery, which with the blue carpeting “will be ‘the dominant note of the whole interior’, like a bingo hall or doctor’s surgery” [20].

With regard to the issue of the comfort of the seating, in All Saints Higher Walton the Mrs Laird said [26] ” if discomfort became an issue, removable cushions could be introduced”, a comment which opened discussion on the CBC’s Guidance on this aspect, below.

Rationale of Removable Cushions

The Chancellor commented [our emphasis]:

“28. I must pause for a moment to take up one aspect of Mrs Laird’s advice on behalf of the VS, although that of course was given in relation to the 2015 application. One of its strange features, (as it seems to me), that also appears in the Guidance, (and also in the Society’s advice tendered in the two other Blackburn cases referred to above), is the notion of having removable cushions. That somewhat undermines the strong statement in the Guidance that a well designed and chosen un-upholstered chair can be as comfortable as an upholstered one. Inevitably a cushion will be made of some kind of fabric, and that will also be coloured.

He continued with the following reductio ad absurdum argument:

“I do not suppose the Society is contemplating members of the congregation turning up with their own cushions (which like Joseph’s proverbial coat, will be of many colours), so the church, if it takes up this suggestion, will have to obtain and provide a stock of cushions for those who wish to ease the rigours of prolonged sitting. Can it really be contemplated that these will be given out for every service and gathered up afterwards? Rather they will be left out for use whenever services are taking place, and will simply be left on the seats at other times. The reality will be that large amounts of coloured fabric will be on display (admittedly on the seats only, not the back rests), but in reality there will be very little difference in appearance between upholstered furniture, and un-upholstered chairs or benches adorned with removable cushions.

Also it seems to me to illustrate very little conception of life in the average congregation. If the PCC could be encouraged to adopt un-upholstered seating, it will take only one person to take along a cushion, and everyone will do it. The last situation will probably be far worse than having upholstered seating in the first place”.

Comment

The answer to our question as to whether this judgments was “[t]he last word on the “pews vs chairs” debate” was provided by Chancellor Bullimore:

“[34]. The Guidance about un-upholstered seating rather than upholstered, is still being assessed up and down the country, and will doubtless be the subject of many more decisions in the coming months.

[35]. Whether one indirect effect of the Guidance may be that DAC’s and others will in future give stronger advice about colour, remains to be seen”.

Watch this space.

Cite this article as: David Pocklington, "The last word on the “pews vs chairs” debate…" in Law & Religion UK, 15 August 2017, http://www.lawandreligionuk.com/2017/08/15/the-last-word-on-the-pews-vs-chairs-debate/

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