Royston church pews to be removed after court decision

PUBLISHED: 07:01 14 August 2019

A fire tore through Royston's St John the Baptist Church in Melbourn Street in December last year. Picture: DANNY LOO

A fire tore through Royston's St John the Baptist Church in Melbourn Street in December last year. Picture: DANNY LOO

©2018 Archant

The vicar of Royston’s parish church has said the decision to replace its historic pews with chairs will make the space more adaptable, after a court ruled in favour of their removal.

The fire at St John the Baptist Church in Royston. Picture: Emma JonesThe fire at St John the Baptist Church in Royston. Picture: Emma Jones

The pews at St John the Baptist Church were subject of a case in the Consistory Court of the Diocese of St Albans, after Rev Heidi Huntley and churchwardens Nick Hindle and Rob Fox petitioned to have them removed to make the space more adaptable at the church - which is being rebuilt after it was devastated by a fire in December last year.

The move was opposed by The Victorian Society, which fought for the 19th-century pews to remain - arguing that the pews were part of a furnishing scheme appropriate to the building, replacing them with chairs would create a cluttered interior and that pews have been integral to the church's interior for several hundred years.

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In a report dated August 5, Chancellor Lyndsey de Mestre - who presided over the case - said: "Of particular significance are the great improvement to accessibility, the removal of safety hazards and the benefit to the church's religious and community functions of opening up the space in the church to allow for, or to enhance creatively, the activities identified.

"Weighing these needs and benefits against the harm that would be caused, I find the benefits significantly outweigh what I have assessed as minor harm to the church's significance and its aesthetic and architectural qualities by the proposals in the petition."

Rev Heidi Huntley. Picture: Tannery Drift First SchoolRev Heidi Huntley. Picture: Tannery Drift First School

Chancellor de Mestre also noted that the design of the pews was problematic in that their fixture to raised timber platforms inhibits accessibility and poses a trip hazard, the pews are not built on solid flooring, and there was no church hall for functions.

She also said a number of church and community events held at the church are constrained by the inflexibility of the present arrangement, in particular the annual quiz attended by around 120 people and the harvest festival supper serving hot food to 50 people. Both events require tables and chairs to be brought into the church.

Rev Heidi Huntley told the Crow: "The decision to remove the pews was considered carefully, and was made because we feel God is asking us to be more flexible with the space in church.

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"In doing this, we are hopefully going to be able to hold more community events in the parish church and be open to the idea of helping in areas of social justice, such as a winter night shelter in the future.

"We are naturally aware that this was not everyone's choice and there are those who will be sorry to see the pews go, but we hope that when the church is reopened they will be able to see that it is not only a beautiful, holy space, but also an adaptable one."

James Hughes, senior conservation adviser at The Victorian Society, said: "As a Grade I-listed building, the church of St John the Baptist boasts the very highest statutory designation, and its historic seating plays a major role in the character and appearance of the interior.

"Notwithstanding this, the society readily accepts that now, following the damaging fire, is the time to address the future of the church's seating.

"But that should go hand in hand with considerations over the future of the building more generally and how it is hoped and planned to be used.

"That being the case, The Victorian Society is disappointed by the recent application - and subsequent consent - to almost entirely clear the main body of the church of its historic bench seating.

"In our view any proposal for the partial or complete disposal of the seating should form part of a wider scheme that addresses holistically the entire building, not just its seating.

"By not even proposing new replacement seating, it is impossible to gauge what the building will look and feel like when it is refurnished, as it inevitably will be.

"Furthermore, how can anyone assess the need for wholesale clearance of the historic seating when the way in which the building is to be used is, by the parish's own admission, 'unpredictable'?

"In our view this application - and the sweeping change it envisages - is premature, is supported by poorly prepared documentation, something even the chancellor referred to in her judgment, and will cause a degree of harm to the character and appearance of a Grade I-listed building that is unjustified."

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