The Church of England’s faculty jurisdiction extends to objects within a church even if they are not attached to the building or are owned by another person. To that degree it goes beyond listed building control. In Re St Lawrence, Oakley with Wootton St Lawrence, the Arches Court of Canterbury considered the attempted sale of an armet, a type of helmet from around 1500. This had been part of the funerary monument to Sir Thomas Hooke, who died in 1677. The chancellor had held that it remained the property of the heirs of Sir Thomas, not the church.
The armet had been removed to a bank vault in 1969 following the theft of a pair of gauntlets, a pair of spurs and a dagger kept with it. In 1974 a faculty was granted to permit its indefinite loan to the Armouries of the Tower of London and it was subsequently transferred to the Royal Armouries Museum in Leeds. In 2010 an unopposed faculty was granted for the sale of the armet. Following its sale at auction matters unravelled. The 2010 faculty had been granted in breach of the requirement to consult the Church Buildings Council (CBC). The CBC successfully applied to set aside the faculty. Two heirs were traced by the petitioners, one of whom gifted his ownership to the churchwardens whilst the other insisted upon receiving half of the sale price.
On a new petition, the chancellor granted a faculty for the sale. The CBC successfully appealed and the faculty was refused.
The Arches Court considered that there is a strong presumption against the sale of church treasures and the question is whether the grounds for sale are sufficiently compelling to outweigh this strong presumption. If disposal is contemplated then a sequential approach should be taken. The first option is to consider disposal by loan to a museum, art gallery or diocesan treasury. Ranking second in the sequence would be a ‘disposal by limited sale’ to a museum, art gallery or (more rarely) diocesan treasury, but still subject to the strong presumption against. The final route would be disposal by outright sale, that is, a sale on the open market.
Separation of the article, by it being housed for a considerable amount of time somewhere other than the church, would normally carry little weight as a reason for disposal by sale.
This is an important judgment for the Church of England and for the art market. The CBC set out its policy following the Wootton St Lawrence decision in a May 2014 Guidance Note Treasures, including explaining the theological underpinning of its approach and the ownership of moveable goods of the church by the parishioners at large.