‘Monumental Stupidity’

David Godfrey muses on the lessons of last year’s Leckhampton Case

The Leckhampton Judgement, handed down in 2014 by Chancellor June Rodgers in the Consistory Court of the Diocese of Gloucester, was something of a tour de force – and deliberately so. That worshipful lady was determined that what had occurred at Emmanuel Church, Leckhampton, should not happen again, in her jurisdiction or another's: the unlawful disposal of a valuable work of art – a painting of the Christ-Child being held by Our Lady, by Franz Ittenbach (1813-79) – because its subject was theologically out of favour with the mood of the church's non-stipendiary minister and churchwardens.

A less restrained Chancellor might well have hung the NSM responsible, the Revd Jacqueline Rodwell, and the churchwardens, Janet Crompton-Allison and Richard Welch, out to dry: they had shown ‘monumental stupidity’, and Mrs Rodwell had been, euphemistically, ‘mistaken in her evidence of events'. Chancellor Rodgers might well have instituted proceedings against Mrs Rodwell under the Clergy Discipline Measure, and reported Mrs Crompton-Allison and Mr Welch to the Charity Commission with a view to having them barred from serving as charity trustees, and thus depriving them of their ability to serve as Churchwardens.

She might also have refused the retrospective faculty application to sell the painting in question, which by the time of her sitting had already been sold at auction for £20,000 to a London art dealer, Alden Bennett, who had spent an additional £9,000 on its restoration. Had she done so, Mrs Rodwell and the Churchwardens might easily have been sued in the civil courts by both the auctioneers and Mr Bennett, with very serious consequences indeed. The 55-page judgement is well worth reading, and is readily – and sportingly, given the circumstances – available on the Diocese of Gloucester's own website.

Iconoclasm and philistinism are hardly fresh expressions in the life of the Church. Nor, for that matter, is idiocy – the Chancellor described the sorry threesome as having been ‘really, really stupid'. The case raises, however, some serious issues about the way in which some Church of England clergy are formed.

‘At no time in my experience as an ordinand, curate, or vicar [sic] have I ever been aware of anyone telling me that I need[ed] a Faculty to sell an item of church property,' Mrs Rodwell said. Only the then-Bishop of Gloucester and those responsible for the selection, formation, and presentation of clergy in the diocese can explain how Mrs Rodwell, who trained on the West of England Ministerial Training Course (WEMTC) – which advertises ‘taught modules on one evening per week during term time, a number of residential weekend courses and a week-long residential school each year' – came to be in a position in which she had received so little instruction as to what were the legal responsibilities of her office that, but for the generous disposition of her diocesan Chancellor, she would almost certainly have found herself as a defendant in a civil case.

The issue might never have arisen at all, however, had Mrs Rodwell and the Churchwardens not been so antipathetic to the idea of an image of the Christ-Child being held by his Mother existing in their church. Their initial determination to dispose of the painting (with the idea of using it to raise funds being only a secondary consideration) was because it depicted the Virgin Mary, and because she was wearing a diadem and seated on a chair with a cushion, a conclusion was drawn that it must be a depiction of her as Queen of Heaven: and so the painting was deemed in correspondence (quoted in the Chancellor's judgement) to be offensive to some members of the congregation, who remain unnamed.

Mrs Rodwell cited the high-church sympathies of her predecessors, contrasting them with her own low-church sensibilities. But be she as low-church as she likes, at some point in her formation someone should have taught her, despite her antipathy – or perhaps, more pertinently, because of it – about the place of Mary in Anglican thought because of the honour given to the Mother of God by the Church Fathers, and not least those who participated in the Council that gave her the title of Theotokos – God-bearer – at Ephesus in 431: a Council whose teachings the compilers of the Articles of Religion specifically embraced and received "with great reverence" in their commentary Reformatio Legum Ecclesiasticarum, when they sought to qualify Article XXI: On the Authority of General Councils.

Mrs Rodwell might also, in the course of her studies, have been directed to the writings of the Anglican Divines – perhaps to Lancelot Andrewes, Jeremy Taylor, and Thomas Ken, all of whom in their way found a way to remain deeply and entirely infused in Anglican theology, while still retaining a devotion to the Mother of God. She might even have heard of the ARCIC document of 2004, Mary: Grace and Hope in Christ, which appeared in the year she was made deacon. Chancellor Rodgers, however, drew the conclusion that Mrs Rodwell and her Churchwardens felt that to retain an image of the Christ-Child being held by his mother ‘was antipathetic to the worship in this church; it seemed to them to be a "Roman Catholic" item. They wanted rid of it.'

150 years ago, they would presumably have called it àPopish trinket’, and it is remarkable to think that while another minister might have treasured such a painting, Mrs Rodwell's initial response was to think to ‘just put it on a skip’, before the suggestion of a sale came to the fore. I am not suggesting for a moment that she should have hung a blue-shaded lamp next to it, put a pricket stand in front with lilies either side, and sung a solemn Salve (although there may be some clergyreading this who might well have done just that); but with a broader field of vision Mrs Rodwell might have been able to exercise a sense of perspective in relation to her approach to the disposal of a piece of church property that was neither hers nor the churchwardens' to sell. Had she received better ecclesiological training, and any instruction at all in the basic elements of canon law relating to clergy with oversight of churches, then the whole sorry mess might have been very different indeed.

Mrs Rodwell left Leckhampton soon after the debacle. The parish magazine noted that she had retired to France, where she intended to exercise her ministry among the Reformed Churches. I can only assume that they'll be getting on famously. ND

 

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