Wright v Ingle

by Philip Jones

(1885) 16 Queen’s Bench 379

Certain Acts of Parliament required the owners of any house or land fronting a particular street to contribute to the cost of paving the street.  The trustees of a Methodist chapel (of whom Mr Wright was one) denied liability for the paving charge on the ground that a chapel, being a place of worship, was not a ‘house’.

The Methodist trustees held the chapel building under a lease, not freehold.  The chapel had been duly certified as a place of religious worship, and so was exempt from rates.

The statutory provisions concerning the paving charge were carelessly drafted and obliged the court to deliver a lengthy discourse on the meaning of the word ‘house’.  However, the court concluded that the word, as used in the particular Acts of Parliament, did not apply only to a private dwelling house.  It therefore held that the Methodist chapel was subject to the paving charge.

It may be that the Methodist trustees disputed their liability for the paving charge because a Church of England church would have been exempt from the charge.  They may have felt, understandably, that their chapel should have been treated on the same terms as a church, since it existed for the same purpose, as a place of worship.

The court therefore had to distinguish between a Church of England church and a Methodist chapel.  The difference lay in the fact that the church was consecrated, whereas the chapel was not.  It is true that a church and a chapel are both places of public worship.  Neither is a private dwelling.  Both are physically capable of being converted into dwelling houses.  (Of course many redundant churches now are.)

However, a consecrated church can never lawfully be used as a house, because it is consecrated.  The well known dictum of the court was that

‘By the consecration of such a church the status of the building and of the soil is altered.  The building is by the ecclesiastical law [i.e common law] separated for ever from the common uses of mankind.  It is dedicated thenceforward to sacred services and the law precludes it from being ever capable of use for ordinary secular purposes’ (pp.399-400).

By contrast, the law does not preclude a Methodist chapel from ever being capable of use for secular purposes.  It may be certified for public worship, but it remains private property.  Its owners are at liberty to use their property for other purposes.

This case is often cited in support of the faculty jurisdiction over consecrated land.  However, it should be remembered that consecration, as such, was not an issue in the case.  The Methodist trustees did not claim that their chapel was consecrated, not did they question the consecration of Church of England churches.  Nor did the case refer to the faculty jurisdiction.

It should also be noted that the dictum about consecration refers only to common law.  However, the common law has been superseded by statute law.  The designation of Church of England churches as such now requires statutory authority: see Mission and Pastoral Measure 2011, s.41(1).  Consecration alone is not effective to constitute a new church.

Moreover, the legal effect of consecration does not necessarily last ‘for ever’.  Church buildings are quite often secularised, again under statutory authority.