Howard Croft column: Thorny planning issue of roses in the churchyard

St Mary's Priory Church, Old Malton captured by reader Nick Fletcher, of Norton.
St Mary's Priory Church, Old Malton captured by reader Nick Fletcher, of Norton.

There is in the Church of England a requirement to obtain what is called a “faculty” from the diocese before making any alterations or additions to church buildings or land. It is, in effect, the church’s own planning department and similar in its operation to local authority planning departments.

I first came across the “need for a faculty” when St Mary’s Priory Church in Old Malton decided to attach a unisex toilet to the main building. As the priory is a Grade one listed building dating to the 12th century it was obviously vital to get this improvement right, sympathetic in design and materials to the original, and I think that was achieved.

I have now been told that if you wish to plant anything in a churchyard, a bush or flowers say, you will need to get planning permission, or a faculty, as the Princes of the Church so quaintly put it, which you might well not get. If your taste runs to roses, which are doing excellently this year down our way, you would certainly be denied permission. One wonders why? Health and Safety considerations, so popular now, may be a factor. Roses have thorns, thorns can prick.

It is well known that soil harbours thousands of microbes, some of them deadly. An acquaintance of my later mother-in-law’s pricked her thumb while doing a spot of weeding in her garden, infection followed and she finished losing her arm and very nearly her life. Perhaps the church is being prudent, mindful of possible law suits from limbless parishioners whose mutilation might be tracked back to a bit of tidying up in the churchyard. The fact that daffs are permitted and are without thorns may support this.

It is possible, of course – we shall never know – that ecclesiastical prejudice against the rose is symbolic rather than practical, its thorns being a reminder of the cruel mockery of the crown of thorns that featured at the crucifixion. Things are not always what they seem. I am reminded by this of the introduction in the ’90s of numerous disqualifying factors laid down by zealous social workers in matters of child adoption. Couples hoping to adopt a child were routinely and sensibly visited at home by these social workers on the lookout for evidence of dangerous unsuitability.

It was well-known at the time that one’s chances of a successful application were greatly enhanced by leaving lying about physical evidence of correct values. Copies of the Guardian newspaper were favourably looked upon, as were vegetarian cook books, and recent copies of the Labour Party manifesto. It was not enough merely to hide the ash trays and throw a cloth over the wine rack, or to keep bibles and hymn books out of sight, the latter a sure sign of unacceptable social values in the eyes of an alert social worker.

It was at this time that a new disqualifier emerged: dog ownership. Again, Health and Safety springs to mind. Toxocara canis, a parasite of dogs, can be harmful to humans, especially children, leading to blindness and even to death. This is rare, but more common is the dog bite and small children left unattended in the company of dogs are at risk of serious injury and even of death. But, I will say it again, things are not always what they seem.

The over-riding consideration was expressed by a director of social services as follows:

“This (dog ownership) also raised the question of whether owners’ interest in dogs may be to the exclusion of their interest in children.”

So there you have it – you would never have thought of this without help from a social worker; emotional deprivation. There are, when you reflect upon it, plenty of people who prefer their dogs to children, indeed to people in general. I am tempted that way myself occasionally, especially in respect of the children of others.

The church has a big job on its hands, but where do they find the people to do this important work, adjudicating on the respective merits of roses and daffodils, lilies and gladioli? I hear that there has been some thinning out in the ranks of civil servants in our town halls and this may release onto the jobs market individuals with experience of inconsequential matters. I do fear however that their expectation of long holidays and generous perquisites (discounted services, swimming etc, supplied at the full price to tax-payers) might alarm the parsimonious elements in Church House.