A churchwarden has described the decision of a church court to fine him £1,800 for replacing stolen lead from the roof with unapproved materials as ‘offensive and libellous’.
Martin Watts said he had the backing of parochial church council (PCC) members in fixing the roof of All Saints at Pickwell with Sarnafil, which is not approved of by leading conservation group, Historic England.
He said he decided to act quickly following the theft of lead from the Grade 1 listed, 13th century building in September 2016 to protect it from heavy rain rather than wait for insurance money to pay for the repairs.
But the case was referred to a consistory court hearing because permission was not sought beforehand from the Diocese of Leicester.
And a hearing has now resulted in Mark Blackett-Ord, chancellor of the Leicester diocese, ruling that Mr Watts should pay the cost of the subsequent proceedings out of his own pocket rather than from church funds.
Mr Watts told the Melton Times: “It is a very strange judgement given that it was a unanimous decision by our PCC.
“The punishment for me is punitive, it is quite offensive and libellous.
“But there has been a backlash and I have received letters of support and cash to help me pay the fine.
“People have sent £10 and £20 notes through the post from Anglesey, Dorset, Devon, Hatfield and Yorkshire.
“Mr Blackett-Ord has clearly misjudged the feeling of people on this.”
Ironically, the hearing did give retrospective approval for Sarnafil to be retained on the roof for its useful life.
And Mr Watts is hoping this ruling will pave the way for other churches across the UK to use the non-metallic substance because it is cheaper, durable and is less attractive to thieves than lead.
He said: “When we took the decision to use Sarnafil we wanted to challenge ecclesiastical law and Historic England and I’m very glad that the judgement has allowed us to keep it there.
“We are hoping the ruling will act as a precedent for the diocese and for other churches which have lead stolen.”
Using the alternative material cost £7,640 plus architect’s fees. It would have been almost twice the price if they had used lead instead.
Mr Blackett-Ord said in his written judgement, which ran to 4,500 words, that by mid-July 2017 Mr Watts had been told that Consistory Court permission was necessary for the proposed repairs using Sarnafil but he wrote to the Archdeacon and Area Dean the following month to say the work had already been done.
“Mr Watts was the driving force behind the decision to go ahead with the Sarnafil option without faculty approval,” Mr Blackett-Ord stated.
And he added: “I therefore intend to order that Mr Watts should pay the costs of the proceedings personally.
“He may not take a contribution or indemnity from the PCC or from any other church funds.”
There have been nine thefts of lead from five churches in the Melton area since Easter.