Geoffrey Kirk offers a cautionary tale to show how a penchant for a priori posturing has replaced common sense with unnecessary strife

When, in 1862, Sir George Gilbert Scott put the finishing touches to his design for the new church of St Stephen in Lewisham, he was careless of fire exits and lavatories. Nor, one suspects, was the donor, the Revd Richard Rhodes Bristow, any more concerned about them than his architect.

In the manner of the time the nave and aisles were packed with as many pews as they could hold It would have been a fire-officer’s nightmare, if there had been fire-officers to be sleepless – more especially on account of the use of incense and the multiplicity of candles which were required by the ‘advanced’ liturgy on which Fr Bristow insisted, and about which the Kensitites persistently protested.

Sir George had provided three points of entry to the building: west doors, a south porch and a narrow door from the sacristy, opening in the direction of the handsome four storey clergy house. No one would have dared to suggest to the most eminent architect of his day, that these were insufficient for the ingress and egress of the five hundred or so souls who could be accommodated. Scott, moreover, clearly considered a WC for such numbers entirely superfluous. Judging from the sanitary porcelain, the tiny lavatory at the base of the tower was not added until the 1890s when such provision was becoming more common in stylish urban churches.

In time, as has no doubt happened elsewhere, the south porch fell into disuse and was filled with the clutter so beloved of pious ladies and dedicated flower arrangers. The only exit worth the attention of a self-respecting FO was then the handsome west doors, with its high relief carving of the martyrdom of Stephen. Over the doors, after the Second German War, an organ gallery was erected.

I tell you all this so that, from the beginning, you have some realization of the woeful inadequacies, in the eyes of the modern legislator, of this antiquated building. Scott, it now appears, laboured under the disadvantage of not nearly enough ‘directives’. In consequence he had failed in his ‘duty of care’ to generations of worshippers, and in particular to those of limited mobility. But how to remedy these obvious faults? This is the theme of our tale.

In 1998 it was decided to clear the detritus from the south porch and install the church’s first usable lavatories. Suitable drainage ran adjacent to the porch, and it was a simple matter to bring water from another part of the site. Plans were drawn up and sent to all the relevant authorities by an eager architect. No one could have anticipated the titanic three-cornered struggle which was to ensue.

The three parties involved were the local authority in two of its many avatars, and English Heritage (with the Victorian Society dogging its every step). The problem can easily be explained. Current legislation requires, when alterations are made to a building which does not already comply with contemporary standards, that adequate fire exists are provided and lavatories installed with disabled access. There is also an obligation to conserve the original appearance of the building wherever possible and to the highest standards.

Now in the case of St Stephen’s anyone with a brain and a tape measure could see: (a) that the best place to install new lavatories was the south porch; (b) that the best place to secure an additional fire exit, whilst causing the least aesthetic damage to the building as a whole, was the south porch; (c) that the south porch could not contain both a disabled lavatory and a fire exit of the statutory size.

A choice had to be made: was an adequate fire exit more important than a disabled lavatory? To whose needs should the nanny state be the more attentive?

Even then, the conundrum was not as simple as it seemed. For, as I pointed out to both officials as they upheld their respective corners, the principal disability of the congregation of St Stephen’s (the very reason for the proposed changes) was a weak bladder. Abandoning the additional fire exit and the disabled facility would allow the provision of two lavatories in place of one, and satisfy, so to say, a felt need. My comment was treated by both parties with withering contempt.

When two irresistible forces meet one immoveable object it is not at all clear if anything is going to give. And so for some months it remained. The architect’s plans gathered dust on the shelf and the PCC stood impotently by while the guardians of the public good slogged it out. I was close to summoning a mediation when compromise was reached. Each protagonist had conceded a little. Neither the loo nor the fire exit would exactly meet requirements, but both, it was agreed, would be better than my own solution, which was to abandon the project altogether and continue with the status quo (which, whilst unsatisfactory, had at least the advantage of being legal). So we went ahead.

Despite the queues when, in traditional West Indian fashion, the bride is an hour late for her nuptials, the lavatory has proved a boon. We have never had cause to use the fire exit – and probably never will, now that smoking in church has been banned by a beneficent government – but it remains as a monument to a titanic struggle.

It struck me when the project was completed and had come in (as they do) considerably over budget, that the whole exercise had been a parable of our modern caring’, rights-based society. Rights and obligations have an annoying habit of clashing: a woman’s right to choose with a child’s right to life; the rights of the disabled with the obligation to preserve ancient buildings in their integrity; animal rights with the obligation to heal the sick and care for those in pain.

The way we live now, with its unreasonable penchant for a priori posturing has replaced common sense with unnecessary strife. It has fettered personal discretion. It has, in short, made it ever harder to get useful things done. \ND\