Ritual Britain: Rector keeps door firmly closed in row over spinster's mausoleum: A clergyman's decision to ban the public from a bizarre graveyard ritual has upset cult followers. Marianne Macdonald reports

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The Independent Online
THERE ARE numerous sermons, founded centuries ago, marking providential escapes from wild beasts or attacking iniquitous vices, that are still preached today in modified form.

Mary Gibson's sermon is one of them, although her motivation was more pragmatic. She gave a pounds 500 bequest to Christ's Hospital School, now in Horsham, West Sussex, on condition that it lectured on her family history and inspected the interior of her vault every 12 August, carrying out necessary repairs. The spinster, about whom little is known (except that she ordered the horses that bore her coffin to the graveyard be shot), died aged 62 in 1793. Yesterday was the 200th anniversary of the annual inspection of her tomb in St Nicholas's churchyard, Sutton, Surrey. It also commemorated a squabble between Miss Gibson's fan club and the church's progressive forces.

Five years ago, the Rev David Hazlehurst, rector of St Nicholas's, decreed that the public could no longer accompany him, his wardens and any Christ's Hospital representatives into the gloomy 18th-century vault.

He advanced several reasons for the ban: that questions had been asked about the pagan style of the ceremony; that it was not in keeping with the living church; that Mary Gibson would not have liked it; and that it was not good for the church to be 'involved in anything which can seem queer'.

But his arguments failed to satisfy the Gibson camp which is outraged. They appealed to the Folklore Society, to experts on British burial, and finally to the Archbishop of Canterbury. To no avail. Mr Hazelhurst continued to exclude the public.

The torch-bearer for the Mary Gibson fan club is Millicent Hamilton Bradbury, 79, an amateur historian from Hammersmith, west London, who has spent 15 years researching the family's obscure history. 'We were very grieved,' she said.

Mr Hazlehurst is unrepentant. 'We had comments from people saying if we believed in the resurrection it seemed rather funny we were paying so much attention to these coffins in the tomb. The way crowds of people came with children to look at the coffins was rather macabre, and didn't speak to the living faith.'

However, a ray of hope has appeared for Mrs Hamilton Bradbury with the news that Mr Hazlehurst is leaving. 'You can imagine,' she confided gleefully, 'we shall be getting on to the next rector at once]'

(Photograph omitted)