A phrase written in Irish on a memorial has sparked debate in the Church of England.

The controversy began when Stephen Eyre QC, chancellor of the consistory court in the diocese of Coventry, ruled the words could not be included on the gravestone because they might provoke political “passions”.

However, that decision has been accused of encouraging prejudice and anti-Irish sentiment and an appeal has now been launched.

After Margaret Keane died aged 73 in 2018, her family sought permission for an inscription on her gravestone at St Giles church, in Exhall, near Nuneaton.

Her family wanted a memorial comprising a Celtic cross bearing the words “In ár gcroíthe go deo” (“in our hearts for ever”), The Guardian reports. The diocesan advisory committee, however, withheld its approval because of the size of the cross and the application was referred to the diocesan consistory court.

In his ruling, Mr Eyre concluded: “Given the passions and feelings connected with the use of Irish Gaelic there is a sad risk that the phrase would be regarded as some form of slogan or that its inclusion without translation would of itself be seen as a political statement.

“That is not appropriate and it follows that the phrase ‘In ár gcroíthe go deo’ must be accompanied by a translation which can be in a smaller font size.”

Senior Anglican figures have expressed their surprise at the decision, however. The bishop of Coventry, Christopher Cocksworth, said: “I am deeply saddened whenever people’s identity is hurt or offended… I am praying for this particular situation, especially for a distressed family, and I am ensuring they are made aware of their legal rights according to the procedures of the consistory court.”

Writing on a blog, Caoilfhionn Gallagher QC, who will represent the family at the appeal, commented: “What is the evidence base for assuming there to be such anti-Irish sentiment amongst those who walk in Coventry graveyards? And if there is such prejudice, why pander to it and deny a perfectly reasonable request from a grieving family?”

Ms Gallagher also noted that the epitaph on comedian Spike Milligan’s headstone in St Thomas’ church graveyard in Winchelsea, East Sussex reads: “Dúirt mé leat go raibh mé breoite” (“I told you I was ill”).

She commented: “It is in Irish precisely because the diocese of Chichester did not consider his chosen epitaph appropriate for a churchyard, and an Irish translation was the compromise reached by the family with the diocese.”