Selling the family silver, 1920

Parish finances after the First World War, when  J.C. Pringle was the Rector, were shaky. The heating system needed repair, and electricity had not been installed. An anonymous donor offered to purchase some of the the parish's original communion plate, to be displayed at the London Musuem. This exchange of documents shows how things were done in those days: a series of 'gentlemen's agreements' (surnames only!) - there was no diocesan committee in those days; a free valuation by Christie's; and an impressively large hand-written faculty*, giving the diocesan Chancellor's consent to the sale of the plate and other items. The issue was sufficiently serious for the Chancellor's judgement (coupling two cases together, as you can see below) to feature in the official law reports. (In those days, ecclesiastical cases featured in the 'catch-all' Probate, Divorce and Admiralty Division volumes - known in the trade as 'wills, wives and wrecks'.) A textbook of the time, Cripps' Practical Treatise on the Law relating to the Church and Clergy (7th ed, 1921) comments that faculties for the disposal of church plate were rare (p431), and notes (p405) that The Times of 16 & 17 January 1920 reported that an incumbent had been deprived of his living for the conversion of church plate. No doubt sales without legal process did take place at that period.

There was, and remains, a strong presumption against disposing of silver which has a clear, historic connection with a parish and has been regularly used for worship, though the law was less clear then. In recent times there has been a spate of cases where parishes seek to dispose of unused historic plate, and the criteria of the 'Tredington judgement' (as developed by subsequent case law) are followed. The national church's policy on the sale of treasures is here.

* WHAT IS A FACULTY?  (the contemporary situation)

The Church of England operates its own system of planning consent, which means that for most purposes it is exempt from the secular system (though in some cases secular planning permission and/or listed building consent is also required). This is important, because alongside historic and aesthetic issues the church system is able to have regard for the needs of worship and mission, which are ignored by the secular planners. The church system is actually more rigorous, because it applies to all buildings, not just those that are listed, and also deals with contents as well as fabric. It is also, on the whole, better-informed. The government monitors the operation of the system.

When any work is proposed - repairs, alterations, demolition, disposal or introduction of contents - the parish applies for advice to the Diocesan Advisory Committee (which is made up of representatives and experts in various fields), providing full details of the work proposed, and also, if it is a listed building, a Statement of Significance - a document produced by the parish which sets out their understanding of the historical and social context of the church building -  and a Statement of Need, which gives reasons for why they wish to undertake the work. Where the building is listed, they must also consult with the amenity societies (English Heritage, the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, or the Georgian Group, Victorian Society, or Twentieth Century Society, as appropriate) and the local authority. Certain cases must also be referred to the national Church Buildings Council (formerly the Council for the Care of Churches), part of the Archbishops' Council. [The Rector is currently Vice-Chairman of this body.]

The DAC considers the proposal and issues a certificate, either recommending, not objecting to, or not recommending the work. (Since, as the name makes clear, this is advisory, a parish can proceed to apply for a faculty even if they do not recommend - though this may be unwise!) Public notices are then displayed, giving anyone who wishes to object the chance to do so.

The final decision is made by the Chancellor of the diocese, who is the Bishop's principal legal officer. He or she will take account of all the views expressed, but will make an independent decision. If there are objections, from any of the consultees or from other individuals, a consistory court may be held - either on the basis of the paperwork submitted, or (if it is a controversial matter) as a public hearing.

(1) from the Bishop [Winnington-Ingram] to the Rector [left]
(2) from Sir Lewis Dibdin to the Bishop [right]

(3) Valuation

Christie Manson & Wood
L. Hannen, C.B.E.
W. B. Anderson
Capt. V.C.W. Agnew

8, King Street,
St. James's Square, S. W. 1
Telephone Gerrard 5532.
Telegraphic Address: 'Christiart St James, London'

With Messrs. Christie Manson & Woods' respectful compliments.

no charge

June 2nd., 1920

The Vicar and Churchwardens of St. George's in the East


A pair of George II. flagons, with cylindrical bodies, dome tops and scroll handles, on spreading foot, and a pair of chalices and patens, en suite, each engraved, “St. George's in the East, Mr. Joseph Crowcher, Churchwarden 1729,” by Thomas Ffarer 1729.


(4) The Chancellor's judgement
As reported at [1920] P 97 - note his revealing verdict on the parish that the only ordinary English residents are those who could not get away


Ecclesiastical Law - Faculty - Faculty for sale of Church Plate - Jurisdiction - Discretion.

The Ordinary has, in the exercise of his discretion, jurisdiction in a cause of faculty promoted by the incumbent and churchwardens of a parish within his diocese to grant a faculty authorizing the sale of church plate belonging to the parish, but this jurisdiction should not be exercised without the greatest hesitation and caution and not so as to authorize any unrestricted sale or, in any case, unless the Ordinbary is satisfied that the financial position of the parish renders a sale necessary and that the uses of the plate for secular purposes is guarded against.

Where a faculty was granted for the sale of church plate in a case where, in the opinion of the Chancellor of the diocese of London, the straitened circumstances of a parish within the diocese justified a sale, the faculty was decreed on the condition that the destination of the plate should be specified and approved by the Ordinary before the plate was actually sold.
Suggestions as to church plate not in use being placed in a museum on loan from the parishioners and still remaining the property of the parish or being deposited in a treasury or museum to be established in the Cathedral of the diocese.

These were two separate causes of faculty promoted one on behalf of the vicar and churchwardens of the parish church of St. Mary, Northolt, and the other on behalf of the rector and churchwardens of St. George-in-the-East, both against parishioners of the same for the purpose of obtaining faculties authorizing the sale of church plate belonging to the respective parishes.

1920. Feb. 16.  On this day the suits were heard before the Chancellor of the diocese of London (Sir Alfred Bray Kempe, D.C.L.).

The faculties were moved by the Rev. Frederick W. Russell, vicar of St. Mary, Northolt, and by the Rev. John C. Pringle, rector of St George-in-the-East, who gave evidence in support of the grant of the proposed faculties. The description of the church plate proposed to be sold and the result of the evidence given by the vicar and the rector on other points appear from the judgement of the Court.
No appearance was entered for any opponent and the suits were undefended.
Cur. adv. vult.

1920. Feb. 25.  The Chancellor of the diocese of London delivered one judgement in both cases as follows:-

SIR ALFRED BRAY KEMPE.  In each of these cases application is made to the Court to decree the grant of a faculty authorizing the sale  of old Communion vessels belonging to the parishioners which have been in use in their churches. The parishioners in vestry have, in both cases, resolved to sell the plate if permitted to do so and no appearance has been entered to the grant of a faculty in either case. That the place could not be sold without the consent of the Ordinary expressed by a faculty is clear, and it is equally clear that with such consent the sale can properly take place. The law is thus stated in Prideaux's Churchwarden's Guide, 16th ed. (1895), pp. 333, 334: "As the churchwardens are a corporate body, and for the benefit of the parish, and not to the prejudice of it, they cannot dispose of any of the church goods without the consent of the parish and the licence of the Ordinary: not without the consent of the parish, because they are their goods, and not without the licence of the Ordinary, because they appertain to holy things, of which he hath the care and ordering; and, therefore, if the churchwardens would sell an old bell towards other repairs, or put off old Communion plate to buy new, or dispose of any other of the goods of the church, although to the use of the parish, they cannot do it without the consent of the parish and the licence of the Ordinary as aforesaid; and the disposal of any of the said goods without the consent of the parish is void in law." And the following passage in Phillimore's Ecclesiastical Law, 2nd ed., vol ii., p. 1420, namely, "A faculty may be granted to sell ornaments or utensils found to be unnecessary, as in the case of old bells when a new peal is set up, or the like" clearly asserts the jurisdction of the Ordinary in the matter.

But though the Ordinary thus has the jurisdiction to permit the sale of old Communion vessels, it is a jurisdiction which clearly ought not to be exercised without the greatest hesitation and caution. In the first place the Court should be satisfied that if the sale takes place the sacred vessels will be protected from profane or secular use. The principle that ornaments of the Church devoted to sacred uses should not be applied to other purposes is stated in a Constitution of Archbishop Edmund Rich made in the year 1236 which is to be found in Lyndwood's Provinciale at pp. 33, 34: "Panni Chrysmales non nisi in usum ornamentorum Ecclesiae convertantur: similiter alia ornamenta ecclesiae quae pontificalem accipiunt benedictionem nullo modo in prphanos usus depulentur;" which is thus translated in Johnson's Ecclesiastical Laws: "Let the Chrysoms be made use of, for the ornaments of the Church only: let the other ornaments of the Church which have been blest by the Bishop be applied to no common use." Modern religious feeling does not sanction a departure from this principles. The vessels which have been made use of for the administration of the Holy Communion should not be sold so that, for instance, they may become merely the ornament of a rich man's sideboard or table; and I am as at present advised not able to see any circumstances under which the Court would be justified in permitting the sale of such vessels without restrictions and could allow them to pass into the hands of a dealer for resale to an unknown purchaser. But even if there be no danger of the vessels being applied to secular uses, for example if they are to be sold for use in another church or for preservation in a museum, the fact, if it be so, that they have for a long period been associated with the worship of the Church or have been the gift of a pious donor who  could not have wished that his offering should be alienated from the church with which he desired to associate it can obviously not be ignored. Objects thus intimately connected with the history of a church clearly ought, if possible, to remain among its cherished possessions.

Such considerations would seem to afford reasons against the sale of Communion plate even in cases where owing to the circumstances, character or its great value and the difficulty of properly guarding it it has ceased to be used and is for safety locked away in a bank and has been replaced by more modern vessels. There would however in such a case be no reason why the objects should not be deposited on loan in a museum so that they still remain part of the property of the church. One might venture to suggest that the creation of a treasury or museum in connection with the Cathedral of the diocese, where such unused and vaulable ornaments should be open to inspection and properly guarded in the way they could not be if kept in the churches to which they belong, might be a desideratum.

Cases may no doubt arise where urgent necessity compels the parishioners to part with their property in such ornaments, and for this purpose to seek the leave of the Court to sell. In such cases the Ordinary, if satisfied that the necessity for the sale arises owing to some need directly connected with the church in which the vessels were used, and that the use of them for secular purposes is guarded against, may feel constrained to accept the plea of necessity as overriding the considerations which stand in the way of alienation. The question is whether such necessity exists in the cases now before me.

St. George-in-the-East.  Taking first the case of St. George-in-the-East, I can entertain no doubt after hearing the evidence of the rector that the circumstances are such that if in any case the sale of sacred vessels would be justifiable it would be so here. The financial position of the parish is as bad as it could be. It is in the neighbourhood of the London Docks, and there has been in recent years a very large encroachment of the Jewish population and of Irish Roman Catholics. The only ordinary English residents are those who could not get away. The direct result is that the actual expenses of maintaining the church cannot be met by collections and the deficit of the churchwardens' accounts for the last year has been 230l. The church urgently needs many repairs and there are three mission buildings all in bad repair. In one of these the water is coming through the roof. Another is flooded by sewage, and the cost of curing this would be so heavy that there is an impasse as to what could be done. The Archdeacon has obtained 350l. from the City Parochial Charities Fund, which would be payable if 560l. was spent within twelve months., 93l. has been raised and had been given by people who could not be asked again. The immediate purposes for which the money is desired are the repair of the heating apparatus of the church and the lighting of it by electric light. These are essential if a congregation is to be attracted.

The plate which it is desired to sell consists of two flagons, two chalices and two patens of solid silver, the date of which is about 1729, and two flagons, one chalice, and one dish of Stafford plate of date 1810. The Stafford plate was at one time lent to the parish of St. Matthew, a parish which had been carved out of St. George-in-the-East in 1852 and since reunited to it. There seems to be nothing to show that any of the plate was a gift. As to the value of it, it seems that a well-known firm of silversmiths has valued the silver vessels at 350l. if no restrictions were imposed as to the purchaser, but thought that the Sheffield plate was of no considerable value. The old silver vessels had not been used for a generation and were now lodged at a bank. The Sheffield plate had not been used for twenty years. The vessels now in use were two chalices, two patens and cruets of modern type.

In view of the financial straits of the parish, the petitioners thought they ought to ask permission to sell the plate without any restriction. In asking this the rector said that no one would be likely to buy it who would not be interested in it for its own sake - that it would not appeal to any one who was not interested in the history of the Church of England. This possibility does not appear to me to be sufficient to justify an unrestricted sale in view of the possibilities which exist as to its secular use.

The circustances of the parish to which I have alluded are, however, in my opinion, clearly such that the Court could not properly altogether refuse to grant the application of the parishioners for leave to sell the plate, and I am prepared to decree a faculty for that purpose, subject to the destination of the plate being specified and approved by the Chancellor of the diocese before the plate is actually sold.

St. Mary, Northolt.  In the case of St. Mary, Northolt, the Court is asked to sanction the sale of a silver chalice and paten which, by the silver mark, are of the date 1702. There is no name of any donor or inscription on either. They are not now in use. They have been replaced by a silver gilt chalice and paten. The grounds on which the sale was desired, as stated in the petition, is that money was needed to pay for repairing some thirtheenth-century windows in the church. This work has, however, already been done under the care of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, and the cost, 138l. 0s. 4d., has been paid partly by collections and donations amounting to 69l. 4s., and partly by an advance by the rector [ed: sic] which he hopes to have repaid at some time. It is not suggested that the benefice is a poor one. What is now asked is that the sale may be sanctioned in order to provide a fund, which would be invested, for repairing the church which is an old and very interesting one. It is said that at least 200l. is required for the repair of the roofs and porch; that Brasenose College, who are the patrons, as they own no property in the parish make no grants to it, and there are no means of raising this 200l. The population of the parish is an agricultural one. There are twenty houses in the village and others in outlying hamlets; none of these are big houses. The annual expenditure on the church is small - about 60l. -  which is just met by collections and donations. The lord of the manor has sold all his property in the parish and Lord Hillingsdon is about to do the same; and there will in the immediate future by a large number of new houses built to provide for an influx of factory operatives who cannot, it is suggested, be expected to feel any old ties with regard to the church.

It is clear here that no such urgent necessity exists as in the case of St. George-in-the-East. Moreover, I cannot assume that the incoming population will not take an interest in the old church which will be in their midst and will not be prepared to keep it in repair; not that the patrons could be wholly deaf to appeals which maintain the interesting building with which they are so closely associated; nor that others who care for the maintenance of our ecclesiastical and archæological treasures would refuse to assist. The rector himself stated in Court that the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings had recently sent him a donation.

Under these circumstances I can see no reason for sanctioning the dissociation from St. Mary's opf the sacred vessels which have been associated with it for over 200 years and have been out of use for only ten years. In answer to my question why they had been disused, the rector replied that he thought because it was considered that the chalice was too cumbersome for use in the parish church. "It was," he had previously said, "in the rather big cumbrous style of Queen Anne." But it had been in use for two hundred years and it is now proposed to sell it for use in some other church; I am unable to see that I can regard its disuse as arising from or being justified by its being unfit for use, or that the fact that these vessels form a part of the history of their church cannot be kept before the parish - as it should be - if in no other way by their occasional use on festivals. I am not prepared to decree the grant of a faculty in such a case as this.
C.F. J.

(5) Faculty [left]  and (6) note by Rector [right]
note added to the papers by J.C. Pringle, Rector, 5th July 1920:  
The anonymous donor approved by the Chancellor added 10% to this and send a cheque for £181-10-0 which was at once paid into the Parochial account.
See here for magazine reports on parish finance later in the decade.

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