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Court approves sale of Lacock cup

11 January 2013

THE Consistory Court of the diocese of Bristol has granted a faculty that permits the sale of a rare silver cup that can no longer be used as a chalice or displayed in church owing to the prohibitive cost of insuring it ( News, 2 October 2009). The petitioners for the faculty were the Revd Sally Wheeler, former Team Vicar in the Greater Corsham and Lacock ministry, and two churchwardens.

Between 1400 and 1450, a silver cup was created for domestic use. Its precise movements are unknown, but between 1621 and 1636 it was given to St Cyriac's, Lacock, almost certainly by Sir Robert Baynard. The cup survived the destruction of church silverware in the 1540s, and was adopted during or after the Reformation for use in communion. It was, "with Protestant simplicity", commonly known as the Lacock cup.

The Victoria and Albert Museum's catalogue for its exhibition "Gothic: Art for England 1400-1547" des-cribed it as "one of the most beautiful pieces of medieval plate" in existence.

It was used as a chalice at St Cyriac's from the early part of the 17th century to about 1962, when it was loaned to the British Museum. It remained there, apart from unrecorded and periodic returns to the church at Easter and Christmas, up to about 1981, and a brief sojourn at the Victoria and Albert Museum. It was felt that the value of the cup, and the attendant cost of providing adequate security and insurance cover, precluded its return to St Cyriac's even for those few services.

The British Museum indicated that it would like to buy the cup for £1,300,000. Its estimated value under the Government indemnity scheme had risen to £2,200,000. The petitioners applied for a faculty for the cup to be sold and the proceeds invested in a charitable trust that would be made available to help fund the necessary repairs and maintenance to the fabric of the church.

They pointed out that the cup was covered for £2,200,000, and that that valuation rendered the cup liturgically redundant as there was no possibility of the parish's being able to meet any of the attendant security measures that would be attached to insurance premiums, in the event of the cup's being returned to them on a temporary or full-time basis.

The sole opponent to the petition was a former member of the PCC, Geoffrey Fox. He accused the petitioners of making efforts "to avoid finding out the true extent and nature of local feeling against" the sale of the cup, of having little or no "liturgical taste", and of regarding the cup as "an embarrassment".

The evidence from the insurers was that they preferred the cup not to be used or displayed at the church. If it were, they would only insure it if there were additional security measures, such as a "24-hour-manned alarmed glass display case"; but they were unable to guarantee that even that would be an acceptable alternative. The glass display case would cost at least £4000.

The petitioners asked the Chan-cellor to take a plain view of redundancy by using an interpretation analogous to employment law, and say that the cup was "excess to need and cannot be afforded". Mark Blackett-Ord, who represented the opponent, said that it was "difficult to see how a chalice can ever be redundant, save perhaps where the parish has other 'better' ones".

The Chancellor, Mr Justin Gau, said that in his judgment a "better" chalice than the cup was one that could actually be used liturgically rather than admired as an object of beauty or historical interest. He had formed that view on a reading of the Last Supper. Our Lord commanded, "Do this in memory of me," not "Admire this in memory of me."

The unique and exceptional circumstances were sufficient reason to justify the sale, the Chancellor ruled. The cup was liturgically redundant, and the cost of returning it to the parish would be prohibitive, bearing in mind the competing demands on the parish resources, which would be better used for the repair and restoration of the church.

It was accepted that there was a long and close connection between the cup and the parish, although it appeared to be a connection hitherto almost completely unknown to the majority of the residents of the village.

The Chancellor was satisfied that the identification of the village of Lacock, and the church of St Cyriac, as the provenance of the cup, would carry on as before, and there was no evidence that the museum would wish to alter that.

A condition of the faculty permitting the sale of the cup was that it was to be sold only to the British Museum. It was also directed that a photographic record of the cup was made, along with a short history; that it should be appropriately displayed; and that a copy of the cup was made for liturgical use at a cost not exceeding £5000.

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