CHURCH treasure that had been donated by benefactors throughout the centuries might be sold only in the most exceptional circumstances, if it could be shown by the church that it had a financial emergency, and that there was a convincing case that demonstrated that the good arising from the sale would outweigh the harm that it would do. The sale of church treasure should not represent an easier way of raising money when the money could, in fact, be raised by other means.
The Consistory Court of the diocese of Norwich refused to grant a faculty to permit the disposal of items of Georgian silver which St Cuthbert’s, Thetford, had received from the churches of St Peter’s and St Mary the Less near by, which had closed.
The petitioners for the faculty were two members of the PCC, and a churchwarden of St Cuthbert’s. The PCC stated that the silver was not required at St Cuthbert’s, and that the money raised from the sale would be put towards completing the installation of energy-efficient LED lights in the north and south aisles of the nave. The Church Buildings Council (CBC) did not become a party opponent to the petition, but it objected to the sale and asked the court to take its views into account.
The Chancellor, the Worshipful David Etherington QC, said that there were reasonable arguments for saying that a church was not a museum, and that its primary purpose was as a place of worship and a focal point for mission, and that that view was buttressed by the tenets of the Christian faith.
An alternative and equally reasonable argument was that these special items were part of our history, and often came to the church as gifts or bequests that were given in love by people who had a particular association with the church, and were received by that church on the express or implied understanding that it would hold and preserve the items in perpetuity (force majeure excepting). It was pointed out that these artefacts, besides having a value in themselves, were also part of our national and local history and heritage.
The items in question were of sterling silver, and were now in storage at Norwich Cathedral’s treasury, and at Norwich Castle Museum. They consisted of a George III five-piece communion set; a George III flagon; a George III alms dish, with an inscription showing it to be a gift from the tenth Baron Petre to St Peter’s, in 1791; and a George II communion cup and cover.
Although the expression “church treasure” is not tightly defined, the Chancellor judged that these items were church treasure, “albeit relatively modest in comparison with some treasures”. They had been “made by known silversmiths of an important period for silver, and were not simply for functional purposes but as beautiful things for use in a building dedicated to God”.
The petitioners were asked by the Chancellor to contact the nearest living descendants of the donors. The present Lord Petre did not object to the proposed sale. Robert Mingay, the descendant of the 1786 donor James Mingay, asked whether he could purchase the silver that his ancestor had donated.
The CBC’s policy was that church treasures belonged in churches, and should be sold only in the most exceptional circumstance. It was given to the parish to protect and care for — not only for the present generation, but also for future ones.
The Chancellor said that if he granted the faculty, he would almost certainly be authorising the total separation of this silver from any church in Thetford, as well as Thetford itself. The silver did have a significance for Thetford and the history of its churches. The petitioners had not set out any particular financial emergency that they were facing, nor had they said why they could not raise the money that they needed for the lighting by other means.
The silver was being safely stored, and there was no pressing need to remove it from storage. The Chancellor agreed with the CBC’s views. The sale of the silver would not even pay for the completion of the lighting project, but would be a contribution to it. The Chancellor was “concerned” that this was “a case of wanting to use the financial worth of this silver for ‘something’ rather than any compelling financial need that demands the sacrifice of a church treasure”.
The Chancellor stated that when a suggestion was made that a particular church took treasure from another church that was closing, it should be made clear to the receiving church that, if it agreed to do that, it then became the custodian of that treasure, and there would be significant limitations on its ability to dispose of the treasure if it wished to do so in the future.
The petitioners had not established a case for the sale of this Georgian silver at this point in time, and the faculty was refused. But it was made clear that the petitioners had acted with the best of intentions throughout.