“Selling the family silver”?: Re St Mary and All Saints Willingham

The Fenland village of Willingham owes its exceptionally interesting church partly to its location on a medieval processional route ran from Cambridge to the cathedral at Ely, whose bishop was a landowner and had a manor here“.

National Churches Trust

The consistory court of the diocese of Ely considered the church’s petition for authority to dispose of by sale a 16th century chalice and paten by a known Cambridge Silversmith, Thomas Buttelland, and a 17th century paten, Re St Mary and All Saints Willingham [2023] ECC Ely 4; these had been valued at £18,500, £8,500 and £5,500 respectively. Importantly in the context of this case, the Communion cup carried the inscription “For the town of Willingham” and the 17th century silver-footed Paten was engraved “Winelingham: Parish”. In neither case was there an indication of a donor [1,2].

Financial Need

The reasons given for the proposed sale were: the items were not used on account of “health and safety”[1] and security issues; and the church could not afford to insure the items to their full value. These are currently stored at a local bank at the cost of £750 per year. The Petitioners indicated that there were exceptional circumstances for seeking disposal – principally, inability to pay the parish share, and the quinquennial report indicating that £80,000 needed to be spent on repairs.

The Team Rector of the 5folds village churches wrote to the DAC to explain the church’s strategy which is that they need to grow the church for a greater number of parishioners to share the financial burden. Because this will take time, the proposed sale of the silver is “…a short term fix for a long term problem…”, but gives the church a year or two for the strategy to bear fruit [7].

Having studied the Quinquennial Inspection Report (May 2021), Leonard Ch. noted that “the itemised figures for repairs required to be undertaken within five years come to in the region of £80,000 and are likely to be far higher than that. The chancel roof is failing and complete replacement is said to be required within five to ten years. There will be other work to be done in the future to maintain the building” [9].


The DAC was of the opinion is that the short-term financial gain from selling these items did not justify the disposal of historical assets which have been in use in this church since the 16th century (but not recently) [10]. Although not a Party Opponent, the Church Buildings Council (CBC) objected to the sale, submitting that the significance of the plate to the people of Willingham is made explicit by the engraving around the bowl of the cup [11].

Referring to its guidance A brief guide to disposals and loans, (March 2021), the CBC stressed its “clear policy”  was that financial need, falling short of an emergency, should be weighed with other factors to justify sale, but does not on its own outweigh the strong presumption against sale. They should only be removed in the most exceptional circumstances”…”the silverware belongs to the parish as a whole and is not solely the property of the PCC” [12 and 13], note [2].

The acting churchwarden gave further background, explaining that the three items had been stored for many years in the church safe [15], but are now held in a safe deposit box at a local bank at an annual cost of £750 [17]; The chalice had not been in use for many years because of its fragility, the loss of a lid and its shape. It was in a post-Covid review that they learnt of the value of the three items [16]. The petitioners also suggested that the appointment of a successor to the Team Vicar might not be possible on account of the non-payment of parish share [19].


The Chancellor stated that the CBC was supported in the views it expressed by the decision In Re St Lawrence Oakley with Wootton St Lawrence [2014] Court of Arches (14 April 2014); this is reviewed in our case note, Sale of Church Treasures  (21 April 2014) [20].

The Arches Court determined that there were three categories of disposal:

  • where the item is placed on long term loan;
  • where the item is to be sold to a museum, art gallery or diocesan treasury; and
  • where the item is to be sold regardless of who the purchaser is.

The first two categories safeguard the security and, to some extent, the visibility of the article, whereas ownership and any form of control is lost on sale. With one exception – Re St Martin-in-the-Fields (unreported, 31 October 1972) – decisions have generally recognised that the interests of public visibility should normally prevail, when the court is considering proposed disposal by sale of articles of local or national distinction (§37 and §51).

The Arches Court also considered the issue whether “separation”, that is where the article(s) had been removed from the church, by way of example for safekeeping, might affect the decision whether to allow sale, and stated:

“In our view, in the case of historic articles with a significant past connection with a church or parish, this factor will commonly outweigh any possible argument based on ‘separation’. For the future we consider that little weight should normally attach to ‘separation’ as a reason for disposal by sale, and we doubt that ‘separation’ would ever, on its own, have sufficient strength to justify sale of a Church treasure…” (§59).

Leonard Ch. indicated that he was greatly assisted by Philip Petchey’s Hidden Treasure: the Church of England’s stewardship of its silver plate [Petchey, P. (2018). Hidden Treasure: The Church of England’s Stewardship of Its Silver Plate. Ecclesiastical Law Journal, 20(1), 16-50]. This looks at the cases which preceded St Lawrence Wootton, and casts some doubt on the correctness of some of those decisions (§103 to §105), and provides an inciteful summary of the Court’s conclusions [26]. In particular,

“[§103]. …It may be argued that the establishment (or re-establishment) of a strong presumption against a sale is not altogether helpful, because it is difficult to know what weight properly attaches to such a presumption. The best way of appreciating the weight is that it is intended…that sales will rarely be permitted. On this basis, the strength of the presumption is perhaps clear enough. Thus, the need to overcome a strong presumption against sale is likely to operate as a strong disincentive to a parish seeking to sell any silver it may possess. … “

The Chancellor also commented on the funding issues discussed in §105 and said “[w]hilst the ability of a church to obtain lottery funding may not be as easy now as it might have been when he wrote this article, the principles he suggests remain relevant” [27].


The Chancellor stated that he must follow the guidance provided by the Arches Court in Re St Lawrence Wootton: the three items are historic items with a significant connection to the church and village where they have been kept for up to 500 years. The donor through the inscription on 16th the century chalice made that clear as did the donor of the 17th Century paten.

“[30]. An – at present – temporary inability to pay the parish share and the prospect of the cost of carrying out repairs required and anticipated in light of the Quinquennial Inspection Report do not amount to financial emergency. There are other ways of resolving the financial situation which the church finds itself in without resorting to the sale of these items. They include further discussions with the diocese as to the size of the parish share, the need to move forward with the appointment of a team vicar[3], and the steps that have been taken, and can continue to be taken whether priest or laity led to grow the church and to find further charitable funds which can be used to pay for work to be done on the church [4]. This has already produced one source of funds”.

The Chancellor expressed his concern at the cost of storage in the local bank and suggested a number of alternative less expensive options [32]. He concluded:

“[33]. It follows that I will not issue a faculty to provide, as the petitioners describe it, a short term fix by their disposal.

However,  in a postscript, he indicated that this his decision did not prevent a further application being made it the petitioners exhaust all reasonable avenues to improve their finances and if the growth of the church further reverses [34]. Before making such an application, the PCC may wish to obtain an auction valuation in addition to a valuation from a silversmith, noting the auction valuation obtained in St Lawrence Wootton was substantially below the valuation they had obtained for the Armet but which was close to the sale price. [35].

[1]. Although paragraph [16] refers to a “post COVID review”, “the health and safety” aspect does not seem to be consistent with the absence from use of the chalice which had not been in use for many years “because of its fragility, the loss of a lid and its shape”.

[2]. The property in the plate, ornaments, and other movable goods of the church is vested in the churchwardens, Canon E1(5). Given their intended use, the communion cup and patens would be considered as “ornaments”.

[3]. The judgment is dated 26 July 2023; the Bishop appointed an interim Team Leader for the 5folds village churches from 17 July 2023 to 6 January 2024 to cover the departure of the Team Vicar, and the continued phased return to work of Team Rector.

[4]. In 2009, the church had received a Repair Grant from the Churches Trust to the value of £10,000.

Cite this article as: David Pocklington, "“Selling the family silver”?: Re St Mary and All Saints Willingham" in Law & Religion UK, 3 August 2023, https://lawandreligionuk.com/2023/08/03/selling-the-family-silver-re-st-mary-and-all-saints-willingham/


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