Sunday, 6 September 2009

Exchanged silver

Awareness of the importance of sharing the common cup at Communion has been highlighted by a brief period when we have not been doing so, just as any fasting puts our usual consumption or usage into perspective. National guidance suggested that abstaining was a helpful precaution against the spread of dangerous flu strains, and we complied, although it felt like going against the very grain of being an Anglican, and although the danger seemed overblown.

On one chalice-less Sunday, I dug out St Michael’s oldest chalice to show the congregation. It dates from about 1625. It is rarely used because it is narrow and deep, designed for a small number of communicants to take it in their own hands and take a good swig, but something of a liability when trying to administer sips. Many had never seen it, and few knew the striking piece of history of which it is part.

It is fashioned from the church’s pre-Reformation plate. Beginning in 1558 and continuing for some 75 years (Lincolnshire looks like having been at the back of the queue), Churchwardens would ‘exchange’ silver which couldn’t be used, perhaps because the chalice was tiny and intended for a priest to use alone, or perhaps because it was engraved with Catholic symbols. A silversmith would use the old to make the new. We know which Hull silversmith (Robert Robinson) recast our chalice late in the reign of James I or early in the reign of Charles I.

Many pre-Reformation patens would have an image of Christ’s face in the middle. This middle part would therefore be cut out and probably melted down to add to the rest of the new chalice. The remainder would be fashioned into the foot of the new chalice, a heavy base being needed for stability. It is this which the picture shows (the chalice is upside down); I have no idea how far back my pre-Reformation predecessors would have been using this small plate for the Host at Mass, but I’m always awestruck both that they should have done so and that it should survive in this mutilated form.

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