I was appalled by the recent sale of the St Cuthbert Gospel to the British Library by the Jesuits for £9 millions – and the way it was reported. The Jesuits, we were told, needed the money to fund education projects and the restoration of an historic church. One Father Fox of the Jesuits said – at the least disingenuously – that “People will be able to see the Gospel set among the library’s other treasures of the Christian faith and of Anglo-Saxon and Celtic art”. (catholicherald.co.uk) This sale was morally wrong, and the Jesuits should be heartily ashamed of themselves.
The Cuthbert Gospel is a national treasure – a book that’s a core part of our English heritage. That’s the reason that it could be so expensive. The Jesuits had the BL over a barrel, for they knew that a massive attempt would be made to stop the book leaving the country, or even leaving public possession: they could demand what price they liked. We must remember that many of us will in some way be affected by this. In this case, the money was raised through the National Heritage Memorial Fund and other foundations and trusts, rather than a body funded by public taxation. However, this money could have been used to ensure the upkeep, for example, of various Grade I churches throughout the country – also important parts of our Christian heritage: far more so than the church which the Jesuits claim to be ‘historic’, which is, in fact, part of a private, fee-paying school (Stonyhurst).
The Jesuits’ raison d’etre is religious instruction and education. What better contribution to Christian teaching could they make than to ensure that one of the most important native biblical works was publicly accessible, both by being on display and by having lovely BL-type-projects as ‘turning the page’ or other digitisations? For Father Fox to imply that now the BL could display the book is a lie: it has already been much displayed. Is lying not a sin any more?
The Gospel had been on loan to the BL for 32 years. At no point did the BL demand any money of the Jesuits for keeping their book safe, well-conserved, insured etc. etc. I’m not suggesting that the bill would have come anywhere near £9m, but it would have come to thousands, at least. As a matter of principle, it would be lovely to see the BL present the Jesuits with a bill.
The Cuthbert Gospel came into Jesuit hands by a gift from a private owner. How niggardly of the Jesuits to demand a fortune for its restoration (admittedly after many hundreds of years) to public ownership. So much for Christian charity.
But they are not the only people to benefit from the sale of a gift. A recent programme on Radio 4 discussed the original manuscript of Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra (Tales from the Stave, 15th May). The fair copy given to Boosey & Hawkes was auctioned by that firm in aid of Britten’s foundation at Aldeburgh, and is now in a library in the US. The first MS, however, Britten gave to his secretary, Enid Vandyk. She, honoured by the gift, kept it safely enough, in a trunk which she and her daughter rediscovered last year. They put the MS up for sale, with a guide price of £40-60,000. It actually sold for over £200,000 – to a foreign buyer. The Culture Ministry slapped an export ban on it (quite properly), and the dear old British Library stumped up the cash. I am not going to remonstrate them for selling the MS, although I’d have given it to a public body, or even auctioned it in aid of a music body. However, they could have got an estimate from Sotheby’s and then sold it directly to the BL for half of what the BL had in the end to pay.
What is so sad about both cases (apart from the colossal sums of public money involved) is that none of the reporting so much as suggested what a shame it is when private greed gets the better of public good. Instead, there seems to be some sort of misplaced gratitude that they’ve let us pay them for what should be public property.