Heritage United Kingdom

Sharing the baby is a good judgement call

The St Cuthbert Gospel's joint custody agreement is a small contribution to making the world a safer, more civilised place

St Cuthbert's Gospel is a miracle of survival

When Solomon displayed his famous judgment in a sharing arrangement that would have led to the baby’s death, it seems he did not have the modern option of joint custody. This, however, is what has been deployed to solve the problem of the competing claims for the St Cuthbert Gospel. Like many a custody arrangement, it will not be without pain, as each parent organisation will feel that the precious one really belongs with them.

The agreement, and the regular movement of the gospel between Durham Cathedral and the British Library, raises many interesting issues—how to weigh the claim of the metropolitan centre, with its global traffic of tourists and scholars, to possess the greatest treasures on the grounds that they are of more than “regional” importance against the claims of a local and religious identity which, unusually, can claim genuine continuity over more than 1,000 years?

This is a better result for Cuthbert than the last time he went head to head with the southeast, when he lost out to Thomas Becket as England’s most popular saint. But perhaps the most interesting issues raised by the custody arrangement relate to the encounter between religious and secular values.

In the past 20 years, the “return of religion” has been a major feature of society, as predictions that secularisation was an inevitable consequence of modernisation turned out to be untrue. Even in Britain, which remains one of the most secular societies in the world, religion has re-entered the public domain, and it has become ever more apparent that America was only ever secular in coastal pockets.

That this came as a surprise to many is evident from the backlash among “new atheists” like Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett, for whom human spirituality is at best a neurological quirk or an evolutionarily efficient form of self-delusion, and at worst the root of all evil. The Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor argues that this dichotomy misses the point. Secularism arises from a theological society and bears its marks indelibly—thus the new atheists respond to threats to their worldview with an anxious, evangelical fervour.

For some museums, the return of religion has led to a re-evaluation of their collections, a very high percentage of which are religious or spiritual in nature. A historical understanding of objects, even if they have been transmuted into “art” or “material culture”, has to acknowledge that for the great majority of human history, religion has been the main medium through which people found meaning in life.

Disputes about housing religious objects in museums are not new, nor are they a simple matter of secular Enlightenment versus irrational belief, as some maintain. The leading French art theorist of both the revolutionary and Napoleonic periods, Quatremère de Quincy (1755-1849), objected to the removal of art from churches to museums (the Louvre in particular) as the loss of context meant a loss of meaning.

The return of religion in museums led, for example, to the National Gallery’s “Seeing Salvation” in 2000, which was an unexpected hit, attracting more than 350,000 visitors. The exhibition’s charisma lay in its presentation of the works not by art historical period, but as a narrative of the life of Christ.

The Victoria and Albert Museum consulted Christians about the labels in its medieval gallery in order to get the nuances of the beliefs right (for which it was criticised by secularists), although here and in its Islamic art gallery, it notably avoided trying to evoke the spiritual world of those cultures. The British Museum sells a guidebook themed on the religions represented in the collections, as a religious overlay on secular displays, with little sense that this is antagonistic to their Enlightenment origins and ethos.

Glasgow was an early entrant in the field, opening a museum of world religions in 1993, which attracts around 230,000 visitors a year. However, most museums remain tentative about religion, shown by the fact that St Mungo’s—named after a near contemporary of St Cuthbert—is the only one of its kind in the UK, and one of only five or six in the world.

So what difference does it make to see a gospel in a library or a cathedral? The British Library's website promises that the book will be displayed in a “range of fascinating contexts” which include “other bibles, decorative bindings, and manuscripts connected with the north east”.

For a library in possession of the oldest European book—whose text begins "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God”, which was owned by a saint who helped to define a region’s identity over 1,000 years, who was known because of his miracles as the "Wonder Worker of Britain", who enacted what are probably the first bird protection laws in history (for Eider ducks), and who was buried in vestments showing the nature goddess—this seems an unambitious definition of “fascinating”.

But perhaps the British Library is not doing itself justice; its atmospheric 2007 exhibition “Sacred: Discover What We Share” enabled visitors to respond in aesthetic, historical or spiritual terms.

Durham Cathedral may have an easier job in terms of providing a context, representing the place where Cuthbert lived, within a building that espouses a descendent of the faith he did so much to promote. It is also perhaps the Christian church in the UK that has done most to maintain religious art as a living tradition, having hosted artists' residencies annually since 1983 and commissioned numerous new works, most famously Bill Viola’s The Messenger.

But perhaps there are additional opportunities to be found in the regular passage of the gospel back and forth between a library and a cathedral. Ronald Grimes, an American scholar of ritual, has suggested that the best way to think about religious objects in museums is as ambassadors of their culture. The St Cuthbert Gospel is, like all ambassadors, to some extent an exile, sacrificing belonging in order to represent his culture to strangers. Many exiles fulfil their dream of returning home only to find that it no longer exists in the way they remember. Others learn that, after exile, “home” becomes multiple and they negotiate between apparently contradictory cultures.

The Gospel’s “life experience” includes hundreds of years in St Cuthbert’s coffin before being exhumed; being deployed in the creation of the medieval equivalent of an iconic tourist attraction with economic and political objectives; being rescued during the dissolution of the monasteries; passing through the hands of private collectors; being looked after for 250 years by the Jesuits, the vanguard of the Counter-Reformation; and, most recently, being on public display in one of the world’s great libraries.

The book can be seen as a witness to all of these events, through the eyes of medieval Christianity—and the Gospel According To John—in a series of fascinating cultural encounters, including that with our own (somewhat) secular age. In a world of turbulent change, the book, in both the secular and religious domains, is a miracle of survival.

The fundamental (and I use the term advisedly) challenge of modern society is how people deal not just with cultural differences, but with worldviews that are incompatible to the extent that they seem life-threatening—and require life-taking. Without over-estimating the impact that preserving historic objects can have, this joint custody agreement is a small contribution to making the world a safer, more civilised place.

The writer is director of policy and research, Glasgow Life (which includes Glasgow Museums)

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