Page 5, 4th July 1997

4th July 1997
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Page 5, 4th July 1997 — Can we save the Church's jewel?
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Can we save the Church's jewel?

Last Tuesday, a delegation went to see Cardinal Hume in a bid to save the Catholic Central Library from imminent closure. Long-time user ARTHUR WELLS explains why loyal subscribers are unhappy ON SUNDAY evening, following increasing pressure which culminated in an unflattering article in a Sunday newspaper, Cardinal Hume reportedly gave supporters of the Catholic Central Library three months to avert closure and come up with an alternative plan of action. On Tuesday night, he received a delegation. This last-minute concession delighted supporters of the library, who feel they had not been properly consulted. It also follows an intense period during which doom has hung over the future of the library.

Few doubt the worth of the library, which has been in Westminster since 1959. It has constantly been called the "jewel in the Church's crown" and holds first editions of many truly great Catholic writers, including Hilaire Belloc, Fr Ronald Knox, G.K. Chesterton and Evelyn Waugh.

Little surprise, therefore, that the eminent Catholic peer David Alton, the former Liberal MP, described the putative loss of the library as "an unmitigated tragedy" and an act of "criminal folly".

The story is very complicated. In his letter to the Ephesians, St Paul writes: "Let us, do truth in love." Recent events surrounding the threatened closure of the Catholic Central Library, make it very easy to "do truth" with simple facts. To do it with "love", however, is much harder.

The closure has been under official discussion privately in Westminster for many months. But by the end of May, having failed to get acceptance of transfer as a going concern, the

Franciscan Friars of the Atonement were forced to notify closure on 1 July. The Friars who have not only run the library, but also financed it for almost 40 years, find themselves no longer able to do so.

Whatever happens, we owe them a huge debt of gratitude; with hindsight, it is clear that we have taken them for granted.

However as the Cardinal's intervention demonstrates the apparent fait accompli notified at the very last minute to subscribers need not be the last word. If good sense and goodwill prevail and if "Collaborative Ministry" means anything, alternative measures may yet be possible.

Reviewing the bones of the matter, it would be instructive to display the whole skeleton — and the word is used advisedly.

Five issues must be mentioned: the first, critically, that the whole decision-making has been done without consultation.

Then the "solution" involves less accessible relocation, dispersal of books, restriction of membership; a halving of the loan time and the phasing out of the immensely valuable countrywide postal service. The steep increase in charges is no problem for some, because charges have been so low, but poorer people including students are likely to feel the pinch. Only now is the full extent of the Friars' subsidy becoming apparent. The disaster is that there will be no more open access to the public.

To underline the extent of the potential loss, formerly anyone could join. The service was friendly, in a charming building close to Westminstrer Cathedral, and the transport hub of Victoria. The new location might be Heythrop College, in a less accessible part of London Kensington.

TaiIS IS NOT the worse, as chilling extracts from the notification demonstrate; "...loans during term...limited to two weeks ..."; "postal loans remain in existence for a limited time and "not intending to take on borrowers beyonds those already on the CCL list...". That approaches complete closure; so much for an educated laity.

If the restatement of some Church social teaching, The Common Good , was deserving of attention by the Bishops' Conference in 1996 as "the Church's best-kept secret", the "secrecy" for more than a century raises questions.

The Catholic Central Library (CCL) has some claim to be such another "best-kept secret" although now we see that it is not equally deserving of attendon.

But until the bombshell advising closure, the CCL seemed part of the Church's natural order. The lack of consultation on the issue is an unhappy circumstance. Collaborative ministry, subsidiarity, adult education all the things said to be necessary for the laity to be a leaven in society and to which a library is fundamental, are overlooked when a concrete situation arises.

Newman stressed the significance of the people in the Church and in their educated formation.

Even before Rerum Novarum, the foundation for the recent Common Good, Pope Leo XIII published Sapientiae Christianae ("On the chief duties of Christians as citizens") and also stressed the Christian education of the people. The library "solution" handed down is so unsatisfactory that it cannot be taken as final.

What are the possibilities for a genuine rescue? In secular terms good! On inquiring, it appeared that nothing at any time seemed to rule out the purchase and retention of the present site, which subject to a feasibility study is one obvious solution. What sort of action should be taken?

It surely is not too late to take parallel action to a) circularise "stakeholders" about setting up a trust and appeal; b) appoint within days a small feasibility team; c) review the possibility of contributions from all diocesan assets; d) request the Friars for breathing space, with compensation to them if needed. Naturally, all this must have support from the Bishops' Conference.

It is understood that a sum of between £2 million and £3 million would cover site purchase and provide investment for operation. That is small beer if considered nationally.

There are parishes in the South where assets exist which could easily raise the sum required. Appeals succeed if they are tackled positively. A case in point was "Voice of the Cathedral", launched by Cardinal Hume to save the cathedral choir.

But after the lack of consultation, there is a further positive factor, perhaps as important as any. The library could be a means to unity. Ecumenism will limp without mutually informed discussion at the grass roots.

For the sake of unity therefore, let us encourage second thoughts, make the effort to buy and expand the library and offer its use ecumenically.

Then in a symbolic joint service, it might be re-christened "The Christian Central Library".

It is time we took a concrete initiative to put practical flesh on the unity principle "that we do nothing apart that can reasonably be done together".

There is no equivalence between what we had and the several steps backward now offered; they approach outright closure.

"Doing the truth" in a sophisticated society needs forward vision and education. The loss of the library will be a loss to both.




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