Britain’s Faith Museum And 6,000 Years Of History: Renaissance Amid The Coal Mines



Philanthropist and art collector Jonathan Ruffer (Photo courtesy of Flint Culture)

Spiritual revolutions tend to happen in out of the way places. Think Columba on Iona or Aidan on Lindisfarne. Can anything good come out of Nazareth?

The same question could be addressed to Bishop Auckland in the county of Durham, England’s toughest northeast corner. Once the seat of the “second kings” of England, the mighty prince bishops who kept the Picts at bay, it is now a sad town of gutted shops, boarded up hotels and twice the level of benefits claimants as the rest of the country. 

Though the pits were once the source of 80% of the coal that powered the Industrial Revolution, nothing remains of them but memories. 

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“I thought Northumberland has a character. Yorkshire has a character. But Durham? Nothing.” said financier Jonathan Ruffer, speaking to me at home in the historic gatehouse of the former Bishops’ Palace. 

He found himself, to his surprise, not just living there but spending a third of his considerable fortune on its regeneration. His Wikipedia entry says that from a net worth high of £380 million ($474 million) in 2014 from his investment company, Ruffer Investment Management, he is now down to “just” £160 million ($198 million). The Auckland Project — including art purchases and a huge building and restoration program of museums, galleries, a hotel and even a railway line — has soaked up the difference.

A strange epiphany changed his life in March 2010, at the end of an eight-day Ignatian retreat at St. Beuno’s in North Wales, the former base for the Jesuit mission in England where the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins trained for the priesthood.

Burdened by what he describes as the “poison” of unspent wealth, he asked in his prayers: “Who is for the little man?”

A dangerous question. The answer, he said, came to him “like a command”: “You are.” 

“I knew I had to come up to the northeast,” he said, referring to the area he was raised. “It was Abrahamic. I was commanded to go on a journey but not vouchsafed a destination. I had no idea where I was going.”

His original intention had been to “be the patron saint of the soup ladle,” and he duly found himself running the famous Mayflower Family Centre for delinquent boys in the capital’s deprived East End in Newham. But his “complete impracticality” proved a handicap.

Instead, he ended up doing an extraordinary thing — rescuing in 2013 a remarkable series of 12 paintings by Spanish master Francisco de Zurbaran, housed in the dining room of the Bishop’s Palace at Bishop Auckland. The church commissioners had wanted to sell the paintings — likely it would have been to a foreign buyer — in order to raise money for their social work. Howls of protest went up around Britain’s art world. Jonathan offered £15 million ($18.5 million) for them without even seeing them.

The paintings are monumental and imaginative portraits of Jacob and his sons: 12 patriarchs of the Jewish and Christian faiths, all in exotic 17th century garb and with the insignia of their Biblical ascriptions. It’s one of the most outstanding treasures of European art.

Ruffer purchased not just the paintings but also the castle that housed them. This was the perfect solution to the fact that the paintings had actually been built into the walls of the palace dining room by the bishop who bought them in 1756 to make a point: He wanted his guests to contemplate tolerance during a time of contested Jewish naturalization.

Like a game of Monopoly, the whole of the rest of the church commissioners’ estate, including a Roman fort and much else besides, got bundled into Ruffer’s eventual purchases.

“Wherever we landed, we bought,” he recalled with a boyish glee.

“It has been an extraordinarily astute move,” he added, reflecting with what I began to realize is characteristic flourish, relaxing on an ample green sofa in the library of his home at the gates of the palace of which he became the first secular custodian in almost 400 years. 

It meant not just an opportunity to save an artistic, religious and historical treasure for the nation, but also “condemned” him — his word — to running “a tourist attraction.” But in using his avowedly evangelical philanthropy to improve life for Bishop Auckland’s people, he also has the peerless opportunity to pursue projects of his own.

Not least of these is the miners’ art gallery, possibly the most intense experience for me of the seven new “visitor attractions”; Even the man who helped to set it up, art historian and medical doctor Bob McManners, was so moved showing me around that tears welled up in his eyes, as they did in mine. 

But it is the country’s first ever Faith Museum, which will open to the public on Oct. 7, that will prove possibly the most momentous project and the biggest draw. 

It is housed in a sublime piece of postmodern architecture — designed playfully to resemble a medieval storage barn — but with resonances in the purity of its design and its local materials of a Celtic chapel. It is the same sandstone as was used to build Durham Cathedral. This is a building so compelling that it is worth seeing just for itself. It is the work of Niall McLaughlin, Britain’s top architect of sacred spaces.  

Britain’s first Faith Museum, which will open to the public on Oct. 7, is housed in a sublime piece of postmodern architecture designed to resemble a medieval storage barn. (Photo courtesy of The Auckland Project)

Housed within it are many of the most crucial religious markers of British history.

“We wanted to tell the story of the country through the lens of faith,” said soft-spoken under-Curator Amina Wright, perhaps not so disingenuously blowing up a shibboleth of modern philosophy that faith has no bearing on reality. 

Much of our religious history has its roots in the northeast.  From the very local Gaindon Stone, dating back some 6,000 years, replete with mysterious but clearly religious patterning, to the Binchester Ring, found in the nearby Roman fort originally named Vinovium, the collection anchors that sense of identity and the numinous that are proving so vulnerable to today’s atheistic culture wars. 

The ring dates back perhaps to as early as the fourth century, possibly even earlier? It is a carnelian set in silver, perhaps belonging to a high-ranking soldier from the Mediterranean, on a miserable posting to the furthest corner of the Roman Empire. It has a cross-shaped anchor with a fish hanging from each arm — both symbols of the Christian faith found throughout the empire at the time. 

Here is also a rare copy of William Tyndale’s New Testament printed in 1536, the year he was hunted down and burned at the stake in Antwerp for challenging the dominance of Latin and upsetting Henry VIII’s tricky relationship with Rome. Tyndale’s English, on which the King James Version was eventually based, gave laypeople spectacular access to the Gospels in their own demotic speech. It empowered the laity and conferred a new freedom and identity on the whole nation.

There are significant Jewish artifacts, too, rooting a people and their millennial homelessness firmly within the national story from the 13th century on.

The philosophy of historicism bedevils our public discourse: That a country has no “story,” that “what has happened” is but a series of random incidents without particular meaning.  

And yet, here the story is told with a gentle determination, not in a dull chronology or with hurtful platitudes. The timeline on the left, as you walk through what is apparently deliberately a “narrow way” under the building, is reinforced by three questions:

“Am I alone?”

“How do I live?”

“Where do I belong?” 

You emerge dazed into the upper “hall,” where a vast installation of digitized flame consumes a blue-and-gold iris that does not wither and die but blooms again within the fire. Admitting to early uncertainty about the choice of Tracey Emin collaborator Matt Collishaw to fill such a sensitive space, Amina Wright said, “It’s perfect.” Chanting specially written as accompaniment to the riveting imagery settles a mind seething with impressions from the clutter on the floor below. The “stuff” with which our forebears have attempted to realize the ever-elusive imagery of faith.

Susie Doyle, The Auckland Project’s chief of staff, said the aim was “to honor wherever visitors are coming from.”

In a land where belonging and meaning seem increasingly like guilty pleasures, the museum will surely draw people into its timely embrace and to reassess their place and role.

“Trying to demonstrate that sense of something bigger than yourself, which we call God, is like asking a violin to be a concerto,” Ruffer admitted.

Paradoxes are the stepping stones of history, he said in a paradoxical way: “If you are telling the story of faith, you are by definition telling the history of faith. So a faith museum is an impossibility.”

And yet there it stands, adding to the “reek of Christianity” at Bishop Auckland. He mused about whether Emperor Constantine, who set his seal on the conversion of Europe in the year 313, was ever at Vinovium, the biggest Roman fort in Durham. Certainly his army declared him emperor in 305 upon the death of his father while he was stationed at York just 60 miles away. It is highly likely he visited. Perhaps we have almost come full circle.

What has been achieved in the Faith Museum is for Ruffer a remedy for what he describes eloquently as “auditory constipation,” which I intuited to mean the maddening resistance our culture has to talking about faith.

“Logic is such a crappy tool to be working with,” he said, laughing. “I knew this would never work if it was not inspired.”

Here then is that revolution and its “king”: a money man with a soul, who both talks the talk and walks the walk. He elicits deep loyalty from everyone I speak to. Staff and volunteers alike seem to adore him. The ones I meet are young, Christian and mostly female. 

“The gentlest, most caring boss you could ever have” said one woman. “He is light.” 

I think she means it in both senses.

Yet there are oddly some in this left-behind mining town who think he’s “robbing” the place. The man at the station cafe who volunteers this shabby piece of information, defends him hotly: “He’s a good thing. Durham City has the same problems. They could do with someone like him.”

Hearsay apart, how does Ruffer know his and his wife Jane’s astonishing generosity is having the effect he wants, in reversing either the county’s stagnation or Britain’s loss of faith?

The answer is partly statistical: 1.2 million visitors since 2012 represent a 20% boost to the County Durham visitor economy. That’s equal to £240 million ($297 million) of economic value. The Auckland Project has itself triggered further new investment — from government funding, private enterprise and other philanthropic foundations. The risk-taking Jerusalem Trust, pet project of Lady Sainsbury, wife of the former Cabinet Minister Sir Tim, has donated lavishly to the Faith Museum itself, as has the National Lottery Heritage Fund with a grant of £12.4 million ($15.3 million) for the museum and Castle conservation.

More than half the vacant properties in the town are now planned for restoration as restaurants and shops. Bishop Auckland is changing with the influx of investment, a staggering 4,250 jobs will have been created and more than 700 quality homes built.

Ruffer said the effect will surely also be spiritual.

“How you know whether you are right is in the resistance,” he said, glossing over the relational obstacles with public bodies that have been well covered by the local press.

Like Pilgrim in Bunyan’s epic tale, “when he’s making tracks, there’s always a clanking and a heaving.”

As I stumble away into the glare of the afternoon, the clanking and heaving of great earth-moving machines outside is arresting.

The Faith Museum is included as part of the Auckland Castle and Gardens ticket, and entry is free for annual pass holders and Prince Bishop Friends. You can plan your visit here.

Dr. Jenny Taylor is a journalist, writer and researcher in religion. Her doctorate in the study of religions from the School of Oriental and African Studies focused on the impact of Islam on British governance.


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