ASHMOLEAN MUSEUM Oxford
At the end of last year the V&A and the Ashmolean both opened major refurbishments, the V&A of its medieval and Renaissance galleries, and the Ashmolean of almost the entire museum. Both museums received ecstatic press coverage, for which they are to be congratulated as well as for getting their funding in place before the stock market crash.
Of the two, the Ashmolean is the more radically changed. Cockerell’s facade has been kept, as have the old sculpture gallery, most of the picture galleries, the shop and the cafe. The rest has been ripped out to provide almost twice the amount of gallery space and a new restaurant at the top of the building, the only one in Oxford with rooftop views. There are now also large, and currently empty, exhibition galleries-cum-lecture rooms. Access is by lift or by stairways which are part of a scheme by Rick Mather Architects to provide vistas between the different rooms and levels. This could have been more Oxford Street store than Oxford University museum, but it does provide excellent views of tiles and statuary which before had to be viewed at odd angles or too close up.
The best example of what has been achieved is the Islamic room. This is the physical heart of the museum and the only gallery to have a photo of the donor in it (a member of the Saudi royal family). The display is a great improvement on its predecessor. There is an interesting range of exhibits. Smaller items have been laid outwith strong modern lighting which makes details more obvious. But it is a disappointment that, as elsewhere, the shelving has led to bands of shadow lying across the exhibits.
The Islamic gallery forms a crossroads between the cultures which surround it and is the key to the great theme of ‘crossing cultures crossing time’ which now defines the museum (though not the picture galleries). This represents a quite explicit move away from curatorial specialism to open access for all, and to an insistence on the relativizing joys of making cross-cultural connections (any connection with a £15 million grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund?). That this might have been opposed by museum staff is coyly hinted at in the self-congratulatory exhibition of how the museum was re-created. But we are assured that all curators have now been re-educated in modern museum management.
The success of this new approach will be seen in whether the crowds come and stay and whether the museum actually displays its collections to the best advantage. On the first we will have to wait and see. At the New Year the museum was crowded and the new educational facilities looked good.
In terms of how the new layout displays the collection, the segueing between galleries and collections often works well. Coins, once the preserve of the gloomy Heberden Coin Room, are one of the most important links between countries and civilizations and in the new Ashmolean they crop up everywhere, as if to say nothing relativizes better than the profit motive. Another example of cross-cultural contacts which works well is a small recreated dining room which links eighteenth-century English silver and porcelain with eastern trade.
There are less successful combinations. The very important Chinese pottery collection has been split between the ground and second floors to help out other, smaller collections from neighbouring cultures. This obscures how the collection shows the development of pottery making. The labelling here is also poor and the magnificence of the benefaction by the Ingram family is sniffily dismissed as representative of the scholarship of its time – future donors beware!
The museum’s other major collections get a similarly mixed treatment. The Howard Carter donation of artefacts from Knossos and the other ancient Mediterranean pieces are better displayed than before. The paintings are quarantined from the cross-cultural seed beds. But there is no sign yet of the important collection of Old Master drawings – visitors would not know the museum has one of the most important collections of Raphael drawings in the world. So, in the drive for links and comprehensiveness, have the depths of the collection been ignored? And why isn’t Lawrence of Arabia’s desert gear set beside the Islamic gallery where it might raise interesting questions about cultural relationships?
Of course, the problem for the Ashmolean is that it is such a ragbag collection. As things stand it simply doesn’t have the range of objects to do more than scrape the surface of some of the civilizations it represents. In that sense the new layout is the Ashmolean making the best of herself, and why not? Occasionally it does seem as if, say, Chinese religion is being represented by a very large photo and quite a small Buddha. But if Tate Modern can become a great hit with its rather thin collection, why not the Ashmolean?
The answer to that may lie in the V&A. Its collection of medieval and Renaissance artefacts is one of the best in the world and has been supplemented by loans from the British Library, the British Museum and the National Gallery. There are ivories, stone capitals, a staircase, vestments, glass, cups, paintings, choir screens and so on. Medieval pieces such as the Gloucester candlestick and the Becket casket sit alongside what is one of the finest collections of Renaissance statuary outside of Italy. And then there are the guts of the Santa Chiara chapel, the only Florentine chapel outside of Florence (for which, thank God). And so on. This is a superb collection, well presented and documented, and with a depth which puts cultural cross-currents in perspective.
But it wasn’t so long ago that the equally well-presented British galleries opened to great and justified acclaim. The new medieval and Renaissance galleries were buzzing when I went – the British galleries were resoundingly empty. Which poses the question, do our galleries have to be ever-changing to bring in the punters? Tate Modern can always find novelties for the curious; it’s part of what it does and it does it well. By contrast, the Ashmolean may lack the resources for crowd-pleasing spectaculars so it may yet revert to being a haunt of the artist and the scholar, the connoisseur and North Oxford families.
The Ashmolean’s hoard of glass from Pusey House is difficult to find unless you know where it is already.
A Life Open to Christ
Compiled by Daniel P. Cronin, St Paul’s, 208p‚ pbk 9780854307624, £10
An Introduction to Catholic Spirituality
Tony Castle St Paul’s, 236p, pbk 9780854397471, £8.95
It’s not meant to be much fun being a priest these days. If you are a Roman Catholic, you are contending with endless scandals, with the crippling loneliness of celibacy and with the mind-controlling authority of a centralizing hierarchy. If you are an Anglican, you are being so badly bullied by bishops, parishioners and colleagues that you need to get unionized.
One of the many delights of Priesthood, complied by Daniel Cronin to mark the year of the priest, is that it redresses the balance by reminding us that the over-arching experience of those privileged to be called to priesthood is joy, delight and constant surprise.
The concept behind the book is simplicity itself. Seventy-eight Roman Catholic clergy have been asked to describe in a couple of pages what it means to be a priest. The result makes for fascinating reading. From an Anglican viewpoint it is refreshing to read the words of those who have such confidence in the distinctive nature and universal significance of their calling as men of the Eucharist. But at the same time this book could never be accused of clericalism or elitism. Again and again the writers describe their joy inministering to and learning from the people of God, and Bernard Longley writes with great wisdom of the need to draw out the charisms of the laity.
As one would expect, it’s a mixed bag. At times the contributions are heart-stoppingly beautiful, as in James Hanvey’s remarkable reflection on the hiddenness of the priestly life or Daniel O’Leary’s testimony about the changes in his ministry once he realized that his primary call was to reassure people of God’s goodness and love. Others are far more banal, and it is significant that one of the least compelling is that written by the compiler, for this book could have done with rather more rigid editing. The chapters often feel repetitive, there are too many bishops and too few parish priests and the decision o arrange the contributions in alphabetical order rather than o group them thematically smacks of laziness.
But that should not detract from a worthwhile book that l appeal to all who are ordained or who are exploring God’s call. The best way to use it would be over time, studying one contribution each day as one’s spiritual reading.
Living Faith, by Tony Castle, is a book of such simple cleverness that many will wish they had written it themselves. The author, while himself deeply washed in the life-giving streams of Catholic spirituality, has a passion for grounding complex ideas and for rendering accessible a subject that many find intimidating.
Like all the best teachers, Castle uses the concrete to explain the numinous. Each chapter is based upon a piece of furniture found in a Catholic Church – the altar, the ambo, the sedilia, the font, the tabernacle and so on. Then, from an explanation of the historical origins of such fittings, he draws the reader into the spiritual life with charming reflections on the Eucharist, the Word, repentance, Our Lady and the Saints, the major spiritual traditions of the Church, the liturgical year and much else. Then each chapter is illustrated with a person – a simple biography of a saint whose life illustrates the theme of the chapter.
Once combined with a thorough glossary, a guide to the major spiritual writers and a handy list of heresies, the uses of this book are manifold. It is ideal for new Christians, for the recently confirmed and for those exploring the Catholic faith. It would make an excellent Lent course or series of sessions for a house group, and the author’s ecumenical awareness means that it is of just as much value for Anglicans as for Roman Catholics. And for the parish priest, it’s a great book to have on the shelves in order to look up those things he ought to know but now doesn’t dare ask!
Philip North is Rector of the Old St Pancras Team Ministry
WHAT I BELIEVE
Tariq Ramadan OUP, 148p, hbk 978 0 19 538785 8, £9.99
I picked up this book because Tariq Ramadan is a Muslim I know well from the mass media. Sadly I have few Muslim friends. None of them would claim to be intellectuals. What I Believe promised access to the Muslim mindset. The author and I meet through the mega world of media. By engaging more with his thinking I hoped to better equip myself to counter Islamophobia within the midi and mini worlds of community and family. As a Christian leader I am also challenged by the surge of nominal Christians converting to be Muslims.
What I Believe impresses firstly as the work of a bridge builder feeling the pain of being walked over from both ends of the bridge. Banned from entering the US under the Bush administration and suspected by fundamentalist Muslims, Ramadan is an exceptional figure. He impresses by the courage and range of his convictions as a Muslim scholar. It is this range that both excites and troubles those who hear him. He excites those who see the future of the world as dependent on brave connectors. He dismays those who suspect doublespeak in the subtlety of his communication.
This book has truth telling with wide implications. In a world where people have multiple identities, why should people question the civic loyalty of Muslims? Conversely why do Western Muslims so often possess a ghetto mentality that stops them making a significant contribution to the society they inhabit? Ramadan invites a jihad for trust, more effort by all citizens towards self-respect and respect for others. His recipe for a healthy society is compelling in its call for more humility, respect and consistency.
He says ‘compelling a woman to wear a headscarf is against Islam, and compelling her to remove it is human rights’. This thinking has been very unwelcome in France, though accepted in most Western countries. Religious and secularist fundamentalists get short shrift in the book. Tariq Ramadan argues against Pope Benedict that Muslims do have a tradition of critical reasoning. This should lead them ‘from struggling adaptation reform to creative transformational reform’. He presents Shariah not as a closed system of Islamic laws but as the way to faithfulness in religious objectives that include building equality, respect and justice. The book includes an Appendix incorporating the author’s ‘Manifesto for a New ‘We’’, inviting a coming together of citizens across traditions to serve these and other universal objectives.
The truth telling that is missing is ultimate. Tariq Ramadan says little about God. What I Believe is an attempt to defend himself against secularists and Muslim literalists. It is powerful and helpful as such, but it falls short on the vision thing that belief is mostly about. Visionary bridge builders succeed by affirming truths that are universally compelling to the detriment of lesser truths. Ramadan seems to reckon himself incompetent to develop things himself in this direction, though he invites it. What I Believe is a call to critical self-belief by Muslims. It falls short of addressing the key distinctive of Islam which is belief in a God who has revealed himself to the world with implications for human solidarity.
What I Believe subscribes to the need for humility allied to confidence. It succeeds in calling religious and secular pundits to search their souls and recognize their frailties. It falls short in challenging both groups to see belief in God as a dynamic for hope that, allied with humility, can be transformative not just of individuals but of society itself.
Fr John Twisleton, Rector of St Giles, Horsted Keynes
FOLLOWING THE SILENCE A Contemplative Journey
Georgina Alexander Gracewing, 89p‚, pbk 978 0 85244 492 4, £6.99
I am not myself a fan of little books on spirituality. I suppose I have the male aversion to reading the instruction lealets. The family recently accused me of thinking that mending the washing machine was ‘below me’: in fact such practical tasks are well ‘above’ and ‘beyond’ my abilities. The same may be true of spirituality. Others, I am sure, are much better at it than me: they can manage the silence, the solitariness, the stillness. Meanwhile I mumble the Office and mutter the Mass.
I was forced to take Georgina Alexander’s book seriously because I was invited to the book launch, at that extraordinary parish of St James, Hanslope, near Milton Keynes, where she now worships. And when I began to take the book seriously, I noted that no less a figure than William Johnston, a Jesuit who lives and works in Japan, wrote the foreword. He heads up ‘a prayer group of Japanese who sit before the Blessed Sacrament in silence for one hour before attending mass and adjourning to a small room to chat and drink Japanese green tea’. Sit mens sana in corpore sano…
What is heartening about Georgina’s story is that it is the story of a wife and mother – a person living amidst the bustle of modern life – whose encounter with a religious community, the Sisters of the Love of God at Fairacres, makes her aware of the dimension of mystical prayer. The book is the story of her search. It is a search that each one of us, in our own way, needs to undertake. It is the way to discover ‘unity, empathy and compassion for, and with, other people’. It is the way to discover contrition – sorrow for sin – in a culture and world which increasingly has lost any idea of fallenness and sinfulness. It is the way to discover something of the divine energy, even gifts of healing. Paradoxically it is the way to discover emptiness and darkness and find that these too are journeys of the soul towards God and not, as it may seem, away from God.
THE COMPOSITION AND REDACTION OF THE BOOK OF AMOS
de Gruyter, 266p‚, hbk 978 3 11 021271 6, €79.95
University researchers are much like civil servants. Highly intelligent, welleducated, comfortably situated, and involved in minute and careful study, most of which is utterly impenetrable to the ordinary citizen. And yet, they can serve a most useful if unexciting purpose in the good ordering of the community. The authority of both has been compromised in recent decades by a loss of independence and an increasing subservience to (explicit or implicit) political influence. Nevertheless, though they may not be as admirable as they once were (neither are the clergy, to take another example), they are still important members of the common wealth. They do serious work on behalf of us all.
Is any parish priest or ‘ordinary’ lay person likely to read, let alone buy, this reworking of an Oxford dissertation? No, but if an ordinand is serious about grasping the seriousness of the word of God in a secular age, he would do well to include this within his study of the Old Testament. This is archetypal biblical scholarship, and on the face of it utterly irrelevant to the needs of Gospel proclamation, but stick with it, for unless you can understand the issues from ‘the other side’ you will never speak with authority to those who see the world in scientific historical terms.
Amos was the first of the written prophets, his message one of overwhelming condemnation addressed to the northern kingdom of Israel, which was destroyed in 721 BC. The book, however, was kept and edited to become part of the canon for the southern community of Judah, before, during and after the Exile. How did it do this? Which texts within the book can be assigned to which century? What does a historic word mean once its history has disappeared? And so on. The Book of Amos is the classic test case for our grasp of the prophetic word of Scripture.
Isaiah and Jeremiah may both be more important, but the historical critical issues in these works are so complex, they are not the best examples to work with. Amos, by contrast, is remarkably clear and simple. My teacher at college kept asking, with almost tedious insistence, ‘Is there any hope in Amos?’ In one sense, there must be; otherwise, why would we still read it as Scripture. But how do we describe that hope, where is it in the text, and how does it then relate to the original eighth century prophet?
Hadjiev steers a middle course between the extreme conservative treatments which trace everything back to the prophet and more sceptical approaches which attribute most of the oracles to the work of later editors.
He sees the composition of the book as beginning with two collections: the Polemical Scroll written not long after the end of Amos’ ministry, and the Repentance Scroll composed shortly before 722 BC. The Repentance Scroll was reworked in Judah towards the end of the 8th century, and the two scrolls were then combined to form a single work sometime during the 7th century. The Book underwent only one redaction during the exilic period ‘to actualise its message’ in a new historical context.
Hadjiev, however, is no theologian. He fails to understand the theological subtleties of forgiveness, and of the possibility of repentance (themes which are at the very heart of the crucial question of hope). By way of comparison he remarks, ‘The book of Jonah is a classic example of a prophecy of unconditional and certain doom which can be averted through repentance.’ If it were that simple, there would never be a problem (and many people never see the problem, which is one of the reasons we never see them in church).
What is the meaning of Amos’ unconditional and unequivocal condemnation? But then that is not his job to find the answer, but yours as a believer and preacher. Civil servants enable the smooth running of government and the practical realization of legislation; they are not, nor should we hope for them to be philosophers and politicians themselves. Understand his work, accept his conclusions, and then prepare your sermon.
THE SACRAMENTS AND THE MYSTERY OF CHRIST
Fr Francis Selman
Family Publications, 190p‚ pbk 978 1 871217 92 6, £9.95
If the most accessible, and in that sense best, primer on the sacraments for us Anglo-Catholics remains the late John Macquarrie’s A Guide to the Sacraments [SCM, 1997], in Fr Selman’s course book we nonetheless have another accessible and reliable guide. The readership is intended for a wider group than his students at the Maryvale Institute and the Allen Hall Seminary. He is writing for catechists and preachers and ‘anyone interested in deepening their knowledge and awareness of their Christian faith’.
The strength of the book is not just its user-friendliness – chapters are not too long, technical terms are explained and translated – but its rootedness in the teaching of the Catholic Magisterium. Anglo-Catholics pride themselves on being ‘well up’ in Catholic theology, and sometimes we are quite well-read. What we are not so ‘well up’ in, if we are honest, are the conciliar and papal documents which are integral to the Faith. (And, as Francis Selman himself says, there have been a number of important documents in the last ten years which are therefore not in all the standard text books).
We may complain that the role of the Magisterium has been a late development, even an overweening expression of centralized authority, but, despite the intemperate protests of some modern Catholic commentators, The Catechism of the Catholic Church  is not an informal guide, but an authoritative expression of Catholic Faith. A refresher course on Catholic Sacraments, rooted in the teaching of the Catholic Church, and grounded in St Augustine and St Thomas Aquinas, might be just what the well-read Anglo-Catholic could do with.