One of the bizarre facts about the age we live in is that many of our secular institutions, especially museums, treat the Catholic Church as something that used to exist in the distant past, but which has now somehow disappeared from the face of the earth.
Secular museums treat the Church as if she were dead
The last time I went to the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A), I noticed how all their labels concerning Christian worship were written in the past tense. In describing a 13th century thurible, for example, the museum’s caption read something like this: “An incense-burner was used by the Church during a ritual called the Mass…” Surely, those who pen these captions must know that the Church is still around, and that the Mass is still being celebrated? We did not die away at the hands of Luther, et al – quite the contrary! (Not even the liturgical experiments of the 1960s and 70s managed to get rid of all our thuribles!)
The V&A houses many artefacts that belong to others – other museums, private collectors, and even the Church. One of the most amazing 'on permanent loan' objects in this museum must be a 12th century mite (above), which is commonly believed to have been owned by St Thomas Becket. Some now dispute this claim, though I am a ‘believer’ when it comes to this amazing object, often referred to as the ‘Becket Mitre’.
The Becket Mitre and the V&A
The mitre is said to have been preserved at Sens Cathedral -- where St Thomas spent much of his time whilst in exile in the 1160s -- along with many other vestments and sacred objects; many of which are now important second class relics. Whenever I have been to the V&A, I always try to treat the 'Becket Mitre’ as a relic, venerating it as best I can under the circumstances. This wonderful and sacred object is actually owned by the Archbishop of Westminster – it forms part of the Treasury of Westminster Cathedral.
A few weeks ago, the V&A was in the news as it hosted Stonewall’s annual awards ceremony (see Telegraph). Stonewall is a ‘gay rights’ organisation in the UK. One of the awards being handed out was the now infamous ‘Bigot of the Year’, which was 'awarded' to Cardinal Keith O’Brien, the Archbishop of St Andrews and Edinburgh. The organisation nominated him for this title as they believed that his opposition to ‘gay marriage’ was grounded in bigotry – despite the fact that the only form of marriage currently recognised by the state in the UK is the one now referred to as ‘traditional’ or ‘natural’ marriage, i.e. between a man and a woman.
I usually don’t like seeing our sacred heritage on display in secular museums – how did so many holy objects, some of them blessed or consecrated, others the relics of great saints, end up in undignified glass cabinets in the first place? Surely, ancient chalices, holy books, and sacred relics should be in churches, not museums?
No respect for the holy
|The mitre is, not was, 'a symbol of the bishop's authority'!!|
The second conversation I found myself listening to was between four young(ish) friends – student types. Two appeared to be Muslim, and the other two were probably secular westerners. They were looking at a few processional crosses from about the 12th-14th centuries. One of the Muslims declared that: “The Crucifixion was an illusion.” One of the others asked: “So it wasn’t real, then?” “No”, replied the Muslim: “The prophet tells us that the Christians made it up.” I was fuming! What kind of ‘prophet’ could lead souls astray in such a fundamental way – without the Cross there is no salvation! Fortunately, or unfortunately, I’d just taken valium before visiting – so was too zonked out to interrupt and get myself into trouble by angrily saying something!
The V&A, Stonewall, and our sacred heritage
Seeing that the V&A hosted an event which sought to humiliate the highest-ranking Catholic cleric in Britain, Cardinal O’Brien, is it really appropriate for us to continue loaning some of our most precious Catholic relics, vestments, and vessels to this museum? Surely, it would be a good thing to ask for these objects back, especially those legally owned by the Church (I don't know how many of them there are at the V&A) – such as the 'Becket Mitre’? There is an excellent exhibition at Westminster Cathedral, called the Treasures of Westminster Cathedral. I think the mitre would be much better housed there than at the South Kensington based museum – at least it would be on display in a consecrated building.
Museums of Catholicism?
Having said that, I do sometimes think that places like the V&A can help those who would otherwise never enter a church discover something about Catholicism. Who knows, some might even begin to research the Faith after visiting a museum, or even go to an actual church for the first time, or the first time in a long time?
Some communities seem to have excellent museums, open to all, which concentrate on their own histories and traditions. The Jewish Museum in Camden springs to mind. These types of places are both secular and highly respectful of the faith / cultural heritage of the people being explored. In that sense, wouldn’t it be wonderful to have similar ‘museums of Catholicism’ in our cities? Places that act as real and truly informative bridges between the Church and the world?