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"Stratospheric" costs of "ugly" new Lambeth Palace Library need explanation

"Stratospheric" costs of "ugly" new Lambeth Palace Library need explanation

By Andrew Symes
April 2, 2020

Satirical magazine Private Eye claims in its latest edition (issue 1519) that the final costs of the new building to house the priceless collection of old books in the Archbishop of Canterbury's residence will cost £40 million.

The article, in the magazine's architecture section 'Nooks and Corners', begins by questioning the building's architectural merits -- "a strong contender for the ugliest building of the year". The accompanying photo shows an 'eastern bloc' style brick fortress not unlike examples of 'brutalist' design from the early 1970's in English midlands towns.

After estimating the final cost of £40 million "when VAT, fittings and architects fees are added", all the books are re-shelved and the library is eventually opened next year, the report calculates that this will amount to about £200 per book, or, divided by the number of visitors the library received last year, about £35,000 per visitor.

The Friends of Lambeth Palace Library includes some wealthy donors, but according to Private Eye, it was actually the Church Commissioners who have paid for the project. A spokesman has verified this claim. Emphasising the library's importance as an internationally-renowned centre for research "second only to the Vatican Library", the Church Commissioners told Anglican Mainstream that the collection, with items dating from the 9th century, covers not only the history of the Church of England "but the whole of the church-state relationship and the role of the church in society", and includes a huge archive of records and correspondence from Bishops, missionary societies and church architects.

The Church Commissioners decided to take on the responsibility of housing the collection in a single purpose built structure after it was clear that current arrangements in Lambeth Palace and a warehouse in Bermondsey do not meet the British Standards for Archives. The spokesman continues: "the funding required was way beyond the fund-raising and partnership activities of any Friends organisation. Funding was approved in November 2016 and the project received planning permission in April 2017."

Church House said that the Library should be seen as the project of the Church Commissioners and decisions were not taken by the Archbishop of Canterbury as suggested in the Private Eye article.

That may be technically true, but this news has come at the worst possible time for the Church of England, already facing criticism for its response to the pandemic, including being too quick to ban clergy from their own church buildings, and for bland episcopal announcements curiously devoid of robust gospel hope. Now the revelations about the new library's costs will cause questions to be asked about priorities. The Church of England has been facing a challenging economic environment even before the coronavirus outbreak, and as Private Eye points out, £40 million is equivalent to four times the entire budget of some Dioceses, many of which are not replacing clergy who retire or move in order to save money. Sums of that nature may come in useful to bail out the C of E's pension fund as well, if portfolio values continue to fall.

Next to the Private Eye report on the library is a cartoon in which a vicar stands in his pulpit in front of rows of empty pews, and says "so, business as usual". To the outside world, the library story merely confirms the view that the Church of England is out of touch and ridiculous. The enormous expenditure by a body responsible for the support of the ministry of the Church on a niche prestige project which should be the responsibility of national heritage bodies surely cannot be justified, at a time of a struggle to communicate the gospel in secularising nation, declining congregations and serious financial challenges.

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