September 6, 2011

Spiritual Literature on Display: A Visit to Three Historic Church Libraries in London

By Rick Sheridan

During my visit to London this summer, I had the opportunity to visit three ancient church libraries, including Westminster Abbey, St. Paul’s Cathedral and Lambeth Palace. Before the trip, I contacted the librarians at all three and was able to arrange a behind-the-scenes tour of Westminster Abbey and St. Paul’s. Lambeth Palace had an exhibition of rare Bibles that I was also able to attend. Below are some notes that I took from meetings with the librarians and from additional background research. As you can probably tell by looking at the photos, these three libraries are very historic and look like they are right out of the Middle Ages.

Westminster Abbey Library
Westminster Abbey has over 800 years of history and is considered to be Britain's most important church. Benedictine monks first came to this site in the middle of the 10th century, establishing a tradition of daily worship which continues to this day. The Abbey has been the coronation church (where kings and queens are crowned) since 1066 and is the final resting place of seventeen monarchs. The present church, begun by Henry III in 1245, is a treasure house of paintings, stained glass, textiles and other artifacts. Westminster Abbey is also the place where some of the most significant people in the nation's history are buried or commemorated, including artists, authors, politicians and royalty.

The Westminster Abbey Library begun in 1560, and has been housed in part of the former monastic dormitory since 1591. There are 70,000 books in the archive, with 30,000 from the medieval era. The collections grew by gift, bequest and purchase throughout the 17th and 18th centuries. The Library also has a collection of printed and manuscript music. One of the librarians told me that they mainly serve as kind of an “ask an expert” service for history of Westminster Abbey, along with regular visits from religious scholars. The library is available to researchers and theologians by special appointment.

St. Paul’s Cathedral
Since the first service was held here in 1697, St. Paul’s Cathedral has been an important church in England. Some of the events here have included the funeral of Sir Winston Churchill; the Jubilee celebrations for Queen Victoria; peace services marking the end of the First and Second World Wars; the wedding of Charles, Prince of Wales, to Lady Diana Spencer and, most recently, the 80th Birthday of Her Majesty the Queen.

I had to climb an ancient set of spiral stairs to get the library which is in the southwest tower in a chamber designed for it by Christopher Wren. The library suffered damage in the great fire of 1666, and the chamber was restocked with valuable Bibles and liturgical texts from several collections soon after. In the 19th century large collections of ecclesiastical tracts and pamphlets were brought in and improvements were made to the library's holdings of sermons preached. The subject strength of the historical collections lies in theology, church history and patristics. Current acquisitions are restricted to major works on the history of the Church in England, and on the building of the Cathedral. The library is normally open to researchers by prior appointment.

Lambeth Palace Library
Lambeth Palace is the official home of the Archbishop of Canterbury, the head of 80 million Anglicans and Episcopalians world wide. Lambeth Palace is one of the few medieval buildings left in London, and the Archbishops of Canterbury have owned it since about 1200.

Lambeth Palace Library is one of the earliest public libraries in England, founded in 1610 under the will of Archbishop Richard Bancroft. It is the principal library and record office for the history of the Church of England, and is freely available to members of the public with a formal letter of introduction from an academic supervisor, pastor or similar reference.

The original library from 1610, along with a modern extension, have approximately 200,000 printed books, including some 30,000 items printed before 1700. They also have 600 mediaeval manuscripts from the 9th century onward, records of various Anglican societies and religious communities, along with many other important documents.

I attended an exhibition at the Lambeth Palace Library celebrating the 400th anniversary of the publication of the King James Version of the Bible. On display were several important religious documents, including a 1611 KJV Bible, medieval translations of the Bible into English; a beautifully illustrated first edition of Luther's German Bible and the Gudbrandar Bible (1584) in Icelandic; translations intended for missions, such as Gospel editions in Maori and Mohawk; and documents showing the drive towards twentieth century English translations such as the New English Bible along with original radio and television scripts for religious programming on the BBC Network.

Dr. Sheridan is an assistant professor of communication at Wilberforce University in Ohio and a member of National Church Library Association.