the current reverend mother, “she decided it should be withdrawn from the sale”. It is now on show in the Sacred Silver Gallery at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London where it is on permanent loan.
In 2006, the patrimony committee, which is staffed entirely by volunteers, published the book A Glimpse of Heaven: Catholic churches of England and Wales, to raise awareness of the countries’ Catholic heritage. Douai Abbey, in Berkshire, already provides a repository for the archives of religious communities, while it is also hoped that Ushaw College in Durham, which the northern bishops hope will become the new home for Durham University’s Centre for Catholic Studies, will eventually become a repository for historical church artefacts in future years.
Action is also being taken by Catholics on an ad hoc basis to safeguard some of what is being lost. The Benedictine monks of St Michael’s Abbey, Farnborough, in Hampshire, for example, are currently leading a search for benefactors to help protect some of the St Augustine’s Abbey collection. St Michael’s abbot, Dom Cuthbert Brogan, said his monks had been contacted by people “expressing distress and disappointment that sacred vessels should be offered for sale in open auction”. Abbot Brogan said that the Farnborough monks are not in a position to rescue the collection themselves. Meanwhile, secular conservation groups have also voiced concern. James Jago, vicechairman of the Pugin Society, described the sale of the St Augustine’s Abbey collection as “regrettable”, but concedes that there is “little formal necessity for communities of that nature to consult widely”, before selling historic items, saying: “It’s very much up to the good will of the community itself as to whether they choose to consult with outside bodies about these things.”
The temptation for religious communities to sell artefacts is understandable when the figures from the St Augustine’s Abbey sale are looked at more closely. Just one of the books auctioned, Flavio Biondo’s Italy Illuminated – written between 1448 and 1458 – sold for £12,000, while one of the chalices on offer is described as being a “fine and rare Charles I recusant silver-gilt chalice”.
Once sold these items face an uncertain future, with fears that some may be melted down for their gold or silver as prices for precious metals have soared – gold alone reaching £1,000 an ounce.
A current case for concern is the future of St Michael’s Convent and the adjacent Church of the Sacred Heart in Waterlooville, near Portsmouth, which the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity are trying to sell because they are too large for them to maintain. However concerns have been raised about the future of the Grade II-listed buildings and their contents if they are sold off. The church was built in the 1920s and has a rare design that includes three naves. The money raised from the sale will go into a central fund that will be used to support the order’s charitable work.
‘President Kirchner is fulfilling John Paul II’s portrayal of the 1982 Falklands conf lict’
When Pope John Paul II went to Buenos Aires in 1982 at the tail end of the Falklands War, it was said that he privately delivered to the leaders of Church and State a simple moral message: while national pride was a good thing, it was not permitted to bolster one’s own patriotism at the expense of someone else’s. That was his shrewd diagnosis of what lay behind Argentina’s invasion of the islands it calls the Malvinas.
This analysis is again useful in explaining what is happening now, as Argentina and Britain both prepare to mark the thirtieth anniversary of those events. In Argentina’s case, their charismatic president, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, has stirred up national feeling and applied pressure to the islanders by persuading her South American neighbours to ban travel to and from the islands, for instance by closing their harbours to ships flying the Falkland Islands’ flag. There may be more to come.
Tabloid rhetoric aside, Britain has replied in a low key, by “routinely” sending one of its latest warships to the area and “routinely” rotating Prince William there as an air-sea rescue pilot. Both have been interpreted by President Kirchner as warlike gestures; David Cameron’s reply is to accuse her in turn of “colonialism”.
There is one indisputable aspect of the quarrel that everybody involved must surely realise. The odds that the 3,000 inhabitants of these barren South Atlantic islands can be bullied into agreeing to become Argentinians must be about a million to one, with even less chance of Britain overriding their wishes by doing a deal with Argentina directly. One must assume that President Kirchner, a clever politician, is fully aware of this. So she is not genuinely trying to take control of the islands from Britain by persuasion, force or diplomatic pressure. What she is, in fact, doing is fulfilling John Paul II’s portrayal of the 1982 conflict – feeding Argentin’s patriotism at the expense of Britain’s.
That time round cost many lives on both sides, gave the British military a close call, and delivered a shock to Argentina sufficient to bring down the right-wing military junta which ruled the country by terror. But it also turned Margaret Thatcher from a loser to a winner, thereby guaranteeing her two more terms in Downing Street. It is strange to recall, 30 years on, that it was her bungling in running down the Royal Navy in the South Atlantic that encouraged the Argentinian junta to invade. She looked weak and foolish when confronted by Michael Foot in the House of Commons as the crisis began. My son, then serving on the aircraft carrier HMS Hermes, reported that the general feeling in the navy was that they were being sent into danger to save her face. They weren’t too happy about it.
President Kirchner is the most popular Argentinian politician for a generation, and by all accounts her success is based on a firm commitment to social justice. She has introduced left-wing social reforms that have upset many of the wealthy vested interests in Argentina, and in the usual South American pattern the rich are allied to the military. Both lean to the Right. So a good dose of patriotism, replete with flag-waving and tub-thumping, may make good political sense. Provided that everyone stays sensible and does not try to turn rhetoric into action, rousing public anger against Britain is a safe option.
Part of what went wrong in the lead-up to the 1982 crisis was a failure to communicate. When Argentinian spokesmen talked about the sacred soil of the Malvinas on which the nation was willing to spill its soldiers’ lifeblood to restore national honour, the British dismissed it as Latin hot air. When the British sent messages to say they would not take kindly to any attempt to take the islands by force, it was assumed that they had lost the will to fight. Thus did British understatement collude with Latin extravagance to ensure that each side failed, tragically, to grasp the other’s true meaning.
President Kirchner has been careful not to promise her people another rash military adventure. If she can keep her right-wing quiet, however, thus giving herself political room to raise child benefit and state pensions, she will have pulled off a successful piece of posturing. All the British have to do is to stay cool and look tough. They do not need to feed their patriotism at the expense of Argentina again. Once was more than enough.
11 February 2012 | THE TABLET | 5