The following was posted by Dr Clive D Field to the Religious-Archives-Group listserv:
On 16 September 2013 the Bible Society announced that it intends to open in 2014 a new visitor centre in a deconsecrated church in North Wales, on the shore of Lake Bala. The centre will tell the story of the Bible’s impact on Wales and, through Wales, the rest of the world. Funding for the initiative is to be raised ‘through the sale of some assets, and donations from Bible Societies around the world and supporters’.
It now emerges that the assets being sold include biblical manuscripts which form part of the Society’s library and archives which have been built up incrementally since the Society’s foundation in 1804. The collection has been on deposit, and publicly accessible, at Cambridge University Library since the Society moved its headquarters from London to Swindon in 1985. In return for its custodianship, the Library receives an annual grant from the Society (£39,000 in 2012-13).
The Society’s disposal policy is set out in its annual report and accounts for 2012-13: ‘Bible Society occasionally disposes of items where un-catalogued duplicate materials are identified or where materials are not a core part of the historic Bible collection. The proceeds generated are generally used for the enhancement of the collection by cataloguing, conservation and digitisation, as well as occasional purchases of relevant and related printed and manuscript material. During the year ended 31 March 2013, sales of uncatalogued duplicates totalled £115,000 (2012, £Nil).’
The planned sale of a small number of manuscripts is being handled by Christies on behalf of the Society. The decision to sell has apparently been taken by the Society’s Board of Trustees, which is chaired by Philip Green. It seems likely that the manuscripts are those which are mentioned in the report and accounts for 2012-13 as having been recently valued at £1.8 million. It is hard to imagine how these can be defined as ‘non-core’, and certainly the proceeds of the sale do not seem destined to be ploughed back into the collection.
Cambridge University Library is being offered first refusal to buy six of the Society’s manuscripts. The University has today (14 December 2013) issued a press release launching a public appeal to raise £1.1 million to purchase the single most important manuscript, the Codex Zacynthius.
The Codex takes its name from the Greek island Zakynthos, from whence it was brought back in 1821 and presented to the Society. It is a palimpsest of 176 vellum leaves, which contains an undertext (first deciphered in 1861) of fragments of the Gospel of St Luke, chapters 1:1-11:33 in Greek, and which have been dated to the 6th or 7th century. It is also said to be the oldest extant New Testament manuscript with a commentary alongside the text. It is classed as in ‘the top flight of Biblical manuscripts’ by Lord Williams of Oystermouth (former Archbishop of Canterbury). More details are given in the press release at:
The Library has until the end of February 2014 to raise the £1.1 million. If it is unsuccessful, the manuscript will presumably go to auction, and there is a fair chance that it will be sold to a foreign institution or a private collector, and thus be lost for the nation.
The membership of the Religious Archives Group will doubtless wish the Library well in its efforts, and some members may even be able to suggest possible donors to help. Nevertheless, this will be a stretching fundraising target for the Library, not least since it comes so soon after completion of fundraising to purchase (with the Bodleian Libraries in Oxford) for £1.2 million the Lewis-Gibson Genizah Collection of Hebrew and Arabic manuscripts from Westminster College, Cambridge, as announced by the Library on 6 December 2013 at:
The Bible Society’s decision to sell important and unique Biblical items from its heritage collection is regrettable and, some of its donors and legators may well feel, a betrayal of the Society’s past. It also begs the question of what further sales from the collection the Society may contemplate in future. The Society’s President is Rt Revd and Rt Hon Richard Chartres, Bishop of London, who gave an inspirational speech at the launch of the Religious Archives Group’s religious archives survey three years ago. (EXLIBRIS-L)