WASHINGTON (RNS) — Facing a reduced budget and a third round of layoffs, officials at Washington National Cathedral are considering disposing of priceless treasures — including a trove of rare books — that are no longer considered part of its central mission.
The cathedral has begun tentative talks with Washington’s Folger Shakespeare Library as it reorients itself as an Episcopal congregation, tourist landmark, and promoter of interfaith dialogue.
The cathedral’s rare book library, which dates to 1964, can no longer be considered a “core function” in the current economic climate, said Kathleen Cox, the cathedral’s chief operating officer.
“In tough times, you start having to pull away so you can make sure that worship continues,” she said. “So once that happens, you have to make sure that you are doing the best by those assets.”
Cox emphasized that the discussions are “preliminary” and it would be “premature” to say if items would be sold or loaned.
“What would be an ideal situation is to find … through a partnership someone that might take on the responsibility of conserving and maintaining the books and then having them accessible to the public in some way,” she said. “This has to be consistent with any of the donor restrictions or intents.”
Stephen Enniss, Folger’s librarian, said the two institutions have long worked together, with Folger’s conservators advising cathedral staff on maintenance of the rare book collection.
“The two institutions have also had preliminary discussions about the long-term care of this historically important collection and how it might be made more accessible to researchers,” he said in a statement.
Some tomes in the cathedral’s 8,000-volume rare books collection will definitely stay, Cox said, including the Prince Henry Bible, a first edition of the King James Bible printed in London in 1611 that belonged to Henry, the prince of Wales and the king’s eldest son.
The uncertain future of the rare assets — valued in the millions — comes amid a staff shake-up in which six employees were laid off. The cathedral has cut its staff from 170 to 70 since 2008, in large part because the cathedral outsourced its gift shop and discontinued residential courses at the Cathedral College.
Among the employees who lost their jobs in the latest round were the cathedral’s chief conservator, the Rev. John Runkle, and its chief liturgist, the Rev. Carol Wade, who planned the cathedral’s 2,000 annual services, including the 2007 funeral for former President Gerald Ford.
Runkle, who will be leaving at the end of June, said he doesn’t view his departure as endangering the preservation of the iconic building.
“You just have to prioritize the efforts going forward,” he said. “It may slow things down, but I don’t think it will cancel or take off the table any efforts going forward in the future.”
Cathedral officials describe the 2011 budget of $12.9 million, a 12 percent decrease from the previous year’s budget, as a “conservative” move even as contributions increased by 14 percent from the last fiscal year.
Though he could not estimate individual worth of the cathedral’s rare items, Runkle said the collection includes a wide array of Bibles and prayer books.
“It ranges from hand-written Bibles before the printing press came into existence to a Bible that was given to the cathedral by Queen Elizabeth when she visited in the 1990s,” he said. “So the value of these things range from a couple of dollars to quite a bit of money.”
John P. Chalmers, the first rare book librarian for the cathedral, said the collection includes a Gospel manuscript in an Ethiopian dialect from former Emperor Haile Selassie. He doesn’t recall any consideration, when he worked there in the 1960s and 70s, of selling any of the received items.
“I don’t remember any discussion like that ever,” he said. “But …that’s always possible. … It’s a fact of life that institutions may sell some of their assets for various reasons.”
After Chalmers left in 1981, the cathedral auctioned off a collection of Russian icons and chalices to reduce construction debt. Cox described that as an “entirely different” time in the life of the cathedral.
The landmark building, which had 385,000 visitors in the last year and receives no funding from either the federal government or the national Episcopal Church, often does not receive funding for the maintenance of donated items, Cox said. “Any kind of revenue that might be generated” through the transfer of rare items would be used for preservation and maintenance of the cathedral and its assets, she said.
Willis Van Devanter, a Maryland appraiser who is familiar with many of the cathedral’s rare items, said he was “distressed” to learn about any potential transfer. “I believe patrimony should remain within an institution,” he said.
Van Devanter said he isn’t completely opposed to an organization like the cathedral distributing assets, especially if materials are handed off to the Folger.
“I don’t disagree with it 100 percent but I think it should be closely studied and fully publicized,” he said.
Chalmers said some books were given outright and others with strings attached, but he’s sure the cathedral will honor any previous agreements.
“I don’t think of it morally as good or bad,” he said. “I think the cathedral has to decide, in this modern world, how it’s going to survive.”
— Adelle M. Banks
© 2010 Religion News Service. Used with permission.
Posted June 4, 2010