Monday, 11 May 2009

Gladstone at 200

A correspondent in Cheshire reminds me that 2009 is not only the bicentennial year of Charles Darwin and Felix Mendelssohn, but also of the Grand Old Man, William Ewart Gladstone. To mark this, St Deiniol's Library in Hawarden (the only equivalent in Britain to the libraries bequeathed to the nation by US presidents) is embarking on a new project. It is to be an Islamic reading room, because, as the Rev Peter Francis, St Deiniol Library warden, says: “Gladstone was a person of faith and if alive today he'd be deeply concerned about the rift between Christianity and Islam.

“He'd be doing everything he could to get some depth in understanding and promote dialogue on both sides.

“I started to think about this in the wake of the 7/7 bombings in London. About 1,500 people study each year, and so I asked them what they knew about Islam.

“With one or two honourable exceptions, they had a woeful lack of knowledge.

“Yet it's the big issue for British society if we are going to live together."

Gladstone would certainly have approved of the expansion of knowledge, and keeping up-to-date with current developments, but I feel it is going too far to suggest that he would have promoted dialogue. Though his Anglican religion led him to his Liberal views, he could be most illiberal in defending that religion against encroachment by Catholicism. In his sixties he could still describe the Roman Church as "an Asian monarchy; nothing but one giddy height of despotism and one dead level of religious subservience" in a pamphlet (Roy Jenkins' "Gladstone", p 391 in the Papermac edition). Given his condemnation of the actions of the Turks in Bulgaria, I feel he would have been equally (and needlessly) alarmed at the spread of Islam in Britain today. (However, he did not discriminate against individuals on the grounds of their religion; he proposed Catholics for peerages and was also responsible for the first ennoblement of a Jew, Lionel de Rothschild).

For more about the history of the library, and Rev Francis's plans, see the Daily Post article by Peter Elson here.

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