THE Revd Peter Francis is stepping down as Warden of Gladstone’s Library this month, after 25 years in office. It has been a longer chapter than he ever expected.
What has kept him? He admits that, if it hadn’t been for Covid, he might have left a year or two earlier. “But, basically, it’s the excitement and the buzz of the place. And that comes from the theological side, and also the literary side [of the job].”
The Revd Peter Francis
The post that he leaves is, surely, unique. The library, in Hawarden, Flintshire, was founded in 1894 by the four-times Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone, “for the pursuit of divine learning”.
It is a magical place: an imposing, Gothic-revival building, containing 32,000 of Gladstone’s own books and his private papers, and a further 250,000 publications on themes such as theology, literature, history, and current affairs. It is the most important research library in Wales after the National Library.
The library offers residential accommodation to those wanting to lose themselves in the riches on offer. There is a chapel, where the eucharist is celebrated daily. For many years, the library was primarily a sabbatical refuge for clergy, and had an almost monastic feel — “very male and run by bells”, he says — and the facilities were austere.
But the library has evolved during his tenure. It now serves as a meeting place dedicated to dialogue, debate, and learning; there is an extensive programme of courses and lectures, reflecting Gladstone’s own interests, and an annual literary festival, Gladfest, alongside scholarships for writers-in-residence.
“[When I arrived] it was very, very clerical and male and pale,” he says. “And people didn’t come, really, that was the main problem. It had slightly lost its way.”
Mr Francis chose to take a new direction. “We tried to go back to Gladstone’s original collection of books, which I think was the key. And we found that, yes, there was a good chunk of theology. There was a bigger chunk of history and politics; and there was an enormous chunk of literature.
“And we thought, if we play on all three of those sides, then maybe that’s where the future is.”
As a result, the library has become a more open place, and now attracts a different kind of visitor. The gender balance changed; more women than men now make use of the facilities.
It has not all been plain sailing. “It costs a million pounds a year to run the library, and, if you take 26 bedrooms and divide a million by 26, it’s rather frightening.”
Part of the answer entailed turning it into centre for the locality, and appealing to a wider group of people. That meant professionalisation: employing staff with an understanding of the hospitality business, for example. (In earlier times, Mr Francis and his wife could find themselves suddenly making up beds or cooking for guests if the staff failed to turn up.)
Before the pandemic, the Library achieved occupancy of around 90 per cent, “which was terrific”; since then, it has been nearer 65 to 70 per cent, which is “just about enough”, but doesn’t offer much in the way of a cushion. Mr Francis believes that things are heading in the right direction, but the cost-of-living crisis and soaring inflation remain a worry.
MR FRANCIS’s modernising measures have not always been appreciated. In 2009, as part of the celebrations of Gladstone’s bicentenary, he launched an appeal for developments that included creating an Islamic reading room and multifaith quiet room, and increasing the Library’s stock of Islamic materials. There was some vocal resistance.
“I just thought, if Gladstone was alive now, he’d be very concerned about the lack of understanding between Christianity and Islam, between the West and the Islamic world.”
Rhian Waller/Gladstone’s LibraryThe Theology Room
The move was partly sparked by the 2005 London bombings. A Canadian priest who was coming to the Library was caught up in the mêlée. “It took him hours and hours to get here. I met him in the sitting room, drinking a very large whisky, and we talked. He was telling me about the trauma of it, and he said, ‘You know, I’m ashamed to say I know very little about Islam.’ And I said, ‘I’m ashamed to say I know very little as well.’”
The project was always intended to be about educating Christians about Islam rather than something specifically for Islamic scholars. This came at a time of some Islamophobia: in January 2011, the English Defence League marched in protest against plans to build an Islamic community centre in a former working men’s club in Shotton, just a couple of miles up the road from Hawarden. The building was burned down a couple of weeks later.
“It was a moment of great trauma for the Islamic community in the area,” Mr Francis says. “We did quite a lot of work with the Islamic community then, and we had our chapel windows and a few windows at the front of the building broken. It was extraordinary to me that something designed to promote understanding was the cause of such agony.”
ANOTHER move that caused a minor flurry was renaming the Library Gladstone’s rather than St Deiniol’s.
“It just seemed to me that you could spend ten years here and not get a sense who St Deiniol was. But you spend ten minutes here and you get a sense of Gladstone, and what was important to him,” Mr Francis says. Renaming seemed the logical answer; and there was also the business case.
The greater ease of spelling “Gladstone” immediately pushed them up the Google rankings. “It also took the religious threat away from the place. The Gladstone name was much more open.”
Renaming was a turning point. “Changing the name made us look at our whole mission and purpose in terms of Gladstone’s interests.”
Another tricky moment came more recently, with the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020. “We’ve always known that Gladstone’s first speech in the House of Commons, when he was 23, was about compensation for slave owners,” he says.
“During Covid, when we were closed, Black Lives Matters happened, and we were number-ten statue to be toppled on the anti-fascist websites. On the appointed day, my wife and I went out and walked amongst the crowds that were there. There were about 60 people and about 60 police, and, actually, everyone who was there was there to defend the statue.
“It’s a complex thing, because actually, very often, the views expressed by people defending the statue you simply wouldn’t want to be associated with.”
The statue survived, but the episode gave Mr Francis and his trustees pause for thought. It was well known that John Gladstone, William’s father, owned land in the West Indies and South America where slave labour was used.
A detailed statement on the Library’s website explains their reading of the Black Lives Matter movement in the context of the younger Gladstone’s commitment to democracy, human rights, and freedom of belief. The text refers to the establishment of a scholarship for research into historical and contemporary slavery.
“I listened to [the historian] David Olusoga interviewing Barack Obama, when [Obama’s] book came out [in 2020], and he asked: How do you judge people if they have been involved in racism? Obama said: ‘Well, you just have to look at their whole life, and really do the accounting.’”
This was what they did with Gladstone, an approach echoed by the Welsh Government in its national review of memorials. “In fact, Gladstone came out very well,” Mr Francis says. “They thought [we] should honour this man who was one of the most radical of British Prime Ministers. . . I go along with that, wholeheartedly, but there is a little corner of me that always is aware we are all flawed and have sort of blemishes.”
THE website also makes reference to the Library’s commitment to lifelong learning. What has Mr Francis learned during his tenure?
“I think it’s the literature,” he says. “I’ve always read novels, but poetry is [also] something I love. We’re very careful in our writers-in-residence programme to have poets.” This has led to all sorts of wonderful discoveries; he uses poetry in the daily eucharist.
“It seems to me that they’re so much more open, a poet’s words, than pure liturgy often is,” he says. “I find that the openness of poetry, and the way that phrases live in your mind, is very important, both in liturgy and for personal reflection.”
Since we meet during the week in which our current Prime Minister faced a confidence vote, I ask for his reflections on the two men. “Chalk and cheese, despite both having gone to Eton,” he says, before telling an anecdote.
“Towards the end of his life, [Gladstone] was asked to open a flower show in Chester. For two months before that, he read everything he could on flora and fauna, and instead of just cutting the wretched ribbon, he gave them an hour-long lecture on the details of why this was important.”
This represents “the exact opposite of what we see nowadays”, he says. “I absolutely understand that it’s different political times. But [Gladstone] was a man with an enormous intellectual hinterland, and a hunger always to find out and to know more — and always a concern for the oppressed. . . [That’s] not necessarily found today in in some of our politicians.”
Commentators are currently questioning what today’s Government stands for. “With Gladstone, you knew what he cared about,” Mr Francis says. “And I think everyone knew he had a very deep faith as well, and that shines through in his concerns.”
Rhian Waller/Gladstone’s LibraryGladstone’s statue
He tells me of a visit to the Library by the late Tony Benn, who told him that he had learned from Gladstone to write a diary. “He said, ‘I write a diary because I think, like Gladstone, that, come the end, I will be accountable for how I spent my time.’”
LAST year, Mr Francis published a book, The Widening Circle of Us. Described as “a theological memoir”, it gave him the chance to reflect on his life and the way in which his theology — informed by John Robinson, Don Cupitt, and Jim Cotter — has evolved over time. He had arrived at Hawarden somewhat bruised by his life in ministry (he was, among other things, Chaplain of Queen Mary’s College, in the East End of London, and Provost of St Mary’s Cathedral, Glasgow), and in need of a new start.
“I think I was tired, and looking for something else. I was looking to be fed rather more than I had been,” he says.
Having been outside mainstream ministry for so long, what are his reflections on the Church now?
“I find it very interesting, looking at it from this perspective, in that it used to be 80 per cent clergy [coming here] when I started, and now it’s ten per cent, if that, and probably 80 per cent [of visitors are] writers.”
He wonders whether the clergy are less interested in theology, or are overworked by having to look after multiple parishes. “I think there’s a lack of interest in theology. You don’t get the people who carve out huge chunks of time to go and study, which people did very deliberately in days gone by. It may also be that the demise of theology in universities is another part of it.”
He doesn’t currently have plans for active ministry in retirement. “I’m being cautious about it. I think I will pause for a bit,” he says. “I’m going to do a little sort of consultancy to the Library for a couple of years.”
He says he may also struggle to adjust to the Church of England, after having something of a free hand at Gladstone’s Library. “We’re not under any diocese or bishop, although I have permission to officiate,” he says. “The library chapel is not Anglican, it’s not Methodist, it’s not anything. It is incredibly free.” People of all denominations and other faiths participate in the eucharist. “I never say you can’t, and that’s the sort of gift of a place.
“I haven’t given up on God, but what I call God is probably different to some people. I value the space Christianity gives us, and I’m absolutely dotty about the person of Jesus. . . If that’s Jesus with some of the magic taken out, that’s where I find myself.”
Meanwhile, the exploration of spirituality in literature continues to gladden his spirits. “When we decided we were going to have writers-in-residence . . . in no sense was it meant to be spiritual or religious,” he recalls.
“But the first person we had was Naomi Alderman, writing her fantastic novel about Jesus [The Liars’ Gospel]. And then we had Stella Duffy, who was writing about Theodora. Time and time again, they have had very strong religious themes.
“I mean, they wouldn’t think of them as Christian books. But I’ve been surprised by the spirituality and the interest in things religious that all our writers have done. They have been a great, great gift to this place.
“Really, if I’m feeling down about the place, which you do occasionally, and I wonder what it’s all about, I just wander into Waterstones in Chester, and I go to the novels, and I look up all our former writers-in-residence. And I read the acknowledgments, and it cheers me up.”