(Article written in 2007)
Austin Ringwood, one of the last monks of the Abbey, prophesied
“When the great Abbey of Glaston is rebuilt then peace will reign on earth for a thousand years”.
The spiritual core of the Abbey was the community of Benedictine monks offering support to pilgrims, teaching, transcribing manuscripts, learning, healing. In looking at what would be needed in future to ‘Rebuild the Abbey of Glaston’ we had seen that a spiritual library and teaching college would be necessary. So now we need to look at how much of this has materialised in an appropriate form for 2007.
The Library of Avalon
During the early 1980’s, Helene Koppejan. Geoffrey Ashe and others had shown an interest in setting up a library of the human spirit in Glastonbury. The first efforts were rather desultory and a handful of books were donated which were kept in a cardboard box in the Assembly Rooms. Nothing further happened until in 1987 David Taylor tried to rekindle the idea but again this fizzled out. Kathy Jones and I were both inspired by the vision of recreating the famous library of the old Abbey and thought that it was a pity to let this initiative fail and we restarted it. In 1988 we set up the new library in the back room of 8a Market Place which was owned by the Glastonbury Experience (GE).
We asked for books and they steadily flowed in. We asked for volunteers and a surprising number of people turned up. The library shortly moved into the front room of 8a Market above what is now ‘Little Imps’ and owned by the GE. The library was very alive, new members joined and we had regular seminars and events.
We had the vision of the ultimate aim for the library – a library suitable for the newly reborn Glastonbury as a great centre of International pilgrimage. We had a clear idea of how the structure of the library would evolve and I have described this in the chapter on the Buildings.
We were also quite clear what would be going on in this library! There would be books – at least one copy of all the classics of every religion and faith plus all the modern classics – and there would be CD’s, tapes and videos.
There would be a publishing department printing selected books now out of print. We would actively seek out books required to complete the library that might be in private collections – in particular we would try to find any of the missing books from the old Abbey library that might still be in existence.
There would be an excellent research facility used by the students of the various colleges in Glastonbury and by the media of the world. Lectures and seminars on matters directly related to the library would be given.
This was an ambitious programme and we had to start somewhere. The room we were in was owned by the GE. Helene Koppejan and I were running the GE and we were both founder members of library and thought that we might be able to find space for the growing library in the GE. We did some research with a local architect and came up with a plan that included all the ground floor premises of what is now Gallery 8 plus the Little Imps shop. On the first floor were all the rooms above the ground floor space and above these again was a new second storey creating a large and light glass-roofed reading room.
It was obvious that such a bold plan as rebuilding the Market Place premises was going to need a substantial amount of capital - and the expenditure could only be justified if the library was able to generate sufficient funds to enable it to pay a realistic rent on the extended premises. The library had a modest income from membership fees and seminars that allowed it to pay the subsidised rent on the room that it then occupied but we could see no way in which this could be substantially increased.
One way forward seemed to be to see what other similar libraries were doing. I did some research in London and found that the libraries of the Lucis Trust, the Theosophical Society and the College of Psychic Studies were all supported by their parent bodies.
Kathy and I decided that the Library also needed a “parent body” if the vision was to be realised. In 1991 we set up the University of Avalon which later became the Isle of Avalon Foundation. We will use this name from now on. The concept was that the new Foundation would give courses and workshops and would generate a surplus that it would use to support its ‘daughter’ the Library – and the Library would be a useful resource for the students of the University. The Foundation got away to a good start and was soon generating a useful income and was able to make donations to the Library.
Then occurred a rather typical Glastonbury event. Initially the trustees of the Library and the Foundation were the same people and the set-up worked well. Gradually new trustees were appointed to the Library, although one Foundation Trustee continued on the board of the Library. Then at some stage, around 1994, the Library trustees decided that they wanted to be a completely separate entity, to have nothing further to do with the Foundation and to go their own way. They cut themselves off from the support of the Foundation which led to their having insufficient funds to enable them to do more than look after the books.
This separation lead to a fundamental shift in the policy of the library. The original vision was either lost or deliberately dropped and the library became a rather plodding inward looking organisation entirely concerned with maintaining the status quo and with no vision for the future. This situation continued with periods of enthusiastic support from volunteers and longer periods of little activity.
The full potential of the library, as originally envisaged, has not yet been realised but the library has kept going for twenty years and has steadily expanded thanks to the dedicated and loving care of a succession of volunteer trustees. Amongst these should be mentioned Sue Barnet who was an active member and trustee from its inception until 2005, and the new group of new trustees who took over in 2005 and included Natasha Wardle, Paul Fletcher and Isabel Cadbury.
Since then there has been steady progress and the library now has an active group of trustees and is once again organising public events. It is a registered charity and has some 13,000 books, all donated, covering a wide range of spiritual and esoteric subjects. It is a unique library of the spirit. It is now housed on the ground floor of the rear courtyard of the GE - immediately beneath its original home of twenty years ago. The present reading room is in one of the oldest parts of the GE and adjoins the wall of the Abbey. Some say this room was a slipper chapel where visiting pilgrims exchanged their mud stained shoes for slipper before entering the Abbey. Others say that it was part of the Abbey school. Whatever the truth, the situation seems to be appropriate.
I believe that the library is destined to be the great and unique reference library for books of the human spirit that we always envisaged. In addition there are many other roles that it could take on - it could be a central focal point for co-ordinating information on books available in all the other libraries in Glastonbury and it could provide a vital service to Pilgrims.
But to achieve any of this it needs inspiring leadership and a vision shared by all the trustees and volunteers. With such a vision clearly stated I believe that a substantial amount of volunteer and financial support would become available.
The most likely way in which the library will fulfil its destiny is by working closely with the other academic initiatives that are emerging in the town. This will need the ability to co-operate and work with other organisations – something which the library has found very difficult in previous years. The answer may lie in a vision, shared by all the people interested in the emerging academic aspects of the town; a vision that includes a clear role for the library
Isle of Avalon Foundation
We have seen above that the idea of some sort of a college was in the air in 1985.
The idea began to come into practical reality when it was seen that the newly established Library of Avalon needed support from some sort of a parent body. For some time we had been thinking of setting up some sort of college offering esoteric and spiritual courses. Such a college could also serve as the parent body for the library as it was likely to be able to generate funds from its courses. The decision was made to go ahead and set up a suitable organisation. We thought of calling it the College of Avalon, but the name the University of Avalon was preferred. In an informal check with the Ministry of Education, we were informed that they would have no objection to our using the name. In 1991 we set up the University of Avalon as not-for-profit Company limited by guarantee
The concept was that the new College would give courses and workshops on spiritual and esoteric matters, in fact be a sort of mystery school , and would generate a surplus that it would use to support its ‘daughter’ the library – and the library would be a useful resource for its students.
As with the library, the University was started with no funds but supported by low rent accomodation in the GE and a group of committed volunteers. The University got away to a good start. There was no shortage of people with experience in giving courses and workshops and there were enough paying students to fund the courses. The University soon found itself able to pay its tutors, pay a part time administrator and make a modest contribution to the library.
About a year after we started, we had a visit from a trading inspector. He asked us whether we were properly registered as a University and were entitled to use the name. This seemed to be a perfectly sensible question as we were very small and were giving some unusual courses. We told him we had checked and been told that we could use the name but would check again.
A further telephone call was made to the Ministry of Education and they passed us on to the Privy Council. They in turn asked us to let them know what we were doing and they would consider the matter. After due consideration, they advised us that we could only continue to use the name if we were complying with a number of conditions, one of which was that all our courses had been formally academically approved. The very nature of our courses was that they were unconventional and we knew that there was no way in which they could all be accredited. So we had to change the name. After some debate we decided to change the name to ‘the Isle of Avalon Foundation’.
We have seen how the Library decided to separate from the Foundation. As a result the original purpose of the Foundation was lost. But the Foundation had also always had its own purpose, not publicly declared, that of being the Mystery School of Avalon offering a wide range of esoteric and spiritual courses and workshops.
The Foundation grew strongly for the first few years, particularly under Collette Barnard as administrator, but in the last few years seems to have reached a plateau. The courses that are offered are mainly highly esoteric and as a result appeal to only a limited audience. Very few of the courses are academically accredited and so recognised degrees and diplomas cannot be awarded.
The future for the Foundation appears, in many ways, to be similar to that of the Library. It seems that, in order to reach its full potential, the Foundation needs to be able to offer a range of accredited courses with a wider appeal.
It also needs to be seen as a vital part of the emerging whole that is the teaching role of Glastonbury. This will mean working with other course providers in the town and with the emerging Academic Research Centre. Once again this requires the ability to share a vision of the whole and an understanding of how to co-operate and work with others.
A magnificent Mystery School will one day emerge in Glastonbury and it is up to the Foundation to take the necessary steps to ensure that it is a part of it. .
In recent years, a number of young overseas students have spent time in Glastonbury studying for their theses. Glastonbury was chosen as a place uniquely suited for the study of what is now being called Contemporary Spirituality. These student visitors have included Mathilde Dupasquier from Paris and Eriko Kawanishi from Tokyo.
An increasing interest in the possibility of Glastonbury as a spiritual research centre has also recently been shown by a number of academics including by Marion Bowman , a senior lecturer at the Open University and the Rev. Kevin Tingay the Interfaith Adviser for the Diocese of Bath and Wells. From this interest has arisen a proposal that a Centre for the Study of Contemporary Spirituality be set up in Glastonbury. The proposal puts forward the following reasons for the suitability of Glastonbury for this project:
Glastonbury has not only been a centre for Christian practice and devotion both historically and contemporarily, but also has been the focus for alternative patterns of spirituality, modern expressions of paganism, a wide range of ‘non-religious’ therapeutic praxis, and the creative arts.
There is a growing body of academic interest in contemporary spirituality in all its manifestations
Christians, adherents of the other historic world faiths, and many who do not adhere to traditional religions are engaged in the examination of the challenges and opportunities of the pluralist nature of Western society.
It seems appropriate to consider the feasibility of establishing an academically based focus for the non-confessional study of spiritually based activities which take place in the Glastonbury area; their historical roots; and their wider social and cultural implications.
The Aims and Objectives of the Centre would be to encourage and facilitate research into contemporary spirituality in all its forms with particular reference to those beliefs and practices which are active in or near Glastonbury and the South West Region, or have historical links with the town or region.
It would act as an interface between interested individuals and groups in the locality and the wider academic community and would encourage wider participation in academic study and research.
The Centre would be sponsored by a number of Universities. It would have a Management Board or Council, consisting of suitably qualified persons locally or regionally based, and an Academic Advisory Board of academic specialists known for their expertise. In due course the Centre would be registered as an educational charity.
The work of such a Centre would include lectures and seminars, the development of an information database, and encouraging and assisting with the development of research projects through existing academic institutions. The Centre would also encourage discussion and dialogue between adherents of different spiritual and religious traditions.
It is possible that Abbey House might be interested in providing meeting space for lectures and seminars, and residential accommodation when needed. In the longer term more permanent office accommodation, meeting and study space would be found in the town.
The proposals are still at a very early stage but this academic interest in the town is most encouraging. Once such a Centre is in place, it will be able to produce research data of an acceptable quality which will allow a better understanding of the nature of Contemporary Spirituality. Something that is very much needed in some quarters in Glastonbury.
There will also be the huge added advantage that the new Centre could be a catalyst to enhance the productive development of the work of the Library of Avalon, the Isle of Avalon Foundation and the other providers of courses and workshops in the town
A large number of books have been published in recent years on all aspects of the history, myths, legends and beliefs of Glastonbury. A brief Bibliography is included at the back of this book.