My project to regenerate deprived areas of County Durham, which will cost up to £100 million, has taught me what it really means to serve others
It is almost five years to the day that I approached the Church Commissioners to acquire the set of paintings by Francisco de Zurbarán held at Auckland Castle and return them to the people of north-east England.
The Church of England was seeking to sell a dozen works by the Spanish Baroque artist. After paying £15 million to save the collection, I earmarked further funds to turn Auckland Castle, the principal seat of the Bishops of Durham, into a centre telling the story of Christianity in the North East, which I hope will open in 2018.
My wider aim is to help to regenerate some of the most deprived areas in County Durham through philanthropy.
Conventional wisdom would suggest that my actions are futile. No doubt it felt the same way about the footsoldier who shouted out to Wellington in the Spanish campaign “I want to be one of the killed”, when he heard of the necessity of the storming of some French-held fortress.
But five years on I am as sure now as I was then that this was the start of an important chapter in the wellbeing of the region.
The project has grown into one of substantial dimensions. It will cost nearly £100 million – a stupendous amount of money for a frolic. But that will seem small beer if it creates an authentic region-wide dynamic for good.
The verdict five years on? So far, so good.
What was my motivation? A certain experience of work in deprived areas. A realisation that, despite a bedlam of personal incompetence, I have an enthusiasm for being a unifying force and an encouragement to others.
But the biggest motivation was a settled and overwhelming sense that I was being called to this, and that I had to start that walk before I had any practical idea about what was necessary.
I have just been reading the very funny script of The Moderate Soprano by the playwright David Hare. It’s about Eton schoolmaster John Christie’s desire to found an opera house at Glyndebourne. In the play, Christie tells the world-famous conductor Fritz Busch that he is going to accompany Parsifal with a home-made organ and a string quartet. No whoops of laughter from this end, though: I see myself writ small.
What have I learnt in the past five years? That the key to engaging with a community is, essentially, the battle to find the right preposition. Lord preserve us from the do-gooder who sets out to bring a blessing to others. The dreary cry of “You must come to dinner!” so easily evokes the uneasy response: “Must I?” Doing things for others escapes some of this patronising anaesthetic, but the dynamic remains one that seeks passivity in the recipient.
The reality is that a person in need is not in a subservient state of weakness. Who does Christ call the wretched, poor,
Who does Christ call the poor, the pitiable? The answer is those who say: ‘I need nothing’
pitiable, the blind, the naked? The answer is those who say: “I am rich, I have prospered, I need nothing.” If we take our Lord seriously, should not those of us who prosper seek the company of those who inoculate us from Christ’s judgment – which is essentially a judgment we make about ourselves?
When we understand that our own inadequacies are healed when we enter into communion with those in need, then we can love them not just because they are lovable – as indeed they are – but because they bring us face to face with compassion, and we are clothed with it, we become rich with it and we see things clearly. The giver is blessed not because he gives, but because he receives.
How does one do this in practice? I imagined that I would be something of a patron saint of the soup ladle, distributing the Brown Windsor to the grateful of South Shields. In fact, I am presiding over the restoration of a bishop’s palace, preparing to open a Spanish Gallery and launch a spectacular night show, due to open next July, in conjunction with the award-winning French theme park Puy du Fou.
As you can imagine, this is rather humiliating. My Evangelical friends tell me that I should be spending my money on church planting, so that my community can taste the water from which there is no more thirst. I can see the strength of this argument, but God clearly missed it as it’s not my calling.
Those with a sense of social mission tell me that my project is elitist, and is a million miles from where the real need is. (Should I let on that I have just bought an El Greco at Christies for £2.5 million? Better not, probably.)
How much more comfortable I should be in that soup kitchen – if I knew that’s where I was meant to be.
Jonathan Ruffer is an investment manager, art collector and philanthropist. You can book tickets for the spectacular night show at Auckland Castle at elevenarches.org. For more information, email [email protected]
Having been unable to sell in churches for well over a year due to the pandemic, we are now inviting readers to support the Herald by investing in our future. We have been a bold and influential voice in the church since 1888, standing up for traditional Catholic culture and values.
Please join us on our 130 year mission by supporting us. We are raising £250,000 to safeguard the Herald as a world-leading voice in Catholic journalism and teaching. For more information from our chairman on contributing to the Herald Patron's Fund, click here
Make a Donation
Donors giving £500 or more will automatically become sponsor patrons of the Herald. This includes two complimentary print/digital gift subscriptions, invitations to Patron events, pilgrimages and dinners, and 6 gift subscriptions sent to priests, seminaries, Catholic schools, religious care homes and prison and university chaplaincies. Click here for more information on becoming a Patron Sponsor. Click here for more information about contributing to the Herald Patron's Fund