Friday, 23 March 2012

History that Helps

As every priest knows, you ignore the history of a parish at your peril! Each community has its historical narrative - parts of it repeated over and over in not altogether identical versions, other parts half-remembered and implicit in the things that are held to be important in the community (and woe betide you if you ignore these underlying stories which point you to the things that have taken on the power of symbols in your particular neighbourhood!) The distinct narrative of any community forms the context for contemporary mission and ministry and in fact contains many clues as to how your community reacts to change.

I was grateful to Bishop James for pointing me towards the Building on History Project that has been running in the London Diocese.

This project, which has been run by Kings College London, the Open University, the Arts and Humanities Research Council and the Diocese of London, is aimed at getting churches to look at their own history as a tool for helping them to be the church of the present in their own locality more effectively. It helps parishes to ask the question, 'What can we, the contemporary church, facing similar challenges, learn from our church's response to past challenges in their historical context?' By looking at the religious and social history of an area and understanding how the churches have coped with demographic and theological developments in the past, the project helps churches to gain confidence in facing the changes that confront us now. If you think about the ways in which museums and schools work to help us appreciate local history today and the contribution this makes to our sense of local identity, you can see that for a church to dig deep into its own historical treasures - both artefacts and oral history - will enable its members to make better-informed decisions and will provide practical wisdom about how the community might react to change. Historical awareness contributes inspiration, challenges wrong assumptions and helps us to a better sense of proportion and perspective. As Richard Chartres, the Bishop of London puts it, 'The person who has a sense of history and no sense of destiny is doubtless very tedious. But the person or community with a sense of destiny and no sense of history is very wasteful and even dangerous.' Rowan Williams, in a project podcast, says, 'We often take for granted that things have always been like this. But, actually, of course, to understand the past is to understand how things change.' 

If you go to the website above, it gives you guidelines for writing a church and parish history, gives ideas for how you can use history to inform contemporary mission and ministry and tells you how to conduct a 'history audit' of your congregation. It also helps you prepare a Statement of Significance for your church - a vital document if you are applying for faculties or funding.

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