John Briggs and I met as freshmen reading History at Cambridge nearly half a century ago.1This paper expresses where I came to through my early attempts to be a church historian, which occupied much of my time 1960-1975: I did not want to do antiquarian or institutional church history, but rather to practise church history in close relation to theology, missiology and practical theology. I tried to persuade the Ecclesiastical History Society to engage, but after some happy, involved years, I moved to working more through theology to the contemporary making of church history. Our year in Germany 73-74, studying Barth, Bonhoeffer, Vogel and Dibelius in their time, filled this turn out. After that, I taught little church history, but worked at political theologies, and the ‘social responsibility of the local church’ and such things.
So when I had the chance to write something for John Briggs’ festschrift, and given that he had become a leading British Baptist historian and ecumenist, it seemed a paper like this was a good fit.
So far so good. I wrote this paper when I was depressed by church. It was good for me as an historian to write about what I knew from decades of participation, but I could not write in tune with the complacent self-congratulation that was strong in the church. In general terms I think the church is fallible, sins and is lamed by its histories, and I could not see the churches I knew as an exception. Church does not live and do well out of its natural virtue, but by knowing and responding to forgiving grace, which enables living in the truth about what is and what we are called to. Now in our active retirements we have, besides our pensions, stores of experience to mull over. Perhaps we should give ourselves the leisure to do that – if mulling can be saved from being pointless self-indulgence. I think of a Baptist church founded a few years before we met. When I first knew it, it was in the innocence of youth – deciding its character, excited in doing things for the first time. Now it has settled habits and it has so much experience that it seeks relief from some of it in forgetfulness. Should this church have ‘each sweet Ebenezer in review’, along with the ‘cisterns all broken’ – even though it has lost the hymnody and the reading of the Authorized Version of the Bible which would make such expressions intelligible? Put the question in the plain secularised language which may be all the church now has left: Should this local church write a history to mark its fifty years? Can it?
There are secular reasons for attempting it. A church is an idiosyncratic piece in the mosaic of local history and society. As face to face, participative local community has weakened, it may be useful to tell the story of any group such as a local church, which has resisted, even bucked, the trend. Civil society is an empty ideological wish, unless there are, on the ground, intentional communities, with the courage to dissent and to take initiatives out of obedience to a transcendent call, not asking for the permission of the state or the support of the cultural mainstream – or even of bishops and the like.
In a society that sees itself increasingly as secular, so that it overlooks churches because it has ceased to have an eye for them, it is an issue of public health to tell the story of local churches, both as points where people are gathered in community and as bases for diasporic mission and service in society at large. In a society where religion has social salience mostly as it is intertwined with minority ethnicity, and where the white majority is judged to be secular and decisively dechristianised, media and administration assume too glibly that Christianity is dying, in contrast to other faiths which are lively and growing. A local church history might have a critical impact on these convenient but misleading simplicities of social managers and secular interpreters.
But the church has its own vital churchly reasons for taking on the hard work of writing a history. The local church professes to be a community of people called by God to be his friends, to share his life and mission. The church lives by confessed faith. It looks to God in prayer. The Church is the steward and carrier of the Gospel of grace. This Gospel is not empty words, but the living Word of God. The Gospel therefore has a history in the church, if it has any truth; and to tell a church’s history is at heart to assess whether it is standing or falling, an issue which turns on its relation to the Gospel. It is not consistent to confess faith in the history-making God of the Bible, Father, Son and Holy Spirit making all things new, and then to shy away from telling our own little histories within the horizons and priorities of the revelation and grace of God. A body claiming to be church is without integrity if it does not attempt to understand its history in wider categories than those of secular caution.
Church history is indeed to be written in modern fashion, evidence-based, critically open in interpretation, but it should be unhappy if there is little about the style and substance of what it writes to remind us of the Bible and to root us more deeply in the history-making love of God in Christ. The church is a community of faith only within the constant practice of critical reflection on its history. This reflection is not a way of leaving faith behind, but is an action of faith seeking understanding for fuller obedience. The church may seek to know itself, in part, by examining the way it has come to the present moment. Being church means taking responsibility for the way it is on and, for that, it needs to understand its own history as the history of the Gospel within the history of the world. Church history is a means of churchly self-monitoring, which helps it to navigate through the times given to it.
The church responsible in time
The function of history in the church’s service of God is not to root us in the past, but to help us to understand ourselves and our situation so that we may be faithful now to God’s calling. The church is always in time, in situations where it must make decisions about its way. God does not have puppets nor does God spare the church this responsibility. Church meetings, like Councils and the Papacy, not only may err, but do err and stray from God’s ways (but not like lost sheep, rather as human beings who should know what they are doing). Nowhere in the Church does God take away human freedom by the Spirit. Fallibility does not excuse the Church from using every means to find the wisdom to make good decisions, which are simultaneously ambitious for the Kingdom of God and modest in their reformability.
How then is church history to be written, if its centre is the history of the Gospel in the church? In the church, all sorts of secular and religious elements, including theology, spirituality, church sociality, ethics, action and organisation intertwine: a history has to make the complexity intelligible, rather than denying it by simplification. Very easily church history slips into a kind of organisational history or cultural studies where the Gospel is not the norm and inspiration of the enquiry. The slippage will not be prevented by imposing some doctrinal orthodoxy as the constant marker amidst the fluctuations of church life. Writing the history of doctrine, even of what we believe is essential and true doctrine, is not the same as writing the history of the Gospel in the Church. The historian needs to look for what I call ‘operative theologies’, which encompass the complexity of church existence, to discern what Gospel the church really believes, embodies and communicates through the activities and relationships which make up the totality of its being. An operative theology of a church may be at variance, for better or worse, with the professed doctrine of the church. An operative theology is what the Church is in relation to God, in the wholeness of its living. Operative theologies are useful heuristic instruments to get at the distinctive interrelating features of a local church, and at important changes it has worked through as a community of the Gospel. A church may adhere without apparent change to an ancient doctrinal statement, while, as church seeking to be contextually faithful, it runs through a succession of operative theologies.
Why the history of the last fifty years?
The most recent fifty years or so of any group’s history is special, because that is virtually the whole of the period which is represented in the community today by persons still alive who shared in making and suffering the church’s history. The church as an inclusive fellowship of responsible persons, who are called to grow up into truth in the love of Christ, has to be aware of and to incorporate what each of its living members bring to it. But this can only be done with those who are alive today.
Go back more than fifty years and we have to reckon seriously with the Death of the Past. Those who made history then are no longer alive now. They cannot explain, defend, prolong, apologise for, attempt to modify the outcomes of their action by doing something more. What they have done may be open to multiple interpretations and exploitations, but they no longer are the living, changing agents and foci of the process. The dead may be held in honour or execrated; they may illumine our life now, but only because we think about and make something of inert relics, their ‘remains’. Those who now live have to pick up the pieces the dead have left, as best they can. But they will not have them as fellow-workers, in the flesh. Most of the dead are gone entirely into oblivion; we do not even know their names. Even those who have left evidence behind them have no voice to question what we make of it. (John: did you hear Saltmarsh in 1958, lecturing on archaeological sources for very early economic history, pathetically declaiming: ‘But – the stones do not speak!’?) Though the old are on average nearer to the dead than the young, they are not to be treated as having already joined their company. Loving concern for senior people is proper to the church: listening to and respecting what the old have to say for themselves may save us on the day when the Son of Man comes: ‘When did we see you old and overlooked you, as though you were already dead?’ Many of the old are vigorously opinionated, loathe to yield interpretation and management to the young. So the history of the last fifty years is open to contestation in the whole community, in a way that earlier history is not.
Conversation and congregational edification
In the congregation of the living, the oldest sources are still part of the discussion about what the past means. Historical work on the last half-century is essentially conversational. It contributes very directly to answering questions like: Who are we today? What is this community? What has it been making of itself in the time in which we have been consciously active? What is its situation and condition? What are its possibilities for the future?
Because it is a conversation for the whole church, church history cannot be restricted to the faithful recording of the reminiscences of the old – that would be scissors-and-paste. It does not give an uncritical platform to the memories of the old: they are not fresh and reliable eye-witness accounts, for they have been spun and respun over the years in favour of the tellers. The old can insist on their accounts of the past or keep evidence locked up as their secret (too much for the young to bear, but we were tough, they say), so the conversation is truncated. As we get older, the lust for gerontocracy may grow, (Après moi, le déluge) until we are saved only by forced terminal resignation. To get away from such control, the young may decide not to listen to the old any more. Thus, the one congregation is divided; but does the grace of God concede that ‘crabbed age and youth’ cannot live together? Rather, let us seek history writing as congregational edification.
This is not to claim that the old have more wisdom than the young – and therefore should be listened to with a view to going on just like our fathers did. The older people in the church should be modest in their claims. Individually, they have messed up and fallen short in various ways; taken together, we who are old today must admit how far we have failed to prevent or even come to terms with the massive decline of christianity in this country in our lifetime. The elders are all fallen – though not more fallen than anyone else. They make a major contribution to church history by filling it out as a confession of sin and a record of sufferings. The natural man dies hard, lusting for unending celebration culminating in the one-sidedness of polite obituary; but the man in Christ grows into the truth: Nothing in my hand I bring, simply to thy Cross I cling.
Building up the congregation involves working with the people who are available. Though ministers and leaders sometimes sweep in like new brooms, and, deliberately or accidentally, purge the membership in order to renew the Church, it is in the long run no way to build up the congregation. Eventually, even the perfect have to reconcile themselves, as God has done, to eating with publicans and sinners. It is in the table talk of Jesus, not by expulsions, that the church is sifted and reformed. What happens in meals where Jesus is present is decisive spiritual exposure of the detailed practices which are the building blocks of the history of the church: disciples disputing who is the greatest, or people despising a disreputable woman doing a good deed are made to think again and see themselves in a new way.
Older people, available to the church, are wrinkled by the struggles they have gone through – sometimes, they load themselves with boasts built up over a lifetime, which may cover unpacified insecurity; sometimes they are worn out by honest toil; sometimes, they shrivel inside prisons of bitterness and disappointment. It requires spiritual discipline in the old to avoid writing church history so as to pass on their distortions and hurts in lament, complaint, accusation. Martyrology too easily interprets the death of the faithful to establish an overriding claim, a moral hold, over those who come after. More easily than we might suppose, Christian education can aim at loading the young with all the grievance and limitation of earlier generations, so that they do not have to wait until their own creative attempt to serve God brings them into their own share of suffering. Although Christianity has martyrs, its faith and ethics is not to be shaped by them. Jesus is not Lord through martyrdom in this sense: he died in a way that was forgiving, thus setting the future, and his disciples, free from any obligation to avenge him. As human and as Christian, we are called in Christ only to liberating remembrance, not to guiding and binding memory.
And yet the losses, defeats, perplexities of life cannot be denied. Can the history of the church be written in freedom from the past’s dead hands, the empty fingers still straining for satisfaction? Can this be done without a callous indifference to the dead, which is incompatible with the hell-harrowing love of God? Can we review past conflicts and injustice, which cry out for revenge, in the spirit of the love of God for his enemies (which is the never to be forgotten foundation of the church)? Was it peace Christ made in the Cross, or is the cross still the sign ‘in which to conquer’? Can those who are making new futures, aiming not to repeat the mistakes of the past and refusing to run complacently in the ruts of tradition, at the same time remember the past redemptively? History-writing will not redeem the past by excusing it, by gilding the Cross or forgetting how the rulers of this age crucified the Lord of glory along with all their other victims, but only by learning from it, and by trying to live afresh from the reality to which the past has brought us.
Resurrection means God begins again at the Cross to which his love and the sin of the world has brought us all together. Each new day, to the end of life, invites old and young to try afresh in good hope. Simply because they probably have more years in front of them, younger people are significant – by younger people, I mean not so much infants or teenagers, but everybody who is at least ten years younger than I am – they are in a position to embark on and finish large projects for which I no longer have time. Such people represent the freedom of the future in the church, but they do not possess it, however great the virtue of their relative youth. The disappointed old are not to be left to seek empty comfort in stoic self-containment; being in Church means they may trust God for resurrective redemption, earthed in the next generation’s work. The young can truly help the old only if they strike out freely into new life, leaving father and mother. Of course if they leave as the prodigal did, to waste his father’s substance in riotous living, they will bring the parents down to the grave in sorrow. But if they make a good attempt to live well, though differently from their parents, then the old will be blessed with signs of surprising redemption: they can depart in peace because they have seen the salvation of the Lord; they can accept the ending of their own life, although their own work was incomplete and faulty, because the work God of God is being carried on in new ways responsive to new situations. The old are comforted not by seeing themselves prolonged in the young, but by sharing in Christ who is being formed in them too.
The old then do not demand or generate church history as celebratory vindication of their past. Nor is church history a record of the past detached from the future. Because it is a work of the intergenerational community, church history knows the past in the freedom and responsibility of the present which is called into the future. The church’s historical work is transparent conversation between unrepeatable pasts and finite but open futures.
This is a slightly revised version of the first part of paper published in the festschrift for John Briggs, Ecumenism and History, edited Anthony R Cross, Paternoster, 2002, pp 208-224.
This piece will be followed by parts two and three, tracing the themes of friendship and power in the history of the Gospel in the church.
- 1This paper expresses where I came to through my early attempts to be a church historian, which occupied much of my time 1960-1975: I did not want to do antiquarian or institutional church history, but rather to practise church history in close relation to theology, missiology and practical theology. I tried to persuade the Ecclesiastical History Society to engage, but after some happy, involved years, I moved to working more through theology to the contemporary making of church history. Our year in Germany 73-74, studying Barth, Bonhoeffer, Vogel and Dibelius in their time, filled this turn out. After that, I taught little church history, but worked at political theologies, and the ‘social responsibility of the local church’ and such things.
So when I had the chance to write something for John Briggs’ festschrift, and given that he had become a leading British Baptist historian and ecumenist, it seemed a paper like this was a good fit.
So far so good. I wrote this paper when I was depressed by church. It was good for me as an historian to write about what I knew from decades of participation, but I could not write in tune with the complacent self-congratulation that was strong in the church. In general terms I think the church is fallible, sins and is lamed by its histories, and I could not see the churches I knew as an exception. Church does not live and do well out of its natural virtue, but by knowing and responding to forgiving grace, which enables living in the truth about what is and what we are called to.