I spent some of this morning with one of my property
managers, going through some old papers from the church safe and the former
Church Council Secretary. The Church Council had tasked us with sorting out
what we needed to keep, and what should be offered to the county council
archives service. I find this occasional exercise a fascinating one, especially
when looking out for what familiar names were doing in their youth.
However, much of the job involves saying that we do not need
various documents. Among the church magazines, no-longer-needed financial
papers and other items were photographs and documents relating to key stages in
the building and the congregation’s past. In 1986, someone had done some
research, ready for the seventy-fifth anniversary. 1938 was the year that the
church hall had been built, and we found lists of people who had purchased
bricks. In 1963, the church had been rebuilt. We found one of the financial
appeal letters, and a collection of photos, both from the reopening and the
opening of the hall in 1938. We could not keep all these items, but were
conscious of needing to deal with them carefully if unsentimentally.
For these documents are inanimate testimonies to the work of
God in the past, and we are not isolated from what they represent. What we do
today builds on the faithfulness of God in previous generations, and those
generations’ choices to be faithful to the voice of God, insofar as they heard
him. We looked at people in the pictures, and generally didn’t know who any of
them were (apart from deducing the name of one, because she was clearly
performing the reopening ceremony in 1963, and there is a large plaque naming her).
It would have been all too easy to say, ‘We don’t know these people, get rid of
the pictures,’ but they represented key stages in the life of the church. We kept
Not knowing someone can lead to devaluing them. As we looked
at the photos this morning, we had to remember that the people depicted were
made in the image of God, and many (if not all) of them were disciples of
Jesus. Thus, there was a Christian imperative for us to treat these objects
with a particular dignity.
Even the elderly financial documents that we agreed to shred
had to be handled carefully. Some of them detailed the decisions
Christ-followers had made about their missionary giving. Granted, the facts and
figures were no longer needed and we had limited space to play with, but the
books stood for something. Ultimately, though, a list of dates and numbers didn’t
connect us with personalities so much as photographs did.
What I would hate is if everything of value at the church
were reduced to memories with little hope for the future. We can’t discard the
past – a Protestant error much in common with modernity – for we need our links
with the faithful work of God in Christ through all generations. We shouldn’t
give the impression that everything was wrong until we turned up, any more than
we should wallow in a false image of the past when everything was supposedly
wonderful, unlike today. Past, present and future need to be linked dynamically
in corporate discipleship (or social holiness, as Wesley called it).
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