A Rock Climbers Guide to Church, History and the Future

by the Very Revd Nicholas Henshall, Dean of Chelmsford

“Always going forward; never uprooted”.

At a tense meeting between Margaret Thatcher and David Sheppard in the aftermath of the Toxteth Riots, the Prime Minister asked the Bishop what he had studied at university. “History” he replied. The Prime Minister’s response was straight forward: “what a luxury”. It is not a story you find in David Sheppard’s official biography, but he was my sponsoring Bishop and I “heard it from the horse’s mouth”. The Prime Minister’s reflects a growing sense disconnection with the past that has been digging up our cultural roots over the last 70 years.

When I lived in Derby I came to realise that those who had demolished the Georgian brick terraces and then built a large dual carriageway straight through the centre of the city had really meant it. Concrete was the future – an ideology rooted in some extraordinary assumptions about our relation to the past and our understanding of human flourishing. To be fair, at the same time he ||TV programme Tomorrow’s World was telling us that we would all be wearing jump suits, travelling around in flying cars and going on holiday to the moon.

Our disconnect with the past is well summed up in the famous Jackson version of Tolkien, “And some things that should not have been forgotten were lost”. This is not mere nostalgia but a recognition of genuine rupture. We are heirs to the dislocations. Robert Taft, a great American liturgist and theologian, caught this in his powerful comment “those ignorant of history are victims of the latest cliché”. He was talking about patterns of worship, but it is a line worth pondering across church and wider society. Likewise, Goethe’s line that “the person who cannot draw on three thousand years is living from hand to mouth” could be the epitaph for our rootless, deracinated culture.

In this way, set free from our moorings both as church and society, we can free-wheel and invent at will, casually unaware that in burying our history we are disabling the very mechanisms that open up the possibilities of the future.

We find ourselves navigating several bogus approaches to tradition: a traditionalism that suggests that development stops at a certain point, and that a particular theologian such as Thomas Aquinas or Luther is somehow definitive for all time; or we rely on invented tradition to shore up our own view of reality; or like many artists, musicians and theologians in the post war period, simply decide to make a complete break with the past.

By complete contrast, the great conductor / composer Gustav Mahler’s take on tradition may open up a fresh and helpful seam worth mining. He suggested that tradition is “not the veneration of the ashes but the tending of the living flame”. That sounds familiar from a New Testament perspective where every scribe trained for the kingdom brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old (13.52). Whether or not that is Matthew expressing his understanding of his own role and mission as an evangelist, it certainly informs ours.

Presciently, well before the pandemic, the Taizé Community planned to focus 2020 around the line “Toujours en avant; jamais déraciné” (always going forward; never uprooted) – words from the Polish nun, Urszula Ledóchowska. That captures perfectly the dynamic of tradition that we ourselves need going forward. Certainly Covid-19 has not exactly been our Babylonian Exile, but it has confronted us with some similar questions about our future – as church and society. An Ezra-like retreat behind well defended walls is not an option as we reimagine our mission.

This is precisely not an argument for nostalgia but for radical (in the true sense) boldness. The power of Vatican II (however imperfectly realised) was that it called people back to a dynamic, future facing re-engagement with roots, rather than to an idealised version of the past painted in the colours of contemporary anxiety. Much of what we trademark as pioneering innovation proceeds not from that dynamic re-engagement but from anxiety (about numbers, survival, parish share payments, etc).

The Victorian Church saw huge growth in impact, engagement, and numbers. But in the face of Darwin, Marx and what was perceived as secularisation, they lost their nerve. The Church historian Owen Chadwick’s judgement is devastating: “they drew up the drawbridge and boiled the oil”. We still live with some of the legacies of that defensive redrawing of the boundaries and our withdrawal into chaplaincy models of pastoral care – the “manicured sheep” model, as Pope Francis calls it in his re-telling of the parable.

Faithful improvisation is a metaphor that has been used both in ethics and liturgy to suggest how we might move forward – rooted in the deposit of faith, the “tradition” if you like, But tradition not as a static body of ideas or teachings but as something more limber that never stops unfolding; tradition as dynamic, constantly providing the resources to move forward, Tradition like the rock climber moving forward with three points of contact and one hand or foot searching for the next step.

A future-facing church is not well served either by a slavish obedience to the past or the pretence that the past has no power, especially in the context of whatever re-emergence from the pandemic turns out to look like. I would suggest that Mrs Thatcher was wrong about history. History is no luxury but the dynamic engine of renewal.

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1 Response to A Rock Climbers Guide to Church, History and the Future

  1. moirabiggins says:

    Is it possible that we have over-used the metaphor of church leaders as shepherds? It is used in the New Testament, but not extensively. To me it has slightly paternalistic overtones, and Jesus said we were not call any man on earth “Father” (Matthew 23:9).

Any thoughts?