Who needs history?

by Richard Clutterbuck.

Some places, it seems, have an excess of it. Northern Ireland, for example, is piled high and overflowing with a history that is handed down, in its competing versions, from one generation to the next. It’s a history expressed through community ritual that is embedded in, and expresses, narratives of dispossession and betrayal, survival and victory. Marches and murals, bonfires and ballads, language and legend: all these help to form new generations of nationalists and unionists. They are so effective that there is little prospect of a deep and lasting reconciliation between these two traditions any time soon. So much the worse for history, one argument goes, an argument reinforced by recent revivals of popular nationalism in parts of Europe and across the world. We have learned to be suspicious of history, wary of its potential to exclude, to distort and to grab power.

And yet, Christianity is necessarily historical. As Rowan Williams puts it in Why Study the Past?[i] ‘…Christians from the beginning have a strong investment in history as a discipline which seeks to hold together in one study continuity and discontinuity…’ It’s that holding together that makes Christian history more than the encoding of community identity in narrative. To proclaim, as we do in the Eucharist, ‘Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again’ is to put that tension between continuity and discontinuity centre-stage. For Christians, history is not simply a triumphant procession, but neither is it a mere backdrop to the personal experience of the individual or the collective life of a congregation. It is, to borrow a phrase from Calvin, the theatre of God’s glory. One of the reasons why Charles Wesley’s ‘And can it be’ is such a great hymn is that it sets my personal story of redemption (‘long my imprisoned spirit lay …’) within the wider history of God’s salvation (‘He left his Father’s throne above’).

The denial of this inescapably historical element in Christianity is disastrous. It tempts us to forget our shared responsibility for such distortions as anti-Semitism and the wars of religion. It makes us arrogant, as if we had found a bottle washed up on a beach, containing a copy of the New Testament and a note saying ‘turn this into a religion’. It deprives us of the wisdom and legacy of our forebears. And it leaves us ill-equipped for the task of handing on our faith to the generations that follow us.

Ethicists such as Alistair McIntyre[ii] have emphasised the need for narrative communities that encourage the development of virtue and character through their shared stories, beliefs and practices. Because I believe this to be especially true for religious traditions, I’m drawn to the recent work of American Methodist Ted Campbell. His project is to write a trilogy of books on Methodist identity. The first, Wesleyan Beliefs[iii], has been out for some time; it gives a thorough and scholarly account of what is distinctive about the Methodist approach to the common Christian doctrinal tradition. The second, Encoding Methodism[iv], looks at the way Methodists have told their story: how, from the Wesleys onwards, they have developed narratives that express Methodist identity and promote contextual interpretations of the Wesleyan tradition. His closing sentence summarises what I have been trying to argue: ‘At the heart of the Wesleyan tradition is the deep mystery of the Christian faith, and what Wesleyan Christians “hand on” today is a distinctive way of being Christian’. I look forward to Campbell’s final volume, which will focus on what he calls ‘the transmission of communally-sanctioned practices’.

So, to return to my opening question: Christians need history and they need it now. They need to find ways of handing on their stories that are constructive and critical, attractive and honest, distinctive and inclusive. The present diminished and fragile state of British Methodism is not unconnected with our collective failure to remember and hand on the rich history of how the Holy Spirit has been at work in and through us.

[i] Rowan Williams, Why Study the Past: : The Quest for the Historical Church, DLT, 2014.

[ii] Alistair McIntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, University of Notre Dame Press, 3rd ed., 2007.

[iii] Ted Campbell, Wesleyan Beliefs: Formal and Popular Expressions of the Core Beliefs of the Wesleyan Communities,  Kingswood, 2010.

[iv] Ted Campbell, Encoding Methodism: Telling and Retelling Narratives of Wesleyan Origins, New Room, 2017.

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