Magazine article The Christian Century

The Past Isn't Past: The Weight of Congregational History

Magazine article The Christian Century

The Past Isn't Past: The Weight of Congregational History

Article excerpt

WHO CARES ABOUT history? I think about this question a lot because of my job as director of the Congregational Library in Boston. My association with this venerable Yankee institution, a large collection of things both important and inexplicable, means I'm often invited to churches that are celebrating anniversaries. It's the part of my job I enjoy the most--bringing words of greeting from long-dead Congregationalists whose memories are stored away in our climate-controlled archive.

I have been around long enough to recognize a congregation's collective dread when they're told that a historian is going to give the Sunday sermon, so I do a little advance research and come prepared with a few names and anecdotes from the congregation's particular story.

The more I have read congregational histories, the more I notice something that is hard to talk about: contemporary congregations seemed to be living out the sins of their ancestors. In all kinds of odd and sometimes humorous ways, congregations are all haunted by the past.

I began musing about this in earnest after visiting a mid-sized church on Cape Cod. The pastor had done a wonderful job pulling together a detailed narrative of the past 300 years, and I read almost the whole thing in one sitting. As I laid the book down, however, I began to feel obligated to pass on an urgent word of advice to this pastor and to any who followed him: Do not under any circumstances go near the water. His predecessors had drowned with depressing regularity, not just in the ocean as one might expect, but in lakes and rivers, sometimes falling off boats and sometimes just disappearing in the midst of a swim. If I were going to serve a pastorate there, I'd come with a life preserver.

I visited one 350-year-old church that had a semipublic history of sexual scandal. I also knew that it had been organized in the early 1600s under somewhat dicey circumstances, with a pastor exiled from Boston under the shadow of heresy. As the years passed, the church seemed to regularly skirt the edges of propriety. After reading that congregation's history I wanted to put the library copy back on the shelf in a plain brown paper wrapper.

I am exaggerating a little bit to make my point. I do not mean to suggest that some kind of weird determinism is at work. But I do believe that the past plays an important, often unarticulated role in creating the present-day realities of religious institutions. Memories survive in different ways, some times as a deep undercurrent of sadness or disappointment, sometimes as a tendency toward suspicion of outsiders or as resentment of authority.

The past can work in positive ways too, inuring a centuries-old congregation against panic or despair. All this suggests the importance of understanding the institutional DNA of a place--that broad set of predilections that shape (but do not determine) a church or a denomination's life course.

The daily demands of congregational life don't usually allow for critical reflection along these lines. In many churches, awareness of history rarely goes beyond a memory of old grievances. Many of the groups I visit have relatively little understanding of the origins of their congregations, let alone the origins of the denomination they may still claim. One consequence is that in the course of my visits to churches I regularly come across old record books, the painstaking labor of years--sometimes centuries--stuffed into boxes and left in unheated closets or packed away like relics, left in no one's particular care.

On the denominational level, historical awareness is often boiled down to a list of important "firsts" or various progressive stands on social issues. This string of successes is important and inspirational, but it can also become a way of disowning past sins and errors that are still folded into current realities. Most denominations end up with a baseball-trading-card approach to history--they highlight singular achievements but don't explore larger complexities. …

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