Anglican Newsletter for June
It is strange how totally disparate experiences can lead to thinking about common themes. In recent months I have been involved in trying to transfer damp-damaged VHS recordings (home movies) onto DVD and to put together a family tree of my wife’s family. A week or so ago we spent a week two or three hundred yards or so from the site of the Sutton Hoo Burial ships. All these quite independently entered into experiences have led me to wonder about the importance of continuity.
We have been entranced watching re-discovered home movies of over twenty years ago – of our younger children, reminded of the ways of moving and the voices of little children that we loved but who no longer exist. While delighted with the memories, we have also been sad at their loss – it is almost like a gentle bereavement. Our adult children of today are not the infant children of years ago. On the other hand to see grandchildren whose ways of moving and speaking or shouting or crying are so reminiscent of those lost little ones of the past is really exciting. But then as I move about the house, I see the photographs of the children at different ages through their lives and I cannot say when one age disappeared to be replaced by another. The process of development is continuous and almost impossible to grasp as it happens – first steps, first words spoken are the obvious sorts of contradictions to that statement, but such events are much more ephemeral after the first couple of years. So actually they are the same children; the love and joy are as complete, if less explosive and active. The sadness at the loss of the little child to the growing man or woman is almost sweet - certainly poignant.
For those few who read this who have truly lost a child, but to untimely death, these words must be awful. The message that ‘life does go on’ must ring awfully hollow and give little comfort. On the other hand I was reminded by a lady only three or four weeks ago of an address I gave at a Midnight Service on Christmas Eve several years ago, which she and her father heard. He had lost his wife some time before and whatever I said had relieved his grief, although not his sadness – he felt he was now able to move on. I have no idea what I said and have no relevant recollections at all – my words may have been totally bland nothings to everyone else there, but they did hit a receptive spot where they mattered and helped to enable one person’s ‘life to go on’.
I have been interested in my own family tree for some time and have borrowed much research by family members to get a picture of my father’s antecedents. My wife’s mother died last year and following that we have received a number of very old photo albums and bibles and prayer books with dates and comments in them that triggered a real interest in her family. Then a few weeks ago, we received a lengthy document written in 1941 by one of my wife’s great aunts, who was then a 60 year old nun. Over 40 or 50 typed pages, she told the story of her childhood and of her eight brothers and sisters, focussed around the life of her father, mother and step-mother, with a wealth of family history in appendices at the end. This really touching and informative document led me to spend many hours putting together a family tree with at least two roots going back to the seventeenth century. I and my wife have now a so much better understanding of who her mother was, as a result of knowing so much more about her parents, aunts and uncles, grandparents and so. It is almost as though we can reach back to them ourselves, as friends that we almost know. I have recently, entirely accidentally, found records of one of my own grandmother’s family, as recorded in the Church Registers of a small village in Kent, going back to the early seventeenth century.
‘History is bunk’ said Henry Ford (or was it someone else – but who cares) – we all know that is actually bunkum, although many of us would admit, at best, to being bored by history and, at worst, to actually seriously disliking it. But Time is inexorable and continuous, starting at The Creation (or The Big Bang, if you prefer) and ending at The Last Trump (or, if you prefer, the final whisper). If we have any hope for the future we have to recognise that there had to be a past and that today’s present was formed by the past and, in its turn, informs the future. It should be, then, at the very least, interesting to look at the past and how it has shaped us.
At Sutton Hoo, we were reminded of the civilisation of the early Anglo-Saxons fourteen centuries ago. But we were not just casually reminded, but had to be strongly reminded that we are still Anglo-Saxons, for all the changes we see around us – not least arising from the massive immigration of the past five or six decades. Our culture is substantially based on our language and 80% of our vocabulary (including 99 of the 100 most commonly used words in the language) are still words that remain recognisably Anglo-Saxon. On the other hand the countryside that the Angles, Saxons, Jutes, Frisians, Geats, etc invaded and settled in that second quarter of the first millennium AD (or, if you prefer, CE) would not be particularly recognisable to us, if we were hurtled back by a time-machine. Our fields and hedges were nearly all heath, woodland and forest the. But, as with our children, if we could see photos of the landscape taken every fifty years, we would not see the changes happening – they are visible only after long gaps – but the process was nonetheless going on all the time.
New Kings of The Netherlands, Archbishops of Canterbury, Popes, Chairmen (Secretaries?) of the North Korean Communist Party are all milestones, but the roads they mark continue with no obvious changes visible beside those stones, although looking back over many miles, the road may look very different.
The knocks and bumps on our journey are what they are. They may be uncomfortable, they may be painful, but ‘life goes on’. It has got to be so much better to raise our eyes and look to the future, over which we have (at least for our own personal selves) some real influence, than to glare at our stumbling feet and bruised toes, possible uselessly swearing and blaspheming (or even bombing) at whatever we deem to be the causes of our discomfort.