Weekly Reflection – History as a Tool for Mission

13 April 2023

Father Chris

It is Easter week, and yet in Horbury there is ‘no rest for the wicked’, as my attention has now turned to a big community occasion which is taking place at the end of the month, namely a weekend celebrating the 300th birthday of John Carr, architect of such beautiful neoclassical masterpieces such as Harewood House, Buxton Crescent and Wentworth Woodhouse… and St Peter’s Church in Horbury!

I have always found history captivating, though my interest in it was renewed when I could specialise in certain aspects of theology as part of my undergraduate degree. At that point I chose to study the early-mediaeval and mediaeval church, as well as the Church of England in the nineteenth century. Both periods were fascinating for different reasons: the former helped me understand how Christianity came to this Sceptred Isle in the Gregorian mission in 597, and how it was expressed domestically and abroad, all the way through to the High Middle Ages; whilst the latter helped me to appreciate how the Church of England came to understand itself as a branch of the universal church throughout the world, and what that meant in how we expressed our faith.

In the Preface to his Historia Ecclesiastica, the Venerable Bede wrote ‘Should history tell of good men and their good estate, the thoughtful listener is spurred on to imitate the good; should it record the evil ends of wicked men, no less effectually the devout and earnest listener or reader is kindled to eschew what is harmful and perverse, and himself with greater care pursue those things which he has learned to be good and pleasing in the sight of God.’ For Bede, then, history has a purpose, and that purpose was to instruct the present-day listener, encouraging them to the good and counselling them to avoid the bad. But more than that – because, to put it simply, God is good – history must also point and encourage us towards God himself. Therefore, history must be a tool for mission.

I have been privileged to serve in two parishes so far since my ordination. My curacy parish of Pickering boasted beautiful mediaeval wall paintings, whilst Horbury has its own unique history based on architect John Carr and Tractarian clergy John Sharp and Sabine Baring-Gould. In both of these places, I have found that history can connect those outside the church to the church herself. And this is what I am finding today as I plan this upcoming weekend. We have engaged with civic societies, historical societies, schools, architects’ firms, our local brass band, local charities, businesses and other organisations, as well as (in this case) historical attractions from much further afield, who share our passion. Many of these people we will welcome through our doors from 28th to 30th April. We will have opportunity to make them welcome, to celebrate with them, and to tell them part of the story they might not often think about – the faith which inspired Carr to knock down an old church and build this Georgian gem, the shape of the worship and how it has changed over the years, how buildings are designed for the glory of God, and how even man-made beauty points to the Beautiful One himself.

As you might be aware, another big event is on the horizon for our nation, and that is the coronation. Steeped in history, this experience we will all share provides an opportunity for evangelism and mission. I say let’s grab the opportunity with both hands! Let’s pray for the King as he prepares to be set aside for his God-given role, that the people might come to appreciate what this is all about. Let’s pray for the Church in her national role, that in the words she chooses and the interpretation she gives she might point people to Christ. Let’s pray for churches up and down the country who are engaging in local events, that these might be opportunities to plant seeds of faith and nurture them in individuals. I hope and pray that this exciting piece of history which we will soon live through will above all be an opportunity for mission and that God’s kingdom may increase through it, for at the end of the day, is this not exactly what we are commanded to do at Easter? ‘Go and tell!’

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