A couple of months ago a clergyman a generation older than me asked me what my PhD was about. I explained it was about Victorian Church history, looking at some of the major controversies of the period and the relationship of children’s literature to those ideas, especially Lewis Carroll’s writings (I have been known to say to people that it’s an excuse to spend six years reading Alice in Wonderland, but on this occasion I didn’t).
He smiled and was obviously amused. “So, it doesn’t actually bear any relationship to anything practical, does it?”
I felt somewhat squashed. But perhaps his point is worth answering, as we seem to live in a culture that increasingly devalues history.
Most of the people I know who are doing further study in theology have a much more obviously relatable topic to the Church or the world. They have a focus, or at least a clear link, to issues in contemporary culture: refugees, gender studies, artificial intelligence, leadership models or contemporary communication networks, for example. All these have clearly more to say to us than a few Victorians fighting over something which no-one seems to think is important anymore. It is certainly much easier, perhaps rightly, to get funding for such projects. But a world which ceases to value history as a place where wisdom can be found, fills me with a deep unease.
Today I read a very interesting letter in the Guardian that compares the stresses faced by today’s GCSE pupils to the Victorian policy of Payment by Results. https://www.theguardian.com/education/2018/may/21/gcses-are-failing-stress-test-as-students-suffer
Payment by Results, introduced in 1862, was widely criticised by educationalists, academics and social reformers. Rather than making schools improve, as the policy aimed to do, critics say that it widened gaps already present, and penalised the schools that needed support. It was so controversial, and such was the concern about the damage it was doing to schools, that public pressure eventually led to the policy being dropped. And yet here we are again, with a remarkably similar system, living out the legacy of that recent Education Minister who famously said that we had “had enough of experts”. This can only happen in a country that has decided that history is largely irrelevant.
Studying the history of the Church is not irrelevant to the life of the Church today either. As I read and reflect, I cannot help but think that we have been here before. Just as in the mid nineteenth century, the Church always seems to be in the news for the wrong reasons, we are frequently shooting ourselves in the foot, picking the wrong battles, arguing amongst ourselves and obsessing over matters which, if history is any indicator, might seem to be about fundamental doctrine at the moment but which may turn out, fifty years later, to be entirely uncontroversial.
The phrase “history has to keep repeating itself because no-one listens to it” is over used – but it is over used because it expresses a fundamental truth. When we cut back on funding and time for historical subjects: philosophy, archaeology, art, music, theology, classics, we risk losing something vital. We are our history. If we decide we are not, then we are choosing to be anchorless – helpless in our determined independence from all that has gone before – doomed to repeat our mistakes and lacking in the gifts and insights of our ancestors. Learning from history is not the same as reading it uncritically – quite the reverse. History sets us in a context, it helps us to reflect not only on where we have come from, but where we are now, and what our reasonable possibilities are for the future. Our country (including its Church) has a complicated and often problematic history – greater understanding of that is necessary in order for us to repent where appropriate, turn around, and try to do better.
And that is why it is ok to spend six years reading Alice in Wonderland.