By The Ven. David Gunn-Johnson
As an archdeacon one of the never-failing pleasures was the chance to spend a while in the company of memorial stones and plaques. Admittedly with well over a hundred churchyards and church buildings to oversee there were lots of opportunities. Inevitably thoughts about the person commemorated, what their life might have been like, and how they had touched the lives of others would swirl around and frequently coalesce into a strange sense of ‘presence’ The memorial did its job.
Memorials also illustrate very clearly how the world has changed and, indeed, how the use of language has developed. I loved reading that to Hannah Atkinson which celebrated the fact that, in a long life, her religion was, “of that practical kind which betrayed no taint of enthusiasm or superstition” Enthusiasm was the word used for over-emotional methodism. Superstition was the epithet for anything vaguely Catholic – Anglican or Roman. In other words she was solid C of E!
In our Cathedral there are some splendid examples of things we would not dare to say now and, in fact, find uncomfortable. On the South Quire aisle there is remembered a lady whose, “…mind displayed an energy not often found in the female character”. Get away with that today we would not! However, these were people of their time. They thought and lived quite differently from us – from we who are also children of our time. It is pointless – even wrong – to condemn something just because it does not fit today’s concepts of appropriate and inappropriate. We too will be judged by those who come after.
Another memorial, not far away, depicts a missionary bishop who died young as a result of his labours. There are those today who dismiss all nineteenth century missionary activity as pernicious colonialism wrapped up in religion. And yet such a stance ignores the fact that these too were children of their time and many lived sacrificial, short lives in the service of the people to whom they were sent, never to see home and family again.
Others today, inflamed with anger at the awful evils of slavery would dissociate themselves from its perpetrators by destroying the memorials of those who were actively involved. Nothing can justify the enslavement of another. It is irrevocably wrong. So why do we make so much noise about past evils, which this generation did not commit, and fail to address that which is rampant in our society today and of which we can repent? Repent means stop: it means turn away from.
In a thousand small ways, even as we walk along the high street, our minds and wills are being bent towards desires and aspirations that others want us to have and some fall victim to that kind of slavery. Yet that is just the tip of the iceberg of enslavement and far below, in the dark depths of our world, there lies modern slavery of many kinds. People escaping war are trafficked. Many work long hours for next to nothing; they have no rights, no voice, and no one hears them when they call.
If we feel the need to make reparation for the past, then we might well take the energy we expend in our outrage, and put it into making things right in the present. That will take more than just words!