Thursday, September 27, 2007
A sense of identity
As a minister i have noticed an increase in the number of people who contact me about Parish records, burials, marriages and baptisms as they research their family tree - genealogy is obviously big business! It can be frustrating as many of these folk can be quite demanding, and trying to minister to six villages takes up quite enough time without having to travel around looking in the safes where these registers are held and search out obscure references from a hundred or two or three hundred years ago. Fortunately most of the registers over a hundred years old are held now at the local County Archive, and we have a statutory duty to send off any document over 125 years old to them anyway - that way preservation is assured, as in previous generations some rather crackers clergy or Churchwardens have had the occasional bonfire with parish records when they felt the Church or their study was getting cluttered with paper!
Many of the folk who contact me are quite intense about the whole process and have invested themselves heavily in finding out 'where they come from' - I get enquiries from all over the world, including recently the USA and New Zealand - all from 'Western civilisations'.
I think that tracing one's ancestry has become a way for people to find themselves. We are people without roots, many of us having moved all around the country and often no longer living with family. I'm not sure its a peculiarly English situation, but in the past 40 years or so in the UK we have lost the extended family and in most situations live some distance away from our families. When I was at school 30 years ago most of my friends and their families came from the same area where their parents and grandparents etc had lived for generations, movement was usually restricted from village to village rather than county to county or country to country. There were plenty of folk who had come into the area and settled down, but often that was grandparents and great-grandparents. It was only in the 1960s that the make up of our little market town in Devon really started changing. Now the norm seems to be that families move around and sometimes loose touch completely with other generations of their kinsfolk.
So people seem to want to know where they came from, in order to find out something of who they are.
We have in many ways lost a sense of local identity. We travel to the shops, to school, to work and return to our villages and suburbs for the evenings and (sometimes but not always) weekends. Very few small communities have local amenities in the way they did even one or two generations ago, fewer people work where they live, farming isn't so labour intensive so fewer 'land workers' stay where they are, schools are centralised in one community to which everyone travels rather than a tiny (often under-resourced) village school.
It's all change. And people have lost a sense of belonging.
I don't want to be seen to be spreading doom and gloom, though - people are finding other ways to build up their social and support networks and things do change, often through necessity. This isn't a rant about 'it's not as good as the old days in blighty where we all gathered around the piano on a Saturday night and every could leave their doors unlocked day and night' - though my slide into middle age does seem to make me prone to more moments like that! Really it's just an observation. In many ways life has become better, we have a pretty good healthcare system, there are lots of ways in which people are supported who wouldn't have been in 'days of yore', people often have a deeper commitment to the social networks they have chosen to belong to rather than ones they were a part of by default through geography and family.
Into all of this, certainly in my life and in the life of many I talk to, comes the Church. For me Church is (or should be) a place of belonging, welcome, of finding value, of encountering God and other people in such a way that we realise our common life. Even our most valued 'sacrament', of sharing bread and wine in Holy Communion is grounded in the understanding of being sustained by God and by one another, and in meeting God in worship, sacrament and neighbour.
Perhaps I will share a bit more of my own roots and identity in another post. But this is just to start a thought process. In 21st century England many people are asking questions like 'who am I?' and 'Where do I belong'. We are all of us engaged in finding that out, I believe it's better to find that out together.
This is my entry to Naomi's blog carnival on blogging and Britain over at 'Diary from England' Go on over there from October first for the carnival...