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...


Quilldancer said...

I grew up surrounded by my mother's family, but knew next to nothing about my father's family. I started searching and in short order found a cousin who had already completed the research. I have my paternal family genealogy from the early 1400's (we come from England, actually). That helped me to see who my family is/was, but still didn't clarify me. It took Jesus to do that.

Except, while we live and serve we never really are, but instead occupy a state of becoming. In my adventure called life, I am about to become a preschool teacher. What is God thinking?

Nick said...

I think genealogy can be a good thing, especially as the bible devotes a fair bit of time to it.

A lot of people may ask - who cares who begat who? I know as a teenager I used to ask that very question. Yet God decided to include it, so there must be some wisdom to it.

I personally think the answer is this:

That it is important we remember where we came from, in order to help us on our way to where we are going. When Josiah started out as king of Judah, he had lived his life under a father who embarced idol worship... yet Josiah found his own way. He looked to his ancestors and saw that David worshipped another God - The Lord. so the bible tells us that he begins to worship the God of his forefather David.

A few verses later, it doesn't describe God as the God of David, he has become identified as Josiah's God. It is now personal. Josiah has moved from exploring his heritage to claiming his own personal destiny. He has found his bearings.

There's also the old addage by Santayana - those who do not learn from history...

Naomi said...

Great post Alastair. I'm hoping to research my own family tree in the future. I have both German and Irish ancestry. I agree going to church does give you a sense of belonging and helps a lot in this crazy world we live in. Thanks for your support. I'm hoping to have the carnival post up and running tomorrow if you want to come and visit.

Marsha said...

Great post, I have dabbled a bit into genealogy, I was adopted and don't know that much about my biological parents or my ancestors but it is interesting. I think the same phenomena of moving around and a loss of connection to family and community has also occurred here in the US.

I found you at Naomi's carnival, I have a post listed there too.

Dr.John said...

When I was Pastor we had the parish records of six different churches that had merged to become United. I was always getting requests to look up when relatives came from the old country. I had a secretary who did the looking. Finally we had to charge for the service.

Marion said...

Good post, Alastair. I would like to look up my ancestors myself, just out of sheer curiosity. Unfortunately, I no longer understand German as well as I once did, which makes the whole thing far more difficult.

Janey Loree said...

I found your blog and this post in particular through Naomi's England goes GONZO! Carnival.

I have always heard that I am Irish, German and Indian from both parents and that it is possible that we are related to Robert the Bruce on my mother's side. I would like the time to see if this is true.

Great post, thank you for entering it in the carnival!

The Gatekeeper said...

First of all, may I say, you are a wonderful writer. And secondly I very much agree with what you wrote about. My family came from Indonesia and simply had to escape that country because of civil war (both my parents were POWs in WWII). Our families stayed together in New Guinea on the main island till again they had to escape from there. In any case I guess I could go on and on. All that to say, I have cousins who are more like brothers and sisters. We all have started writing the stories of our parents and grandparents making sure to hand it down from generation to generation. We don't have a country to belong to but wherever we traveled we did it all together (about 5 families). We are grateful our roots are in Jesus and that sense of belonging is pretty awesome. Thanks for the post. I came here from Naomi's Carnival also.

CyberCelt said...

I grew up with a mom, dad, older brother and sister and a younger sister. When I was 5 we went to see people in New York and that was the first I know of roots. I returned several times. I liked the feeling of family.