Anniversaries - what are we celebrating?
Anniversaries provide the potential to reach out to a wider audience, as custodians of historic buildings make links with famous people or events. But anniversaries may take us into uncharted territory as we delve deeper into our own histories and that of our nations to try to find the connections and some meaning which we can latch onto.
Widely publicised, most will be aware by now that this year is the bicentenary of Dickens’ birth. Many will be able get some mileage from this – where he lived, where he wrote about and the organisations that he was involved with. But is this looking back where the celebrations stop? Does it matter that Dickens was born 200 years ago rather than 100? What if he had been born 50 years ago? Someone during a television debate in February suggested that had he been alive today he would have written for film or television rather than novels. Another commentator supposed that he would have written about the Occupy movement, debt and the burden that national debt places on the poor. As a social commentator of his time we might ask, ‘What would Dickens have done if he were here today?’ and perhaps in parallel we might reflect, ‘What might we do?’ Our history often provokes us to think of our present.
Are all anniversaries to be celebrated or do some just need marking? We celebrate anniversaries of people’s births and we also mark the anniversary of their deaths. Really by marking someone’s death we are celebrating their life not their demise. In the Unitarian community we are debating whether or not we should be celebrating the 350th anniversary of the Great Ejection of 1662? This was when some 1,700 ministers of religion found that they could not in all conscience accept the 39 Articles of Faith of the Church of England and the Book of Common Prayer and therefore, having refused to sign an oath, they were ejected from the Church of England.
For Unitarians along with other non-conformist faith communities, 1662 and beyond was a period steeped in the sacrifices of men, women and children. The ministers lost their livelihoods, their homes and in some instances their country. At a time when Church and State were inextricably linked with the Monarch as head of both, non-conformity to the Church was often viewed as non-conformity to the State.
So are non-conformists like Unitarians really going to celebrate what is termed an ejection? Are we going to celebrate the beginning of years of persecution and blatant inequality? Or should we be re-titling the event as a colleague suggested, ‘For our spiritual ancestors it was perhaps more akin to an "Exodus" - a new beginning, a journey to somewhere new and hopefully better’. Perhaps we are not celebrating the ejection but what it led to although that was a long time coming. Dissenters were prevented from worship, from holding public office (until 1835) and from providing education. The last vestiges of this were in 1913 when professors at Oxford and Cambridge were at last allowed to be non-Anglicans. That was 250 years after the Great Ejection.
Commemorating 1662 teaches us about history and what people were prepared to endure because of the dictates of their consciences, and it moves us to think about:
• Countries where freedom of religion does not exist or only exists in limited ways;
• How slow some change can take hold - sometimes over centuries;
• The importance of religion to many people who would give up their livelihoods, homes and sometimes lives;
• The links between church and state - as recently as February there was a court ruling outlawing the saying of prayers at the beginning of a local council meeting; and
• Perhaps some of the freedoms that we take for granted.
Whether we mark or celebrate historic events, they cause us to take stock and reflect. And so does Heritage Open Days. The event is about showing off our heritage but that heritage is much more than bricks and mortar. It is a human story full of courage, endurance, integrity and the espousal of ideals. If we get it right we can raise awareness of our present as well as our past. Surely this is what history should do – teach us something about our world and also ourselves.