Building on HistoryA recent project in the diocese of London has shown local churches how to put their own history to work for the benefit of their life today, and can be easily used by parishes in the Episcopal Church in the US. From 2007 to 2011 two church historians worked with the diocese (whose own recent history is an interesting exception to the contemporary pattern of decline found in most major cities) to set up a web-site that could be used by parishes to do an ‘audit’ of their history and the history of their local community during the 19th and 20th centuries, and to train members of those churches to apply the insights gathered from their history to the problems and opportunities they face today.

Several trends of interest to local parishes emerged in London. First, ‘church attendance was never in the last two centuries anything approaching universal’, which means that poor attendance today is not necessarily a symptom of inexorable decline; second, the surrounding culture is not as hostile to Christianity as it is sometimes portrayed, but still has an element of ‘diffusive Christianity’ that is ‘potentially responsive to effective mission’; third, current controversies over sexuality are not much different in emotional content from past controversies over churchmanship.

The diocese also had something to learn: during the 1960s and 1970s, change in the nature of certain localities led the diocese to close many churches. The ‘audit’ shows that this was ‘short-sighted and premature’, and that some other option should be looked for in similar cases today.

The resources used for the project are still on line here, and can be used by any interested parish or diocese. The site is currently being hosted by the Open University, but may be moved in the future to the Lambeth Palace Library’s web site. A search on ‘Building on History: the Church in London’ should lead to the right web site fairly quickly, regardless of host.