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Hallo again to all.

As we watch the months and years go by, we're sometimes given to reflect on the advantages of being twice as old as once we were. One interesting change, which our parents never taught us to expect, is that we seem much better able to answer the question 'Who are you? What is your identity?'

As children, our identity derived from our parents. 'Who am I?' 'I'm their child'. As we learned about the society around us, we learned to define ourselves in terms of our role in that society. We've seen the question 'Who are you?' be answered in many different ways, in terms of birth, position, family, occupation, appearance, vocation, or what-have-you:

  • I'm Eliza Callahan.
  • I'm the milliner's apprentice.
  • I'm the village idiot.
  • I'm married to Chris Onderdonk.
  • I'm a huge fan of Manchester United.
  • I paint murals; in fact, I painted that one over there.
  • I am the champion batsman on the cricket team.
  • I'm the law in this town, and you were driving too fast.
  • I'm God's child, and so are you.

Most urban-world people seem not to have a very strong sense of who they are. When we meet someone who does — an articulate bishop, a gifted voice teacher, a compelling photographer, we marvel at our good luck in finding a person who knows what it is that she sees when she looks into a mirror.

A thousand years ago, a person's identity was his name, rank and place of birth, profession, and perhaps a distinguishing mark. Tom the blacksmith from Whitby, John the baker with the broken nose from Pickering, Giovanni the musician from Palestrina. Ten people all living in, say, Hindolveston had nearly everything in common; they talked only to each other, shared the same food supply, weather, and diseases, and more often than not had very similar genetic makeup. 'Who are you?' 'I live in Scawton Moor.' It's always made sense to organise people geographically, so the church mapped the world into parishes, deaneries, dioceses, and the like. Where you lived became a strong component of your identity, and people who were like you lived nearby.

At present, we're all observing people whose identity is so at odds with their church that they want to break away to form their own. It seems to us that such people often define themselves not in terms of what they are, but of what they are not. Modern communication makes it easy to form affinity groups from people who live apart, and modern transportation makes it possible for those diffuse affinity groups to get together for, say, corporate worship. So it's possible to form congregations consisting of people who have the same dislikes, the same sense of who they are not, simply by drawing from a wide enough area. This might not be compatible with the historical notion of a parish or diocese, but in this 21st century, it can be made to work. Is it a good thing? That's a question for another letter.

Whether good or bad, the church will not be destroyed, because the church is people, not buildings or parishes. As long as we raise children in the Christian faith, the church will thrive and evolve into the next century and beyond. Perhaps the organisational structures of the church need some work. Perhaps the buildings will become too irrelevant, too valuable, or too dangerous to use for worship. But as long as we continue to define ourselves in terms of what we are, rather than what we are not, then succeeeding generations can know the same faith that we do.

Who are we? We are Christians who believe in the Creeds; who look to scripture, tradition, and reason; who treasure the Book of Common Prayer; who hold holy the sacraments. We also love the art, music, history, and liturgy — but that's not so much what we are, as what we do.

See you next week, doing what we always do.

Brian Reid's signature
Cynthia McFarland
Brian Reid

Last updated: 25 January 2004

A thin blue line
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