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1799 fashion-plate
Off to church: 1799.

Hallo again to all.

Recently some dear friends of ours bought a new house. Well, it isn't exactly new, it's 200 years old. It's new to them. But it's very old to everyone else. The house is in the USA, where most people live their entire lives without ever touching something that is 200 years old.

Built in 1799, slightly renovated a time or two since, perhaps 10 to 15 families have successively called it home. The year that it was built John Moore was the Archbishop of Canterbury, George III was King of England, the ship Hillsborough delivered a load of Irish convicts to New South Wales, Napoleon captured Jaffa in Palestine, New York began the process of abolishing slavery, Pierre Bouchard found the Rosetta Stone, and George Washington died at his home in Virginia.

The world has changed a great deal since then, and the old house has changed somewhat. It now has electric lights and wiring, indoor plumbing, sash windows, and Yale door locks. But it has the same floors, walls, beams, and rooms, and much of the same plaster, foundation, and cabinetry. Walking in via its heavy oak front door you can feel yourself stepping backwards in time. You can almost hear the footsteps of the tinkers, milliners, bankers, bishops, and unruly teenagers who walked across that threshold during the 75,000 days that it has greeted the rising sun.

2004 fashionista
Off to church: 2004.

We listened in fascination as our friends discussed how they would move their life into that old house. There's only one electrical outlet in each room; there are no lights on the ceilings. There is no water closet on the ground floor. The stairs are impossibly narrow and rickety. The biggest bedroom can only hold what is euphemistically called a 'double bed'.

Old meets new. The new occupants must adjust their lives to be more in line with the expectations of two centuries ago, but, as with additions of electricity and plumbing, sometimes the right thing to do was to make an appropriate change to the house rather than to wash clothes on a washboard by candlelight. This intertwining of time, culture, identity, and history is something that cannot be experienced in a young place. Everything in Brasilia was designed and built 40 years ago; there is yet no pressure of time on it to change, die, or become a museum. Rome and London and Jerusalem are vastly older, but even in the oldest cities it is rare to find, still in use, a structure more than a few centuries old.

We watch the quarrels in our church, as some people push for change while others push for constancy. We don't think either is really possible: if the church changes too much, it won't be the church any more, and if it is too constant, then it won't help people find faith and salvation any more. As we listen to those who want the church to revert to 'the way it was', it seems to us that almost all of them are trying to rebuild the church of their childhood, not the church of 1799 or 1599 or 399. Is their ideal the faith delivered by the saints or is it a faith delivered by their godparents during the time that they served as an acolyte? Almost no one really knows where their idyllic notion of 'the way it was' originates.

Very few people seem to know much about what the church was in centuries past. Like our friends moving into the old house, perhaps we of today must carefully balance the majesty of the past with the majesty of today, neither tearing down the old house to replace it with a split-level nor lighting candles to illuminate the washtub for the monthly bath.

See you next week. (That's on the Gregorian calendar, not the ancient Julian.)

Cynthia McFarland's signature
Brian Reid's signature
Cynthia McFarland
Brian Reid

Last updated: 27 June 2004

A thin blue line
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