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Hallo again to all.

Richard Rawlinson
Richard Rawlinson

Some time in the spring of 1741, a brilliant if rather eccentric chap called Richard Rawlinson — that would be Richard Rawlinson, Doctor of Laws and Fellow of the Royal Society — bargained with some grocers, candle makers, and unknown others (cordwainers? coopers?) to obtain from them the papers of two recently deceased Bishops of London, the Right Reverend Henry Compton and the Right Reverend John Robinson. We'll let Dr Rawlinson pick up the story:

Amongst those of the first [Compton] were original subscription and visitation books letters and conferences during the apprehensions of Popery amongst the clergy of the diocese, remarkable intelligences relating to Burnet and the Orange Court in Holland in those extraordinary times before 1688, minutes of the proceedings of the Commissioners for the Propagation of the Gospel, and a great variety of other papers.

Amongst those of Bp Robinson, numbers of originals relating to the transactions of the treaty of Utrecht, copies of his own letters to Lord Bolingbroke, and originals from Lord Bolingbroke, Lord Oxford, Electress and Elector of Hanover, Ormonde, Stafford, Prior, &c.; letters from the Scots deprived Bishops to Compton, and a variety of State papers.

They belonged to one Me [Anth.] Gibbon, lately dead, who was private secretary to both the afore-mentioned prelates.

Stop. Rewind.

The bishops' papers were sold to — or found in a rubbish bin by — a grocer and divvied up with the local candle maker and '&c'? Any of us with any sense of history must be on a fainting couch.

If it weren't for Richard Rawlinson's acquisitive love of books and papers*, which presumably led him to the said grocer, there would be virtually no records of the early efforts to plant the church in America, as those are drawn from minutes and correspondence of the Society of the Propagation of the Gospel created during the tenures of Henry Compton [Bishop of London, 1675-1713] and John Robinson [Bishop of London, 1713-1723]. Presumably they were about to be used to wrap fish. Without RR, there would be critical gaps in our understanding of the negotiations that led to the Glorious Revolution. Without RR, we should have far less material regarding the Scottish non-juring bishops. And without RR, the loss of a 'variety of State papers' might well be incalculable.

In this little drama, it's tempting to make one Mr Anthony Gibbon the villain. Did he weary of the mass of papers left to his care and heave them into the street? Did he see a quick shilling or two to be made on the sale of 'good serviceable material' for local shop owners? Did he intend to do something honourable with the papers and then drop dead unexpectedly of a heart attack? We've not tried to trace Mr Gibbon, so we're not able to hazard a guess. But the near-death experience of these papers led us to brood on the question of Just What Survives.

Parishes throughout the Anglican Communion are both creators and custodians of paper†. Records made by rectors and vicars; by vestries and PCCs; by guilds and committees and task forces. In ancient parishes, these records have implications beyond the history of the parish; their very age makes them critical primary-source documents for societal history. And records of the last few decades (which no doubt seem decidedly unromantic to us), after a 100 years or so become matter of historical importance.

Do you know the scope of the records of your parish? Does someone? Is there an archivist or historian in the parish? (If your parish is blessed with one, she is doubtless working for love, not money.) Is there an archives committee? Is anyone aware of where older records are kept? In a damp closet or a mouldy cellar? Are they roasting in a garret? What survives?

In general, parishes in the UK seem more often to transfer custodial responsibility for historic records to a county Public Record Office. Whether this is the result of government mandates or simply a successful emphasis on best practice, we're not certain. In the States, the practice is far more variable. Historic parish records — aside from the very early colonial parishes with a clear sense of historical responsibility — seem often (and alas) to be in the often erratic custody of the parishes themselves.

Oh come, we can hear some of you murmuring, what about homosexuality, then? Or bishops crossing borders? Or the doings of General Synod? There is much we need pay attention to in our churches and our communion. There is much that is of high and distracting concern. This small plea for caring for the equivalent of Lady Julian's hazelnut, in the overall scheme of things, may seem precious or, God forbid, pointless. But as the Institute for Historical Research has it:

In its approximations to reality, history has always been constrained by availability of evidence.

Sources are to history what bricks and mortar are to architecture. Although the past can be imagined and designed, it can never be securely constructed except upon a foundation of sources . . . That is why historians converse endlessly about the nature and quality of their sources. That is why they constantly search for new and more diverse forms of evidence about the past.

Don't Destroy the Evidence! Consider surveying your parish's archives for a Lenten project. If there is an ongoing effort in your church, perhaps you'd like to assist. Or contribute a few pence! Help preserve the evidence, dear friends. Richard Rawlinsons aren't always there we when need them, to bargain away from the grocer the papers of a bishop.

And what of Richard Rawlinson's enormous collection? He took diligent steps to ensure that it would survive — and survive well. For £3.50, you can download his 1752 Will as a PDF from the National Archives and have a look.

See you next week.

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Last updated: 15 February 2009

* Along with charters, seals, pictures, and just about every sort of curio

† The question of the archival protocols for digital records is a subject of enormous importance. Its implications are just being grasped and beyond the scope of this essay.

‡ As an example, Trinity Church Boston made arrangements some years ago to transfer its records to the Massachusetts Historical Society.

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