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Kemper wasn't crookedHallo again to all.

It started with a priest-friend who gave us upon retirement a collection of books that had been the rich intellectual and spiritual garden of successive rectories until they became too much to transplant even one more time. Then there were the groaning deaccession shelves at theological colleges and seminaries—abundance dispersed! There were astonishing finds in the least likely of places, too: a bric-a-brac shop in rural Saskatchewan; a bookstore at the airport in Milwaukee; a jumble sale at Christ Church, Emerald City; the Odd Lots section of an auction catalog. And most recently, we've found ecclesiastical treasures of the material sort hiding in plain view on eBay and similar online auction websites.

We've become—quite by accident—custodians of large amounts of ecclesiastical ephemera from the 17th through 20th centuries: books, portraits, service leaflets, CDVs, stereoviews, medals, furniture, maps, and manuscripts. Sometimes, it has seemed as though the presence of one dead bishop's papers in a house creates an almost magnetic attraction for the papers of another dead bishop. And we can assure you that CDVs are a gateway addiction....

We've done our best to repatriate these items when in some cases they appear to have gone astray from their proper places through improper channels. Oftentimes, we never have so much as a reply when writing to a national, diocesan, or parochial institution to ask whether it would welcome the return of a cache of sermons or letters by a distinguished church leader, a photo album from the parish picnic in 1934, or an engrossed baptismal certificate for a figure who went on to religious or civic prominence. In real-life examples with identifying details changed to protect the guilty:

We donated a small collection of 19th-century church newspapers to a central church archive, and never received an acknowledgment.

We inquired whether a diocese would like the free return of a cache of century-old personal papers by one of its most illustrious bishops, and received a perfunctory reply saying that they already had quite enough of his stuff, thank you very much.

We donated a rare liturgical book from the 1920s to a seminary library and received a kind email thanking us. A month later, we received an email from a friend who studies there and knew of our interest in the period, asking whether we would like the self-same book, as it had turned up in the deaccessions shelf of items free for the taking.

Nobody loved usSo, having lost the trust for some church archival institutions that we ought to have, we are content to be guardians of our goodly heritage for as long as necessary. The papers and other items that have found their way to us will be cared for, loved, and studied until we find more permanent homes for them. But they are now personal belongings of aficionados rather than the common property of the larger Church that produced them, and this should not have to be. A church should serve its members—and, indeed, the world—by making the riches of history easily accessible to those who wish to learn from them. Selling them for pennies on the pound to the commercial market where they may or may not be acquired by good custodians is only marginally better than allowing them to moulder unseen in basements. This vexing subject raises a host of questions to which we're sure there are no simple answers.

Who owns the past?

Why does the Church (with some major and delightful exceptions) seem so often bent on casting the pearls of its history before Mammon?

Who on earth allowed a manuscript of King Kamehameha's translation of the BCP into Hawa'iian to be put up for commercial sale this year?

Can a church be nourished in its own saving faith without a knowledge of its past? Put another way, how can we be equipped to feed those with hungry stomachs when our souls have not been transformed by the renewing of our minds?

It's stuff that matters in the complex answers to these questions. It is stuff—printed, written, painted, sewn, built—that carries and encodes our culture as Anglicans, and it is this culture that gives us a framework in which to pray, care, think, teach, heal, grow, feed, and sing.

See you next week, when the present will already be the past, and when we're fairly sure our newest archival acquisition—a gemma ecclesiastica of unusual importance—will have arrived safely.

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Last updated: 6 February 2011


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