On location this week in deepest Shropshire close by the Welsh border and staying in a Victorian gothic conference centre complete with red-brick clock tower, circular drive and a courtyard set back half a mile from the road past a mini version of the same for a lodge. Think Midsomer Murders local stately home, but with far friendlier people. In the entrance hall there is a display about the centre’s history and how it has changed over the years. The main rooms have signs that state the original purpose of each one, such as the butler’s bedroom. During the second world war disabled children from Manchester were evacuated here.
With apologies to those from my own church who read this column, who will know this already, it was our church anniversary on Sunday. The preacher had asked the congregation in advance to bring along items that said something about their relationship with the church or their own faith journey. Amongst other items there were several photos, a Life Boys badge, MAYC London weekend T-shirts and a leather bound Methodist hymn book you would need a magnifying glass to read. I spoke about a couple of objects in the church that have small memorial plaques on them, namely the reading desk and a grand piano, that celebrate the contributions of two families over the years. Firstly to the fabric of the church buildings since 1853, and secondly the ongoing musical tradition. I also mentioned the stained-glass windows that were restored in the early 1990s by means of a project led by a person whose first contact with the church was being brought along to the youth group by a friend, who later trained in stained glass restoration at Canterbury Cathedral if I recall correctly.
Telling stories through objects is a useful means of describing history, tradition, progress and innovation. Showing or holding something tangible that sparks a memory or enables a conversation, bringing it to life. But pause for thought about objects or places that do not hold such positive memories nor generate a warm glow such as Sunday’s service seemed to do. A group photo that includes an adult whose behaviour was concerning but left unchecked. The dark isolated space at the back of the church building. The hymnbook or bible with a dedication to someone who harmed other people. One of the sessions at the event I am at will focus on how we should address the issue of art produced by or memorials to people whose reputations, especially after their death, have been tarnished by fresh revelations about their lives or where there has been a critical re-appraisal of their work. The histories of our churches in, say, 10 key objects may tell a story that does not always sit comfortably with the story we would like it to be.
This touches on the current lively debate about statues and inscriptions. The options seem to be ‘show and explain’ or remove. Wherever one stands on this continuum, our safeguarding training reminds us that the things we do and say in church can have a powerful impact on the wellbeing of some people with lived experience of abuse. We should also pay attention to things and places if we really want to generate safe spaces.