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  • Writer's pictureSt Giles Online

A Sense of Place

Ahead of the publication of our new parish history, Wil James considers what it can teach us about our role as a church community today.

A few months ago, I wrote here that 2024 would be a year for looking backwards. With this month’s launch of St Giles-in-the-Fields: History of a London Parish, this theme comes to the fore.

Exploring the history of our extraordinary parish is a worthwhile undertaking on its own merits. It gives us perspective, helps us to place our own time within a proper context and offers an important sense of continuity with the unreachable lives of those who lived before us.

But it would be remiss to enter this celebration of St Giles’ past without asking what such reflection means for us as a church. Christianity is, of course, an historical undertaking: through our faith and worship, we preserve a historical record of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. But does that very special history relate at all to the more diffuse, sometimes rather scandalous, history of our own parish?

I think there are important ways in which understanding our parochial history can inform what it means to be a church today. Most obviously, we can draw encouragement from the faithful examples of the people in whose footsteps we now tread. People like Louisa Twining, a nineteenth century parishioner, who campaigned tirelessly to improve the wretched conditions in the St Giles & St George workhouse. Or George Pinckard, a benefactor of our parish charities, who spoke out against the degradations of slavery he witnessed in the Caribbean, and returned to St Giles to run a vaccination clinic to tackle smallpox.

A better understanding of our local history also helps us to maintain a clear and realistic understanding of the times when the church has fallen short of its mission. St Giles-in-the-Fields was often a force for addressing social ills in our part of London, but there are times in its history when the church was remarkably passive in the face of extreme social need. We can’t change this, but understanding it can help inform how we might behave differently today.

The history of our parish also gives a window into the differing values held by past generations, some of which we may no longer be able to justify today. As you enter St Giles, it is impossible not to notice the large number of memorials that cover the walls. They reflect the complex lives and histories of our ancestors, including people who were employed in the expansion of the British Empire and in historic disputes between Protestants and Catholics. What people chose to memorialise, reflects the concerns and realities of their own times. Understanding their context allows us to understand a little more about how these people lived.

The past cannot provide the Christian with a roadmap for how to live in the present; understanding the successes and failures of past generations sadly does not make us any more likely to avoid making mistakes in our own time. But as we reflect on the history of St Giles over the coming weeks, I hope you will also consider how this history can inform your faith today and inspire the future work of our church.

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