Making History

As a member of the Choir of St John’s Edinburgh, I am part of the same spiritual community whose predecessors, 200 years earlier, I am researching for a PhD. Today, more than ever before, I had a sense of being part of an event which was important in the history of the church: the choir sang at the first blessing of a civil partnership between two men. There is now an entry in the church registers unlike any before it.

St John’s, Edinburgh, November 2011.

There is also an entry in the congregation’s registers for November 1811. William Arbuthnot’s son Henry Dundas Arbuthnot was baptised by Bishop Daniel Sandford, the first rector of St John’s. William Arbuthnot was an important Edinburgh civil servant, a founding vestrymember of St John’s, with a large townhouse in Charlotte Square, and a long landed pedigree in Aberdeenshire. He became Lord Provost in 1815, and again in 1822 when he hosted the memorable visit of George IV to Edinburgh. His baby son was named in honour of his political patron Henry Dundas, the ‘uncrowned king of Scotland’. Dundas held unshakeable dominance over Scottish politics throughout the period of the Napoleonic Wars, and, while he did much to make Scotland and Scots significant in Britain and the Empire, he was also severely criticised for his  illiberal regime, run for the benefit of his friends.

Baptism of Henry Dundas Arbuthnot, November 1811

Two hundred years on, St John’s gave its blessing to, and entered into its registers,  the partnership of two people from a group who for hundreds of years have been misunderstood, hidden and persecuted in very real ways, for simply loving each other. The significance of this struck me very powerfully during the service. Although we in the choir didn’t know the couple, we too were invited into the circle which formed around the altar to witness their vows and exchange of rings. Singing the final hymn in this circle, the choir felt strongly the generosity of the welcome we received.

Those who know me will know that I’m pretty cynical about churches. I’m too conscious of their William Arbuthnotiness: on the right side, knowing the right people, attempting to dish out spiritual benefits from their position of confident establishment: spiritual benefits which are too often rotten.

But today I watched an institution which purports to purvey good news to all of the love of God really do just that. There was no room for cynicism. I’m quite proud to be a Christian. I don’t think I’ve ever said that before.

But let’s not be too hard on our poor predecessors, celebrating the baptism of little Henry Dundas Arbuthnot in November 1811. The congregation had been part of the Scottish Episcopal Church for less than a decade. Less than twenty years earlier, it had been illegal to be Episcopalian, and only six years before they were still regarded as marginal and unacceptable. Through close communication with Scottish Episcopalians to resolve the remaining issues, joining his prestigious congregation to the Episcopal Church, and deliberately generous and inclusive preaching, Rev Daniel Sandford demolished that remaining prejudice, as his successor Rev Donald Reid demolished prejudice today.

In the history of a spiritual institution, it is right that it is events and individuals  characterised by striking humility and generosity which shape it and become historic, rather than glorious talent or brilliance. But there is a big challenge, both for the spiritual institution and for those nourished by it — whether the gay community or a cynical historian. I said I felt proud to be a Christian today: I hope the couple were too. But how easily, as the memory of persecution fades, to keep the pride, and forget the humility and generosity by which we earned it.

So when in 2211 some successor of mine writes about this moment in our history, what new persecution and exclusion might we, in our pride, have created? And how can we make a history which ensures they never have cause to write about it?