It is easy to understand history as something no longer present. But really, history is not just the historical but is present and living: our lives are enmeshed in it. History is everywhere around us, supporting us, shaping us, and challenging us.
We are shaped by history in many ways beyond our control. This might seem frightening: are we just driftwood bobbing this way and that, thrown around by tide and storm, stuck in the push and pull of history? We are entangled in history that is not of our own making.
Yet this entanglement is also a gift: we find meaning in our own place and within unique relationships. And there we can act to create change and movement. For good and detriment, our lives are entangled with the past.
The Hindmarsh Research Centre is a place of historical enquiry. Only a few months old, the new archival facilities are a strange mix of order and chaos: journals like the Australian Christian are neatly lined up, holding rank, whereas boxes of papers from decades past unleash their haywire contents in all directions. Everything is awaiting the eager questions of those who seek a better grasp of what Churches of Christ is as a movement: where might with engage with this movement as something meaningful today?
Many important stories have emerged during my daily ventures into the archives: newspaper clippings tell of the energy that surrounded the Preston chapel that was built in a day; fundraising posters from the College of the Bible show the commitment and drive necessary to establish this place of ministry formation; the diary of our first missionary to India reports on infant mortality and the particular needs for medical work; a response to the National Inquiry into the stolen generations outlines the relationship between Churches of Christ, government policies and Indigenous people.
More than categorisation, these stories need voices to interpret and communicate. Dust needs dusting, not storing (some might say, 'Keep the dust intact! It is a historical record. We can measure church decline in its composition and depth’). We need to keep pulling at this tangle of stories, playing with them to discover what they might have to say to us.
So let me share with you my own understanding of one particularly knotty theme that meshes together all sorts of events and people within Churches of Christ, conveyed in the phrase ‘unity in truth.’
Another kind of archive
As I write this article, I am thinking of all the wonderful experiences I have had in Arnhem Land with my friends. I will be visiting them again in a few days’ time. I am looking backwards in order to look forwards with great anticipation. Through our memories, history becomes a part of the present.
You could be forgiven for thinking that the wide open plains extending into Southern Arnhem Land are clean, empty and fresh. An open land of new possibility.
But like an archive, the land is already saturated with significance and story. The hills, the waterways, the wind and the people all tell tales of what has been and what is; these records contain laws for society, relationship and politics. The vast land is actually a tangled mass of culture, society and story that gives life its direction and momentum.
An old lady in the town of Ngukurr once told me about one text that stands out from this living archive: ‘The gospel of Jesus Christ: we had this before any of the missionaries came. There in the Southern Cross, written for us in the sky.’
I also remember a friend from the Tanami Desert teaching me about reading the land through story. For Warlpiri, the Southern Cross represents the crown of wisdom that sits over all life. This constellation moves with the seasons, at one point dying and becoming hidden—buried below the horizon—before once again being raised to life.
Jesus Christ, the Word of God, a truth that extends before us and beyond us, is greater than history. Yet this Word is written into creation, moving into and through history.
In this land under the Southern Cross, we are all under the same sign and possibility of ‘unity in truth.’
'Unity in truth' is an inheritance that animates Churches of Christ. It is not to be confused with the unity of shared heritage, culture, methodology or style. This phrase draws our gaze toward a crowning wisdom that was already before us and will be after us, a truth that persists with us and draws us through the snags of history.
In all the fluctuations and flatulations of history, there is a great and simple embodiment of truth. This is our polar star (Barton Stone), a point of orientation on the horizon.
Thomas Campbell expressed ‘unity in truth’ in the word disentanglement. He desired that Christians be free from all the diversions and weighty baggage of tradition and unified in Christ alone (‘Declaration and Address,’ 1809). He called others to seek the clarity and sufficiency of this Word and to leave behind that which was not of Christ.
The history of Churches of Christ is full of many similar movements toward an understanding of our identity as Christians disentangled from the convolutions of tradition, that we might shine like stars as we hold firmly to the word of life (Phil 2:15-16).
It seems to me that these Churches of Christ archives should therefore be a place of disentanglement with re-entanglement as their paradoxical goal. Glimpsing the twinkling of Jesus Christ as the great star before and beyond our horizon, we renew our efforts to hear and speak afresh the Word that moves to become entangled in new lives and places.
From 'The Edition' 1.2 (April 2016) Churches of Christ Vic Tas, available: https://issuu.com/ccvt/docs/the_edition0102_april16
Samuel Curkpatrick completed his doctoral studies in ethnomusicology (ANU, Canberra), during which time he was an assistant curator with the National Museum of Australia. Sam is also a postgraduate student at Stirling and has been engaged to curate the Hindmarsh Research Centre collection.