Thought for the day: Anniversaries

By The Rt Revd Graham James, Bishop of Norwich - 07 February 2018
A picture of a calendar
Yesterday’s centenary of women gaining the vote made me think about our contemporary fascination with anniversaries. In Britain we seem to mark and honour past events with more enthusiasm than ever. Perhaps it’s because they give us common ground and unify us in a way the present rarely does. Yesterday we celebrated a change made a century ago on which there is very wide agreement.

Today, February 7th, marks the 26th anniversary of the European Community becoming the European Union when the Maastricht Treaty was implemented across the then twelve member states. I don’t think an extensive celebration of that anniversary would provide quite such happy consensus.

A former Dean of Westminster once told me that when Westminster Abbey marked the 800th anniversary of its consecration in 1865 there was just one service of celebration. In 1965 the 900th anniversary heralded a whole year of commemorative events. He remarked that the Victorian Age was one of such self-confidence that a nod to the past was sufficient. By 1965 he claimed such extensive celebration was a sign of insecurity in church and nation, something which could easily lead to collective nostalgia.

Yet the Christian faith, like most world religions, does build its calendar around past events, not out of nostalgia but because past and present are so deeply related. It’s not nostalgic to celebrate birthdays or wedding anniversaries or even to commemorate healthily the death of loved ones. The widow or widower on the anniversary of their bereavement will often long for contact from friends and family. A good relationship with our history is part of our personal identity.

Just last week I was leading a pilgrimage to Jerusalem and Bethlehem though we began in Galilee. We gathered by the lakeside and shared the bread and wine of the Eucharist where the gospels locate the feeding miracles of Jesus. We were near the place where by tradition Jesus had breakfast with his disciples. Like the feeling we have when celebrating personal anniversaries, many of my companions talked of a deep sense of connectedness across space and time on that occasion, something they said they don’t always feel in a culture so confined to what is immediate. If we succumb to pure nostalgia and wished we lived 100 or 2,000 years ago, we’d get our anniversary celebrations wrong. But, at their best, they can inspire us to live with greater purpose.

This blog is an adapted transcript from a BBC Radio 4 Thought for the Day, broadcast on Wednesday 7 February 2018 by The Rt Revd Graham James, Bishop of Norwich. To listen to and read more Thought for the Day features, please visit the BBC website.

Leave a comment