Croydon is often thought of as a modern (i.e. post-war) town. The plethora of new building in the post-war years has served to hide some of the glories of the place and obscure a fascinating history.
Croydon used to be the home of Archbishops of Canterbury. What is now the Old Palace School was where Cranmer had his library while writing the Book of Common Prayer. In those days you could sail from the Old Palace down the River Wandle to the Thames and along to Lambeth Palace. A couple of miles away Addington Palace (built in the 1770s) was the country home of the Archbishops from 1807 – bought by an Act of Parliament and financed by the sale of the Old Palace, it being “in so low and unwholesome a situation”. Six archbishops lived at Addington Palace; five of them are buried in St Mary’s churchyard. The Palace was sold in 1898.
I was at St Mary’s, Addington, this morning. I always find it a little unnerving to be presiding at Communion while standing next to the tomb of a dead Archbishop of Canterbury. Facing the congregation, I looked to the right and read the inscription on the tomb of Archbishop William Howley (1766–1848) – I’d never heard of him before and I know nothing about him. What I noticed was that he died on 11 February 1848 – and that got me thinking about ‘time’ again, especially in the light of today’s great crises (tomorrow will bring something else to preoccupy us).
Howley died ten days before the publication by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels of the Manifest der Kommunistische Partei – the Communist Manifesto. It was the year of revolutions in Europe, with the earthquake of the French Revolution reverberating across national boundaries. There were epidemics (cholera in New York, for example) and ferments among groups that were eager for political and economic change. The Enlightenment project was working its way through the psyche of European societies, challenging the status quo and received ways of understanding the world.
So, just as Howley was dying – and probably thinking the whole world order was collapsing in front of his eyes anyway – the world was moving on. Howley never saw (and probably could not have imagined) the world that would develop after his demise: the Communist revolution in Russia, two World Wars, the beginning and end of European colonialism, the explosion of technology, etc. Locked into the possibilities of his own world and his own experience, he would have needed a good eschatology to keep his faith going in the wake of the threats to the world order going on around him.
I wonder if this sense of perspective is needed now? We always think that what happens in the world now is the most important and the ultimate reality. But, the truth is that whatever happens now, life will continue and will develop in the light of what has gone before. Leaving aside for a moment the ecological crisis and the nuclear threat (!) – which do have the potential to bring an ultimate end to things – the banking crises and political crises of today will be the topics of historical discussion and curiosity of our great-grandchildren’s generation. The seriousness with which we take some matters now will probably look rather curious in 100 years time. How we ever allowed the fantasies of the late 20th/early 21st century banking and debt cultures to develop will be a source of incredulity – especislly while half the world starved. Capitalism might one day look like a blip in the world’s economic history – as transient as the USSR and the Marxism-Leninism that seemed so powerful for so many decades.
This makes me look back to the Old Testament prophets. While things were looking good (politically, economically, militarily and religiously), no one would listen to the warnings of the prophets that God would not be taken for granted and security would be shaken if change did not come soon. The prophets had the insight to spot the medium to long-term consequences of political alliances and social injustices, but their warnings (rooted in a long-term view and a long-term perspective) were not heeded by people who could not see beyond the ‘today’ and their own immediate interests.
We cannot predict what the world will look like for a our great-grandchildren. But we can be sure that they will read our story and our choices with more than simple curiosity – because the challenges they will face will derive from the decisions we have made and the challenges we have ducked.
I almost wish I hadn’t noticed the tomb of Archbishop William Howley.