A painful edge to oral history

The Light Ships is proving to be a revelation. An exploration of the church’s place in a community’s artistic life, it focuses on 14 villages in the Lincolnshire fenland. I’ve been meeting people involved in every aspect of church and chapel (and learning about the myriad differences between them). The buildings are often of great beauty, reconciling the styles of different centuries because all the art serves a common purpose, while the diverse creative work that happens now – from concerts to children’s art activities – is accommodated for the same reason.

At the same time, I’m astonished by the diversity that exists even in these 14 places, so close and apparently so similar in culture. The project has its own website because there is so much to look and think about that it would overwhelm this one. But if you’re interested in sculpture, poetry, art, flowers, stained glass, music, architecture, history, travellers, needlework and so on, do take a look.

Underneath these riches are some complex and difficult questions: belief, community, the use of resources and many more. Small, ageing congregations feel the burden of their responsibilities and ask themselves whether different styles of service would attract young people or might alienate those who already attend. Yesterday, I felt the sadness of a group who fear that their chapel might finally end with them, closing its doors and being turned, like so many others, into a stylish home for incomers.

Oral history can shade into nostalgia or even sentimentality. In this case, deeply held beliefs mean that, even when people are speaking of the past, there is an urgency to a debate about what it is to be a community and to live well.

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