Saturday, 5 December 2009

Of libraries, broadening our horizons and learning

Last week Dr B and I attended two events to honour former WCC general secretary Philip Potter. At the first event the Ecumenical Centre Library was renamed the Philip Potter Library. Philip is now 88 and it fell to his wife bishop Bärbel Wartenburg Potter to speak about how fitting it was that a library was being named after him. As a young man growing up on the island of Dominica it was the local public library that gave Philip the opportunity to discover other shores, peoples, countries and churches; other ways of thinking. It was reading that helped form Potter as a world citizen and not remain a "little islander" well before he was able to travel. Thus began a lifeling love of books.
Even today librarians and archivists will tell you that the only thing we can be sure will have some chance of still being around in 100 years time is paper or books.
Makes me think about our obsession with technology - will ipods still be being used in 100 years time? Will all that we digitise today still be available to people 100 years hence if there are no paper copies available?
The second event honouring Potter was a special dinner to launch the WSCF's Philip Potter centennial fund. It was a wonderful evening with great speeches from amongst others the irrepressiblly communicative Pauline Webb. It was also wonderful to listen to such a strong and politically well-organised selection of women from the past - there was a great story from Lois Wilson who talked about how the women would meet before central committee meetings and make sure that they got to the microphone at central committee before a particular Archbishop! (No, I'm not going to tell you which one!)
The evening taught me once again that the past has much to tell us about how to understand the present. It may actually turn out to be those things that are most problematic, most difficult and painful that in the long run will prove to be where the prophetic mission of the world church has been. However, while it's important to use the past to gain perspective, it shouldn't be used an excuse to try to find easy relevance in the present.
Once, a couple of decades ago, I was a historian. The challenge for historians remains to let the past speak to the present in a way that makes sense and offers meaning for today - a today that is ever changing. Our horizons can be broadened by libraries and books, but more often they are also broadened by encounters with extraordinary people and their stories. Philip Potter and many of those who gathered to be with him and pay tribute to him are some of those extraordinary people for me. I was lucky to spend a few hours in their company.
You can find out more about contributing to the WSCF Fund here.