Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Assistant Professor of Religion and Pieper Chair of Servant Leadership at Ripon College.
As I've mentioned before, history is one of the important threads that ties Methodists (United or not) around the world to each other. This recent article describes new plans being laid at one of the most important historical sites in Methodism: the New Room in Bristol, the first building to be build by John Wesley specifically as a Methodist building. The New Room is seeking funds from the British government (through their Heritage Lottery Fund) to construct a new three-story building adjacent to the New Room. This new building will house archives, a library, a lecture hall, a kitchen, and an elevator. The project will allow more people to visit and learn Methodist history at the New Room.
The project seems like a good example of well-laid plans to make improvements that will expand people's access to Methodist history. The new building serves good purposes and is being designed to fit with its settings. Ironically, though, by building a new building at the site, the plans also change that history a bit. Nevertheless, that's not necessarily a problem. It's more like the Heisenberg principle of historical preservation: it's impossible to both allow people to observe a historical site and keep it exactly the way it is.
For Methodists who want to use the New Room as a way to continue to teach about Methodism and help Methodists form a Methodist identity, access trumps lack of change. I think that's as it should be too. If the past is to be of service to the present, it must be accessible by the present. Sometimes, that means telling stories, writing histories, and preserving documents. Sometimes it means building a new building for visitors. While the second may seem more intrusive upon the past, that doesn't mean it can't be a good idea if done well.