Monday, October 02, 2006

A Family Treasure

The day after Jenny's farewell celebration, Clare and I attended a first ever Kimber family re-union at a hotel outside Bristol. This brought together thirty odd people, two of the four surviving aunts, cousins, spouses and offspring, including my daughter and grand daughter Rhiannon, who at two and a half was the youngest. We'd been promising for some years to get together on some occasion other than family funerals, but not got around to it, until cousin Dianne took charge of masterminding the arrangements. It was an excellent occasion for sharing photographs, comparing likenesses and telling stories, particularly of my paternal grandparents, and the family home in Duffryn Street, Ystrad Mynach in the Rhymney Valley in the days when coal was king in South Wales.

My grandfather John learned steel erection working on New York skyscrapers as a young migrant at the time of the Titanic, then returned home to marry Gwenllian, daughter of a market gardener in Cardiff, who was co-incidentally a stallholder in the market adjacent to St John's church, which is now centre of my ministry. He worked on mineshaft sinking projects all over the South Wales Coalfield. The family is said to have moved house 26 times before settling in Duffryn Street, when Grandpa became under-manager of nearby Penalla colliery. It was so near that there was a substantial coal tip (aka spoil heap) beyond the gardens the other side of Duffryn Street. As kids we used to play there. He trained me to recognise plant fossils imprinted in the abundant carboniferous shale of the tip.

It's really the internet which has brought our generation of cousins into contact wiht each other after what seems like decades of childrearing between weddings and funerals. Several are interested in the family tree, notably cousin Lindsay who has traced Kimber family ancestry almost back to the Civil War. My grandfather seems to have shared this interest in the family record, with his willingness to recount his offspring and thier deeds. The Family Bible, which John and Gwenllian bought when they married in 1904, was handed on, at my grandfather's death to my Uncle Mostyn, his youngest son, with the understanding that it should eventually pass to me as the son of the eldest son, my father Jack. Mostyn's widow, Auntie Mary brought the Family Bible with her to the re-union and handed it over to me to pass on eventually to my son for safe keeping.

I recall seeing it last at Grandpa's funeral over thirty years ago, and remember also looking at it with wonder as a child fifty years ago. It’s big and ornate, like a church lectern bible, typical of what was once commonly found in the best front room in family houses of my youth, though now somoewhat delapidated with one of its brass clasps missing. It’s not an Authorised Version King James Bible. It's called the National Comprehensive Family Bible, published locally by Jones and Jones in Porth, in the Rhondda. In addition to the text of scripture it contains notes and commentaries by notable bible scholars of the time.It's is a typical artifact of Victorian non-conformist religious culture, following the practice of the Geneva Bible, once common in Puritan influenced Britain, of printing scripture plus commentary side by side to assist in reader’s spiritual formation. This publishing practice continues with modern scholarly equivalents today.

I doubt if the choice of commentary much mattered to my grandparents. I don’t actually know if they read it with the children Sunday afternoons, as many pious families did in those days. It wasn't a practice I was brought up with. What I do know is that the ornately supplementary pages in the front of the book were used to record the births and achievements of their eight children and many grand-childen over the next sixty odd years. It's an old fashioned family database in fact.

Uncle Mostyn, writing just fifteen years ago, in a note inside the cover, comments on the book's worse for wear condition and speaks of it as a sacred heirloom testifying to generations raised on hardship. Grandma had penciled inside the front cover 'Please wash your hands before you handle this book, Mam'. Often it would be covered with a fine layer of dust, coal dust, polluting everything within a mile of the mine.

In varying degrees our family members were churchgoers, mostly Anglican. I suspect the book's contents were more revered than they were read. What mattered to them was that the family story, as it was recounted in the front pages, was bound together with the story of God’s dealing with humankind. This is, or should I say was, a commonplace heirloom, far less valued these days. Family Bibles turn up for auction on the internet or in antique shops, perhaps because a family line has come to an end, or perhaps because this treasury of memories no longer means anything to its inheritors.

There’s widespread interest in family trees these days, in gaining or re-gaining a sense of forgotten identity in a world where so many wish to be recognised only by what clothes they wear or beer they consume. It seems people want to know where they came from even if they don’t know where they are going to. Linking your story with God’s story in scripture requires a huge effort, a measure of hunger for the truth of our existence, the meaning of our lives. Old family bibles are a religious commodity from our past, when bible knowledge was so much more commonplace that it mattered less whether your family heirloom was read or not.

There’s not much point in lamenting that things aren’t what they used to be. We’re faced with the challenge of recovering the habit of reading and remembering scripture for its true worth, and recovering the habit of discussing it together as a natural enterprise of thinking people, rather than consuming the latest video epic giving its own spin on half a biblical narrative wrenched out of conext for misinterpretation.

I must say, I'm much taken by the Bible Society's catchword 'Bible poverty', not just to describe the situation in those parts of the world which don't yet have scripture to read in their native tongue, but those parts of the world where secularism deprives people of a sense of the value to be gained when one reads, marks, learns and inwardly digests, what has been written and is within everyone's reach for our godly learning.

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