When does history become historic?

That question came to mind as I was reading what seems like yet another round of talk about an Anglican “schism”-I put the word in quotes because many don’t describe it that way, or want to cast what is happening in terms of a Reformation or something more prophetic-sounding. The talk regards a meeting of conservative Anglican leaders in Jerusalem ahead of the decennial Lambeth Conference in England of all the word’s Anglical bishops. (Well, all except a certain gay bishop and a schismatic African.) Here is The New York Times take. The Tablet cites the conservative bishops as calling this “a second Reformation,” while over at the America blog, Austen Ivereigh prefers “realignment.”
Yada yada yada. Which is actually my point: Perhaps it is the result of having covered this story for too long, and having attended too many Episcopal Church conferences on this and other topics (gays, homosexuals, lesbians) that promised a definitive answer of one sort or another, only to have the issue put out for further study, or a later deadline. And there is much to be said for that.
But as both a historian and journalist I can’t help but ask, Is this really “it” this time? Is this really a schism, a split, a reformation? Will all those apocalyptic ledes I wrote years ago finally be true? Above all, how can we know when something is historic? I recall reading that Europeans at the turn of the second millennium had a Y1K panic of sorts. But was there a widespread historical consciousness of a “Great Schism” in 1054? Was Oct. 31, 1517 a momentous date only decades, perhaps centuries, later? Apropos of the coming holiday, I believe July 2 was actually supposed to be the memorable Day of Independence. But the Founding Fathers, though we now attribute omniscience to them, might have been aghast at the idea of being called Revolutionaries. Did Sassoon et al know it was the Great War? It surely wasn’t World War I back then. And on and on.
How possible is it to recognize something as historic when you are in the moment itself? And how much does our modern history-conditioned consciousness shape the way we view the present events? In this age of infotainment and commentary characterized solely by the use of the superlative, is everything historic? Or has the very concept been so overused it means nothing? And thus is it possible to know, until centuries later, the import of the events in, in this case, Jerusalem and Canterbury?
I posed these questions over at dotCommonweal as well, and that prompted many interesting responses.

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posted July 1, 2008 at 12:44 pm

Some thing are historic when they happen, such as the tearing down of the Berlin Wall, but as you said, most of the time we don’t know until much later that “this was a historic moment”. As to the Schism between the Anglicans and the Romans, it was not a great reformation but an angry king trying to get back control from the Pope. Luther was a reformation that was rejected by the Church, While Francis of Assisi reformation was better received and gave birth to a spiritual awakening in the Roman Catholics that is still going on today.
What we do is try to predict that an historic event is taking place. The Anglican and Episcopal Churches and its members are hoping for something historic and eventually they will get it ot maybe it has already happened and they don’t recognize it. Maybe the historic event was that they can’t make up their minds.

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David G

posted July 1, 2008 at 2:51 pm

“Maybe the historic event was that they can’t make up their minds.”
Good point, Paul.

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Charles Cosimano

posted July 1, 2008 at 9:28 pm

A number of the Founders of the republic did embrace the title of “revolutionary,” particularly Samuel Addams, John Addams more sensible and much more entertaining brother.
What makes an event historic is rarely the event itself but what comes of it. The temper of a King did not only create a schism, it created the foundations of an empire which, by the time it was through, was far more important in its time than the Church he split from. By comparison, the kerfuffle in the Anglican church is pretty unimportant, affecting no one outside of it except to provide some comic relief. It may in the future be of some interest to ecclesiastical historians, but my guess is that to rest of humanity it will be like Shakespeare’s definition of life: “A tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

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