Memory and Mission: book review

Memory and mission: Methodist and Roman Catholic perspectives on archives as tools for evangelism.

By  William Johnstone. Published: Catholic Archives Society, 2019

Part of the aim of this study has been to place religious archives within the broader concerns of the organisations of which they form a part. Record keepers have sometimes found difficulty establishing the value of their work to senior management figures. As a consequence they can often feel  undervalued in terms of what they do.  Along with other institutions religious bodies must justify how much money is spent within various departments.  Without a clear understanding of how archives contribute to the wider concerns of the church, there is a danger of collections being neglected and underfunded. This study has concerns itself with the extent to which archives can be viewed as tools for evangelism. It has highlighted the concept of mission as a major area of concern for most religious groups and it has sought to establish a common language for all those involved in Christian heritage.

This research involves a comparison of Methodist and Catholic traditions and the research questions have focussed on the main areas of examination. Firstly, they have sought to establish how these the two traditions view archives by exploring some of the official ecclesiastical texts and statements and the extent to which they understand archives as contributing to evangelism. Secondly, they have investigated the experiences of archivists and the users of religious archives through a series of face to face interviews. Finally, they have explored whether specific archival material could enhance the idea of archives having missionary value through case studies carried out at the John Rylands Library and Westminster Diocesan Archives.

The investigation began with a series of questions posed by James O’Toole concerning the distinctive identity of religious archives. It was proposed that a focus on mission would be a positive way forward in terms of identity and as a means of archives being taken seriously by religious bodies. After a brief consideration of the concept of memory, the Methodist understanding of evangelism with its emphasis on personal holiness and social justice was contrasted with the Catholic notion of evangelism and the idea of converting the roots of the culture.

The second chapter examined various church documents that have focussed on the evangelistic potential of archives. From the Methodist perspective, the background to the Methodist Conference Report, Methodist Heritage and Contemporary Mission, was considered in some detail along with the theological rationale noted in the work of David Bosch. The Catholic understanding of culture was examined with reference to the Second Vatican Council along with the key document The Pastoral Function of Church Archives.

The third chapter presented two case studies and highlighted specific archival material that has potential for mission and outreach. The Methodist conversion testimonies were considered in terms of their multi-dimensional interest for secular scholars but also as having the capacity to act an evangelic tool in reviving Methodist spirituality. The martyrdom narratives at Westminster Diocesan Archives were evaluated in a similar way. Their historical contribution to the cause of English martyrs as well as their power to act as spiritual inspiration for modern day pilgrims was highlighted.

The final chapter reflected on four specific ways in which religious archives can contribute to mission. Firstly, while acknowledging that identities and shift and develop over time, it was established that archives play a key role in self-understanding of religious communities. They have the capacity to revive the spirituality of the contemporary Church. Secondly, the power of religious archives to inspire was highlighted. Significant anniversaries are opportunities for archives to be rediscovered as storehouses of culture and memory. This ability to inspire is something that could be utilised in the training of ministers and priests. Thirdly, archives were presented as a tool for balancing the historic record. The way in which specific archive material can empower voices ‘from below’ is an opportunity to challenge some of the more settled historical assumptions. Finally, the potential of archives to encourage greater involvement in the Church was expounded through the interest that religious archives might hold for non-religious scholars and outreach activities such as family history. The contribution to a common language of mission and heritage was posited as possible step forward in terms of ecumenical dialogue.

Christianity is an incarnational religion. It is impossibly to separate it from history and therefore archives as the ‘raw material’ of history are a fundamental part of the Church’s mission. To have reverence for archives is, in the words of Pope Paul V1 ‘to have reverence for Christ … to give to ourselves and to those yet to come the story of the passing of this phase of the transitus Domini in the world.

Copies can be obtained from the Catholic Archives Society (https://catholicarchivesociety.org/publications/) £6 incl p&p