These comments were given by Bob Shuster on August 21, 2003 to a meeting of the Archivists of Religious Section of the Society of American Archivists. Also particpating in the program and giving their impressions of the conference were Ms. Cindy Lu and Ms. Elisabeth Wittman. The ARCS meeting was a part of the SAA's annual meeting, held in Los Angeles from August 18-24.
I would like to mention briefly two major themes of the conference that struck me. One relates to we as archivists standing at a particular point in church history and how that relates to our work. The second concerns those of us archivists who are not only professional custodians of Christian archives but themselves Christian believers. It deals with the question, "Do archives perform a spiritual service in the life of the Church?"
An amazing diversity of Christian tradition and experience was represented at the Rome conference. We were only one tiny drop of water from the ocean, so there were limits as to what could be included. Most noticeably, to me, the mighty Pentecostal/ charismatic movement, born in the twentieth century and now including many tens of millions was not represented and one person only was there from the Eastern Orthodox Church. Despite the efforts of the planners, Europe and North America were over represented and Latin America under. But I was profoundly grateful to the planners of the meeting, particularly John Roxbough, for the chance to meet curators of the documents of many of the Church's historical traditions.
Northern and southern hemisphere comparisons came up continually, especially since this was a meeting with a special interest in the documents of what in the North has been called "foreign" missions. There were many indications that what we can now see was a peculiar and unusual period in church history, the 250 year era of large scale planting of churches in parts of Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Pacific Islands by European and North American missionaries, has come to an end. The churches that were planted have matured and taken on the work of evangelism, Christian nurture, and Kingdom witness. Archives are perhaps the last area to engage the new churches' attention, but that too has begun. The Northern missionary movement is certainly not over, but it has entered a new phase, as partner and servant of southern churches that are often more vibrant now than their historic mother churches. The conference was a wonderful vantage point to view this historic shift: Europe in many regions deChrstianized, Christianity in North America losing a dominant and privileged position in the culture, while Southern Christianity is rapidly growing and becoming the center of the church in passion and devotion as well as numbers.
Christian archives in the North have vast materials on mission, with an inherent, inevitable tendency to showing the missionaries as more important than they were after the initial church planting period. Still, for many southern churches, essential, unique or rare materials for their own early history can only be found in our Northern archives. We must seeking ways to share and to alerting the Southern churches to what we have of their origins. Beyond that, the archivists of Christian collections north and south must be aware that they are saving documents that tell one common story. Exchanges of people, information, ideas, practices and fellowship should be going on continually among us. We must serve all our constituencies and present something that at least approaches being a true record.
But in other ways South/North differences seemed hardly noticeable. Many archivists underlined that what we are doing was not just a cultural exercise or scholarly service, important though those aspects of our work are. Many of us struggled to express our sense of the spiritual nature of the preservation of the story of the Body of Christ, in all its variety, mystery , inspiration, crimes, sins, tragedy and light.
Jesus had said "This is how the world will know you are my disciples, if you love one another ." That statement has always been a judgment on the church as much as a definition. For a believer, his part, as an archivist, in that love is preserving the story of the household of faith and making it available to the household of faith, the layperson as well as the scholar. The book of Hebrews in the New Testament tells of the great cloud of witness that the present day Christian is always surrounded by, the cloud of the previous generations of believers. The work of the archivists play a part in preserving the union between past, present and future generations. The story , sad as it often is, is a thread that ties us together .
This was best expressed by the concluding address of Dr Kwame Bediako, director of the Akrofi-Christaller Memorial Centre of Ghana, and I hope you will excuse a long quotation:
This means that 'rescuing the memory of our people' may not lie solely with our people narrowly defined, which makes the memory just a cultural product. Rather, in view of the nature of mission archives as the archives of mission, the mission of the Spirit, rescuing the memory of our people lies also with the other people(s), together with whom we form one people - the people of God, called into being through the mission of the Spirit.
Seen from this angle, rescuing the memory of our people becomes also the redeeming of the memory of our people. Since missionaries too were sinful, like the rest of men and women, the rescuing of memory involves discerning the grace of God in lives and situations that were not perfect, and participating in the process of reconciliation, which in the New Testament is spoken of as the recapitulation of all human history in the one new humanity in Jesus Christ. Mission Studies, then, is neither hagiography nor demonisation. It has to do with the recognition of social realities for what they have been, alongside the discovery of evidences of transcendence in lives actually lived very differently from what they would otherwise have been. To that extent, rescuing the memory becomes a Truth and Reconciliation process.
This carries immediate implications for how we may understand our actions in the location of mission archives. Mission archives belong, rightly, in the public domain everywhere, and not just in the West, not so much because they are a cultural heritage but because they bear witness to the grace of God in the gospel of Jesus Christ as public truth. That public domain is far from neutral. It is rather characterised by a plurality of structures - economic, political, intellectual and now also technological - in competition with one another for power, resources, influence and attention. In this domain, mission archives can contribute to the shaping of public consciousness, the redeeming of relationships and the humanising of intellectual discourse.
However, mission archives, as archives of mission, the mission of the Spirit through the people of God, belong primarily, as memorials of faith, within the continuing journeyings of the people of God.
Let me end with a couple of personal memories. Our conference center overlooked St. Peter's Basilica and we were constantly visiting that great church. We saw the space that houses the archives of St. Peter's itself, designed by Michelangelo. We saw the 2nd century underground cemetery, excavated in the 20th century, beneath St. Peter's. That cemetery, with shrines to gods of the era such as Issus and Toth, is where the earliest memorial to Peter has been found. It was immensely moving to realize that the alter in St. Peter's is indeed on the exact spot where almost twentieth centuries of Christian oral tradition, and written records (that is Christian memory) claim as the burial site of Peter, near the spot where tradition says the Galilean fisherman was executed for his witness to Christ.
Another highlight for me was to hear from Berthe Raminosoa of the National FJKM Archives (the Archives of the Church of Jesus Christ in Madagascar) the story of Rafavavy Rasalana. Rafavavy was a Christian converted, during the reign of a king who welcomed missionaries into Madagascar. The queen who followed him was enraged by the neglect of the old gods and the double-edged nature of Western influence. She began a persecution of the church. The missionaries fled and many Madagascar believers were executed. Rafavavy was killed in 1837 when she refused to work on Sunday, a test that had been set for her Christian faith. Her death and the site where she died has been remembered by Madagascar Christians ever since. Today the most venerable church in Madagascar is on that site. The parallel with St. Peter's was unmistakable.
For me too, it emphasized what each of us as archivists of documents of Christian history owed to all as we told parts of the same story , the story that united Peter and Rafavavy, and the service that believers who are temporary custodians of our collections owe especially to other Christians worldwide in making easily accessible a true record. It gave special archival meaning for me to words from Peter, words from the New Testament book of Second Peter, words written shortly before he met his death on Vatican hill:
"So I will always remind you of these things, even though you know them and are firmly established in the truth you now have. I think it is right to refresh your memory as long as I live in the tent of this body, because I know I will soon put it aside, as our Lord Jesus Christ has made clear to me. And I will make every effort to see that after my departure you will always be able to remember these things."