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In the relic business

11 September 2015

Lavina Byrne enjoys a charter for archivists and custodians


The Spiritual Practice of Remembering
Margaret Bendroth
Eerdmans £11.99
Church Times Bookshop £10.80 (Use code CT611)


CATHOLICS do it with blood and bits of human flesh; Protestants do it with preachers’ hats or Sunday-school buttons. Who better to analyse this penchant for relics — namely, our desire to collect tangible human evidence of the passing of time and religious certainty — than an illustrious church historian and custodian?

Margaret Bendroth is director of the Congregational Library in Boston Massachusetts, where she is required to interpret the past and its rich legacy, or detritus, for the benefit of future generations.

“Why hold on to anything old and no longer useful?” she asks, and answers by claiming that remembering is “an act with spiritual meaning, pushing us against the unknown”. And so “remembering, like all matters spiritual, requires imagination, trust and courage”: in this short book she has produced a charter for archivists and historians everywhere.

The biblical antecedents are all around us. The history of the land of promise and the person of promise, the Messiah, are recorded for us in stories that locate both within time. It follows that “the past tense is essential for our language of faith”; but what should our relationship with the past be?

Bendroth examines how we conceive of history, how we forget it, and how we relate to the saints who peopled it. She sees “a web of obligation” binding all Christian people to the central task of “remembering God”. The context of this book is deeply North American, but the content has a far wider relevance and appeal. The author’s ideas snap, crackle, and pop; conservation work never got so compelling.


Lavinia Byrne is a writer and broadcaster.

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