The community of Church memory and how things change

In Communication Ethics Literacy: Dialogue and Difference, the authors discuss the theory developed by Robert Bellah that organization are holders of a “community of memory” (Arnett, Fritz, and Bell, 2009). No organization or individual exists in a vacuum, especially not the Church. The Christian Church has a long history of tradition, or holding the community of memory, providing generation after generation a container in which to describe, define and understand their faith. This faith container also provides guidelines for how one lives in the world.

Tradition is a beautiful thing. It connects us to the millennia of people who have come before us, seeking God in the mystery of life. However, the people who have come before us have expressed their faith within the Christian Church differently over the centuries. This is what we call living tradition. Living tradition is in place when the community of memory holds the what, the good, what is important, while translating it for current times. Translating for the current culture is not always easy, as we know. Different groups within organizations, especially in the Church, have different notions of the good that the organization is protecting. Different groups within the same organization back different communities of memory.

What happens when these differences arise as a people struggle to stay together in times of change or cultural development? Often there is a “rhetorical interruption” (Arnett, et. al, 2009). One of the most recent in my Church, The Episcopal Church, has been the concern over what to do about same-sex marriage. What began decades ago as a forward-looking discussion became an absolute interruption when legislation was place before the General Convention of The Episcopal Church in 2012 providing resources for a ceremony called a same-sex blessing to be performed provisionally in the Church (same-sex marriage itself was not yet on the table, just the blessing of a marriage) (Archives of The Episcopal Church, Resolution 2012-A049).

For some, this was a total culture shock. I liken it to intercultural communication ethics where differences and similarities among cultures are studied, as well as the content of those cultures and the effects of that content on persons within and across different cultures (Arnett, et. al, 2009). The community of memory for many in the Church viewed marriage as a sacrament between a man and a woman. Others viewed this movement as being part of the living tradition, one that was adapting to our times. These were very different cultural traditions quickly forced into the same worship space.

This shift created a rhetorical interruption in the life of the Church. The answer, at least in my diocese (a geographical groups of churches in a hierarchical church), was to be dialogical, to attempt “learning” (Arnett, et. al, 2009). A task force of people who stood in a variety of positions on the matter was formed, as equally divided into two communities of memory as possible – roughly those for and those against – those who saw same-sex marriage as completely counter to the culture of the Church and those who saw it as tradition along a continuum.

The group met, studied, discussed theology, prayed together and most of all, stayed together. Out of this task force came a paper on the theology of marriage in the Church and on same-sex (at the time) blessings. The result was the development of a process where churches could apply to perform same-sex blessings only after offering the same dialogical model first in their congregations. It was required that they offer meetings and discussion and that the vestry (governing body of a congregation) at the end of the discussion process, vote on whether their congregation would apply to perform the blessings.

Many congregations, under one diocese, had the opportunity to stay in community in the midst of disagreement and to be a part of the evolving community of memory. It worked. The churches in my diocese stayed together and the people within the churches stayed together. We are still together. Some folks, of course, left when the Church took a direction that they couldn’t reconcile with their notion of the community of memory, but on the whole, we are whole.

In 2015 at the time of the General Convention of The Episcopal Church (held every three years), same-sex marriage was made legal in most states in the U.S. and about a week later, the Church approved that same-sex marriages could be performed in churches (General Convention of The Episcopal Church, Resolution 2015-A054). Whole dioceses and congregations within dioceses still have choice, but the new living tradition of the Church is that it has taken a stance on same-sex marriage, engaging in a significant cultural shift.

There are still many who disagree with the stance The Episcopal Church has taken. I would recommend, as described above, the ethical communication behaviors of dialogue and sharing stories. Getting to know the people who live in your community allows for learning and an opening of the heart. Don’t shut yourself off to those in your family who you love who disagree. “Meeting another culture is a journey into difference” (Arnett, et. al, 2009, p. 163). When we do that, we know who we are and what we stand for in a compassionate and loving way.


Arnett, R. C., Fritz, J. M., & Bell, L. M. (2009). Communication ethics literacy: dialogue and difference. Los Angeles: Sage Publications.

General Convention, Journal of the General Convention of…The Episcopal Church, Salt Lake City, 2015 (New York: General Convention, 2015), pp. 778-781.

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