A topic has popped up a couple of times in conversation in the last few days – the question of ‘memory’ in the context of a congregation.

The congregations in the Presbytery of Europe (in common with many of the other non-indigenous churches) tend to have a fairly high turnover of people. This can present many challenges, but one that has been mentioned by a couple of people on recent visits is that of ‘congregational memory’. Most, probably all, Scottish churches have a handful of ‘memory-keepers’. The people who remember the last time something was tried and it didn’t work, or the obscure reason why something has always been done a particular way, or the reason that the awkwardly-positioned piece of furniture is where it is is because old (and long-departed) Mr X liked it there.

Such memories can be a useful source of knowledge and expertise, but they can also be a source of frustration and even stagnation. The Euro churches still have their little core of people who have long memories, but the high turnover of people makes for interesting opportunities and frustrations. The fact that something didn’t work before doesn’t mean it wouldn’t work again, this time with a different group of people, a different ‘dynamic’ in the congregation and different passions and interests of the members. But, a long(-ish) serving minister, can find themselves doing the same things every few years, just with a different set of people. But is also means there is the scope to try new things as different ‘gifts’ come into a congregation. One of the key purposes of the hospitality I keep going on about is that it is a better opportunity than the hello on the church doorstep to get to know someone more deeply. It can provide an opportunity to uncover gifts and talents, skills and, importantly, dreams and desires that can be tapped into by the church and used.

But, aside from the practical, congregational memory is also about identity. Any congregation I’ve been involved with has always identified itself strongly with the Church of Scotland, but has also been very protective of its own distinctiveness. Whether that is through its theology, its work or its history, it is part and parcel of a church’s identity. Much of the ‘memory’ I’ve been writing about is about self-identity and maintaining that tension that can exist between being a congregation within a particular context and also being part of the Church of Scotland. If anything, this is an even greater challenge for the Euro churches, not least because of the pressures of ethnic and cultural diversity that is found within them.

It might be easy to suggest that the overriding factor should be one’s identity in Christ and of being the body of Christ in the context we are in. But that is somewhat simplistic, I believe. Identity cannot be divorced from the past. It cannot simply be about the ‘now’. We are who we are, as people, as churches, because of where we have come from, what has shaped our understanding and what has formed our hopes. Casting ourselves adrift from our past can mean we are at the mercy of every prevailing fad and fashion breeze. By the same token, being anchored in the past can mean we are left behind, foundering, when others are discovering new challenges and new opportunities.

I’m curious though. How much of church memory is simply institutional lethargy and how much of it is valuable identity? Can they even be separated?

One response to “Memories”

  1. Interesting! What memories reside in a church which has gone through a series of linkages and finally union? What is the identity then? Perhaps the passage of time is the only way to tell.
    My home church is the residual of Ebeneezer Erskine’s church, and I can detect some of the issues still residing in it, despite the passage of centuries and numerous amalgamations, unions and linkages. His name is still extant in part of the name of the congregation, so I was aware of the issues from an early age. But this church is now elderly, with very little new blood coming in, and has been vacant for a long time. A new linkage has been formed and permission to call a minister has been granted, so interesting times are ahead! Will the inherent institutional lethargy transform into a vibrant identity?
    As you say, identity cannot be divorced from the past nor rootless in the present. Finding the balance between the two is the important thing. And who declares the identity – those within the congregation or those observing from outside? Quite often, I suspect, there will be differing perceptions of a congregation’s identity!

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