“Making memories” is not a new phrase, but it is one I have heard several times recently. It has come up in conversation with couples and families who realise that the time they have together may be short; “We’re spending time making memories” they say, and we agree it is time well spent. We are all, of course, always in the process of making memories; in those we hold, and even when we are unable to retain them we play a part in the memories of others. Memory is not simply concerned with remembering events, or people, or words; it is much more than that. Julia Shaw (2016, p. xi) argues that memory is where the root of an individual’s identity lies – what she calls your “you-ness”. Memory, she says, “shape[s] what we think we have experienced and, as such, what we believe we are capable of in the future”. Memory, then, has power to affect an individual’s understanding of the present and their perception of the future, enabling identities to be constructed in the context of their whole lives or the life of their community, their perception of history and the claiming and re-claiming of that history.
If an individual’s memories create their “you-ness” then the memories of a community can be understood as creating their “us-ness”; I am fascinated by the way church communities talk about their memories and their “us-ness”. There is, of course, much to be said of memory in the church. There are familiar caricatures: “ah yes, that’s where Mrs. Johnson used to sit”, “this church used to be full every week”, “Reverend Thomas used to visit every member at least once a week”, and so on! In the life of the church, memory does something. Tuula Sakaranaho (2011) argues that memory is collective in its nature because memories are constructed in and through relationship: “memory is intersubjectivley constituted” (Sakaranaho, 2011, p. 139). The way the past is understood and held, is therefore, as Jan Assmann notes, “the decisive resource for the consciousness of … identity. Anyone who wants to belong to the group must share the memory” (2006, p. 87). Within a church, memories are claimed and treasured by the community, because those memories reveal things that might otherwise remain hidden. The memory of full pews perhaps says, “We are a good church, we’ve done incredible things, think of how many people we’ve known.” The memory of ‘difficult characters’ causing friction perhaps says, “Look how much we have grown.” The memory of how well a new hymn book was accepted perhaps says, “We are looking to the future.” Memory holds the “us-ness” of a community that would otherwise be missed, and needs to be told – to be ‘re-membered’. In her work considering religion in modern Europe, Grace Davie (2000) reflects on the function of memory in religious traditions. She uses the term “vicarious memory” to describe the process where a small number of people hold the memory of a religious tradition or community on behalf of others. The religious tradition is sustained as long as those who hold the memories preserve them, which, Davie claims, demonstrates that memory is always precarious because it is held by a group of people, indeed often a small group. This means that because memories are dependent on that group to preserve them, they can easily be lost and may not be sustained indefinitely. The precarious nature of memory is negated somewhat by the way “memory mutates” over time to allow new forms of practice and understandings to emerge, yet sometimes there must be an active challenging of memories to allow them to be assessed in the present life of the community.
Memory is not disinterested recollection; memory creates and sustains the identity of individuals and communities. The way memories are used can allow new life, new ideas, and new practice to be developed within those communities.
My questions are, I suppose, what are the things that need to be forgotten, and what forgotten things need to be remembered as the church seeks to be the community of Christ in the world? The answers are, however, harder than the questions.
Assmann, J. (2006). Religion and Cultural Memory. Stanford: Stanford Universirty Press.
Davie, G. (2000). Religion in Modern Europe: A Memory Mutates. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Sakaranaho, T. (2011). Religion and the Study of Social. Temenos, 47(2), 135-158.
Shaw, J. (2016). The Memory Illusion. London: Penguin.