The Illinois State University School of Business has recently taken a surprising interest in the Episcopal Church of the United States.

The University of Illinois news reports that

For the past decade, Illinois State Business Professor Mathew Sheep has worked with four other researchers from across the United States to study how the church viewed itself during this period. Their study has been accepted for publication in the Academy of Management Journal.

Why would a prestigious secular institution of higher education take an interest in the Episcopal Church of the United States?

Professor Sheep is interested in the Episcopal church because of how the Episcopal Church has navigated fundamental and, to some of its members, deeply upsetting change in the past decade. The Illinois University News explains,

The 2003 election of Rev. Gene Robinson as the Episcopal Church’s first openly gay bishop set off an internal debate that led a number of members within several conservative dioceses and parishes to leave the church.

Many observes predicted this change would bring about the demise and eventual extinction of the Episcopal Church. But the church has not only survived it has carried on, even in the midst of sharp disagreement, with relatively minor damage to its community.

in the end the church retained about 90 percent of its membership, including many conservatives who opposed Robinson’s consecration as bishop.

Sheep and his researchers wanted to find out,

How did Episcopalian leaders and members reconcile their church’s identity with such a momentous change?

The answer they have come up with is encouraging and enlightening:

What the team found was that, rather than organizational identity being a fixed set of descriptions of the organization, it is instead a set of dialectical tensions that people attempt to balance or navigate every day in the way they talk about identity. In other words, organizations can stretch their identity—a concept the researchers called organizational identity elasticity—to allow for major changes.

This seems to mean that identity does not need to be fixed in rigidly defined formularies in order to work as a cohesive unifying force in a community. It is possible for people to remain united and carry on in fellowship and work together without being in absolute agreement about every aspect of their corporate life.

The picture that evolves in Sheep’s description fits the reality that churches face every day. Certainly in the western world, we must navigate “dialectical tensions” on a regular basis. In the day of instant internet exchange of information and opinion it is simply no longer feasible to assume that any group of people can be effectively and honestly held together by “a fit set of descriptions” that satisfies every member within that group.

If any community larger than one is honest at all, its members must acknowledge that not everyone is in total agreement all the time about everything they believe.

Uniformity is not essential to unity. “Identity elasticity” is possible as long as there is a shared commitment to some generally agreed upon overarching values that transcend personal preference and individual taste. How a community comes together and decides upon these essential values will say more about the nature of the community than the values themselves.