The Quiet Group and the Change Group

By R. Channing Johnson

A while back, George Clifford wrote an essay titled “Is the Episcopal Church Going the Way of the Grange.” Like Clifford, I have taught undergraduate and graduate statistics (I call them “sadistics” in sympathy with students). I liked his analysis of the continuing decline of the Episcopal Church and of how budget allocations indicate that the main agenda of TEC is aimed at preserving the status quo of decline.

I maintain that the main problem may be that we tend to ignore the very rapid social change in America since World War II. We now have four different generations and a major cultural divide between those people above versus below the age of approximately 45. While many of us understand that there are some differences in worldview, beliefs, and values, we don’t understand how deep they are and cannot really articulate the differences that affect church participation and membership. As a result, we miss the imperative of change and the nature of appropriate adaptive response.

I became aware of the reality and pain of social change back in the late 1960s and early 1970s, first as chaplain of one of the Episcopal church-related colleges, then as a graduate student at large state university and as the vicar of an experimental ministry at a nearby Episcopal congregation. This was when we became aware that the children of the World War II generation had somehow managed to grow up without sharing their parent’s world-view, values, or beliefs. They declared the dawning of the age of Aquarius, celebrated Bishop Robinson’s little book on “situational ethics,” gathered as a mighty herd at Woodstock, and declared that “You can’t trust anyone over 30.” And now, we realize that this was just the beginning and that there was more generational change coming down the pike!

The experimental ministry at the nearby church brought me face to face with the pain of social change. We were seeking to break out of the “active clergy, passive laity” mode by providing an unpaid team of worker priests to conduct Sunday services but primarily to train the laity to carry out the greater work of the church, including pastoral, outreach and caring ministries. This “team ministry” was accepted with enthusiasm and participation by many, but barely accepted by others as an unwelcomed financial necessity. Then the riots at the nearby university broke out and the Episcopal Church got serious about the revisions to the Book of Common Prayer. I’m not sure which caused more pain and anger, but my Social Science response was to conduct a survey.

One survey statement alone identified two distinctly different groups within the congregation. That statement was, “In a changing world, the church ought to be a place of quiet and unchanging stability.” The group that affirmed this statement opposed the team ministry and the changes taking place in church and society, emphasized church building and staff, and were confident that “Young People growing up today will accept the ways of the traditional church.” The group that disagreed with this statement, supported the team ministry and the changes taking place within the church, supported social activism, and tended to define the church primarily in terms community rather than place. These differences between the “Quiet group” and the “Change group” were statistically significant at the point .001 level on the Mann Whitney U Test. (There, I’ll never mention statistic again!) There was no evidence that these differences were based on age.

This study was reported in 1971. Does it sound familiar today? The point is that, although change is staring us in the eye, change is unwelcomed and threatening to a significant number of people. This is the message of Toffler in Future Shock (1970). Change in modern society is coming so fast and furious that some people simply cannot adapt and are overwhelmed. Change is a threat when the church is seen by some as a place of quiet sanity, to be defended as such.

It’s probably fair to characterize older communicants (who make up the great majority of many congregations) as perfectly happy and at home in their churches. After all, their churches fit their cultural values and they tend to “do church” in the old familiar ways that they have come to love. The only problem is that they are growing older and the younger people and children are missing. Weren’t Little Bo Peep’s sheep supposed to return home after they grew up and married? What’s wrong with them, and why is it so hard to carry on a civilized conversation with them? The typical older communicant is happy with their church because it was shaped by the culture they grew up with.

We need to distinguish between the Gospel of Salvation and the culture within which the Gospel is presented. The Good News of God’s love in Jesus remains the same from age to age, but the culture within which the Gospel is presented has always changed with time and location. The Episcopal Church is 1800 would probably seem as strange to a typical Episcopalian as that strange (you fill in the denomination) church down the street. The Gospel is an unchanging gift. The packaging varies with our culture.

But American culture has changing rapidly from generation to generation. I believe that the rapidity and depth of change is something new, something that happened after World War II. The result is that the cultural packaging of the Gospel that is comfortable to the older generation, that they grew up with and came to love, is strange and unwelcoming to the younger generations. Simple statistics document that the younger of the young are the most deeply alienated from the church and that the overall level of alienation is increasing year by year. Statistics from Un-Christian (2007) by David Kinnaman shows that these young, disaffiliated persons agree that Christians are antihomosexual (91%), judgmental (87%, hypocritical (85%), and old-fashioned (78%).

This past April, Tamie Harkins, former Episcopal Chaplain to Canterbury Club at Northern Arizona University posted a blog item that went viral in its popularity. She outlined 20 actions that are “guaranteed” to bring young persons to your church. It was a magnificent cry for changes by a young post-modern voice. We ignore these changes at the price of our long-term survival.

The changes between generations in our society threaten us with decay and loss if we do not respond. But changes poorly selected and imposed can generate opposition and destruction and “the last state of that congregation is worse than the first” (see Luke 11:24-26).

I believe that change and how we address it is the heart of the crisis faced by the traditional churches today. I know that the problem can be addressed because I have experienced congregation coming alive. I have also seen congregations dying that ignore the challenge and other congregations dying because they did not understand the threat of change and the damage from opposition to change. I’ve written elsewhere about the nature and management of adaptive change. We don’t have to follow the style of the large evangelical congregations. We have a wealth of catholic diversity to dip into as we seek to live the Gospel with a change in the cultural packaging of the Gospel.

Consider the following changes that are far-reaching but non-specific enough that they can be designed for that individual congregation in its uniqueness:

Emphasize the church as community, not organization.
Recognize that life in Christ is more about relationships than following rules.

Understand that I am a forgiven sinner and treat others without condemnation.

Be far more attentive to human need and the brokenness around us.

These four adaptive changes seem to me to relate to learning to live the Gospel. We need more emphasis here. There are two other that seem to be more related to changes in our culture.

Promote greater informality in church.

Realize that worship is moving from the cognitive toward the expressive and joyful.

How can we attract the disaffiliated and the stranger if we do not live the Gospel with joy in their midst? Repentance is changing my life direction from one path to another. How can the stranger repent if he has not seen the great alternative of Newness of Life lived in his presence?

The bottom line is that adaptive change to reach out to the younger generations will involve change is us and how we live toward others. What a glorious opportunity! As we walk the path between death from inaction on one side and death from squabbling on the other, we discover the Shepherd who guides us and leads us into his promises. As Father Abraham said to Sara, “Come, Let’s get packed and find out where He’s leading us! Yeee Hah!”

R. Channing Johnson, PhD, is an Episcopal priest working in the Diocese of Arizona and the author of Where have all the Young People Gone, (2011).

Reasoning with the mind in the heart

By Donald Schell

Bicycling past a parked car, the bumper sticker caught my eye, ‘Don’t believe everything you think.’ I stopped to write it down.

Someone got it right - The bumper sticker’s ‘believe’ resonated with faith, not because faith is irrational, but because faith (trust) is inherently relational. Not irrational, relational – our thinking alone will never get us to what our believing (especially believing formed in community) somehow senses and ultimately knows.

All of us have all kinds of thoughts about all kinds of things (including religious and theological things), random thoughts, thoughts all over the map, opinions, tightly held certainties, ‘common sense’ and things “we all know.” But that bundle of thoughts and opinions is just that – our own bundle of opinions and thoughts.

Faith’s path of knowing (can I say “trust’s path of knowing”?) engages the world we see and know and feel and taste with our relationship to other people and our interactions with them. Trust’s path of knowing values sense, intuition, and hope.

A good dinner party, a holy liturgy, falling in love, a funeral, or any passionate, concrete commitment to work with and alongside other people in need offer us vibrant un-rationalized glimpses (touches, whiffs…) of an elusive something that looks and feels compellingly real. Our collage of those many glimpses guides our trust. But is relational knowing really knowing? I hope so, because it’s actually the knowing we’ll stake our lives on.

A simple example: what has changed straight people’s minds about the rightful, graced place of LGBT people in the church? What is moving our whole country toward support of gay marriage? I’ll speak for myself as an old straight, white guy. It’s personal knowing and relationship, knowing gay friends – it’s working and being in friendship and community with couples whose lives make sense, and welcoming love and support and understanding from what gay friends find in their relationship.

What changes our mind is our heart, not argument. The experience of knowing people changes our mind.

Have you noticed how our most compelling arguments on this or almost any other subject seem to fall on deaf ears when we’re arguing (no matter how well we argue) with people who disagree with us? Why do our eminently reasonable arguments provoke half-truths and irrationality from those who disagree with us? Why does their disagreement exasperate and provoke us so? And why does it seem to them that we’re doing the same?

We learn to care and respect other people by listening to their lives. We feel our way toward their experiences, and find something unfamiliar that nonetheless lives that looks and feels like the best self we know in ourselves. Sometimes it’s not best self but the most ordinary self we know in ourselves, so compassion for others comes from exercising the measure of forgiveness that we’d hope for ourselves.

How do we trust? How do we communicate? We have all heard the arguments for the ‘selfish’ character of the gene, arguments that our human character was simply shaped by competition. It’s a reductionist version of Darwin that claims that what survives most fiercely is what survives in the world.

The more we learn about the neural structure of the brain and as we continue to observe our near primate ancestors the hypothesis of ‘selfish genes,’ the inevitably selfish character of genes in a competitive evolutionary system faces overwhelming challenge from new observations, new contradictory evidence. Like us our primate cousins have innate tendencies to empathy and sympathetic. Researchers frame experiments to witness people and primates acting to help, care for, or serve others including strangers not in their own gene pool. This openness to others and care for the unrelated stranger gives us the receptivity that makes listening and collaboration possible.

But what about our violence? What about selfishness? What about the fall? Isn’t that really what defines us?

Well yes and no, we and our nearest primate relatives do have a strong tendency to competition, and any of us are capable of violence and surprising, deliberate cruelty to our own.

And yes, war and conflict with our own kind was among the evolutionary forces that shaped our consciousness, but it’s not our sole, defining character.

We’re also deeply predisposed and neurologically wired to feel one another’s pain, to help, to collaborate, to comfort, to grieve. Love isn’t a cultural invention and it’s not confined to near kin. Reflecting on our own experience of love, any of us could refine and nuance this list of how we and other mammals are connected with each other.
The New York Times recently offered us another piece in the puzzle. It supports the wisdom of not believing everything you think.

In Patricia Cohen’s article “Reason seen more as weapon than as path to truth,” we learn that French cognitive scientists Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber are developing observed argument and data to crack the old puzzle of why logic so rarely leads to change of heart.

In fact arguments that are clear and satisfying to us will provoke resistance and skepticism in the listeners, even in sympathetic listeners, and certainly in people we think our arguments ‘should’ most appeal to. Mercier and Sperber’s science warns us (like the bumper sticker) that “Reasoning doesn’t have this function of helping us to get better beliefs and make better decisions. It was [i.e. it emerged in evolution as] a purely social phenomenon. It evolved to help us convince others and to be careful when others try to convince us.” In the summary of their research Times reporter Patricia Cohen says, “Truth and accuracy were beside the point.”

Mercier and Sperber offer their own summary in their abstract of a recent article - “Reasoning is generally seen as a means to improve knowledge and make better decisions. However, much evidence shows that reasoning often leads to epistemic distortions and poor decisions. This suggests that the function of reasoning should be rethought. Our hypothesis is that the function of reasoning is argumentative. It is to devise and evaluate arguments intended to persuade. Reasoning so conceived is adaptive given the exceptional dependence of humans on communication and their vulnerability to misinformation. A wide range of evidence in the psychology of reasoning and decision making can be reinterpreted and better explained in the light of this hypothesis.”

The truths we sing and touch, the truths that move us and in which we move (and even dance) together are not the truths of win/lose competition. They’re glimpses of the great Truth of relationship of inclusion, of blessing one another. These are the truths we believe because we pray and think them with our mind in our heart.
Parker Palmer coined that phrase, ‘thinking with the mind in the heart.’ Any reader and friend of the Desert Fathers and Mothers of Early Christianity or of the Philokalia/Jesus Prayer tradition will recognize that Palmer has adapted from those ancient teachers’ injunction that we should pray ‘with the mind in the heart,’ a prayer that’s fully embodied, that rides on our breath and in God’s Spirit.

Why does our consciousness sometimes draw us to others? What makes us discard old thoughts and believe good of strangers and those we’d previously judged ‘unlike’ ourselves?

What of the thinking that divides, the thinking the bumper sticker warns us not to believe? Why does some thought push us to make bloody competition an article of faith? Why do some people put Scriptural arguments together to convince themselves and others that God’s wrath is the source of hurricanes, that “God hates fags,” that “Muslims are the enemy.” And why can’t we convince people that the real God is the

One whose “property is always to have mercy”?

We know the loving mercy of God in our experience of giving and receiving love and mercy. The thoughts we trust most deeply are those we think with the mind in the heart.

I wish I could thank the writer of that bumper sticker. Try it on for the day. Savor it as we continue on our way, ‘Don’t believe everything you think.’

The Rev. Donald Schell, founder of St. Gregory of Nyssa Church in San Francisco, is President of All Saints Company.

Paying attention to the presence of God

By Bill Carroll

One of the most profound responsibilities we have as Christian people is to persevere in prayer. Prayer is by no means limited to petition and intercession, in which we come before God for our own needs and those of others, but these forms of prayer are central to the life that we are called to live.

More broadly, prayer means paying attention to the presence of God. It means listening for God and responding to God, by our words, deeds, and silence. Prayer means giving thanks for God's many gifts, taking refuge in God's promises, and adoring God's goodness. It means seeking God's will and offering ourselves up for God's purposes. Petition and intercession are but one dimension of a relationship with God that is much broader and deeper--and far more meaningful.

At the same time, however, there is something paradigmatic about the prayer of petition and intercession. If to focus exclusively there might seem narrow and self-absorbed, to neglect it entirely would be to forget our profound spiritual poverty. It would be an attempt to escape our status as God's children--fragile, dependent creatures, who come before God in need of many things. Even in the Lord's Prayer, the paradigm for all Christian prayer, we ask God for our daily bread. We ask God to meet our material needs, as well as less tangible needs like the forgiveness of sins.

Even though the prayer of petition is more risky than intercession, because it is focused on ourselves, it has a lot to teach us about grace and life in the Spirit. Persistently bringing our needs before God will teach us, as nothing else can, the difference between what we want and what we truly need.

If prayer is always answered, as indeed it is, then it takes the gift of discernment to understand God's answer. For often, God's response to our prayer does not take the form we thought it would. Petition teaches us to seek God's perfect will, to align our wills with God's will, and to seek only those good things that God wants for us.
In the end petition reaches out beyond itself to those other forms of listening and paying attention to God that make up a complete life of prayer. Truly, through petitionary prayer, we discover the meaning of Peter's words in his epistle: "Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, so that he may exalt you in due time. Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you."

But, we might object, our prayer life is so weak. At times, it is so self-serving and mercenary. I suppose it can be, especially if it becomes a mere wish list, rather than an act of listening for God. But how else are we to cast our cares and anxieties upon God, if we do not name the profound longings of our hearts? In fact, it may be especially important to name these needs, when they turn out to be vain, illusory, or misunderstood. For then, we are thrown back on our relationship with God. We assume a more humble posture before the throne of grace and discover, again and again, the abundant mercies of our God.

When our prayer is weak, as it often is, we also discover the power of praying for one another. Our brothers and sisters can hold us in prayer through times of difficulty and doubt. In the end, it's all about relationship. If we are open to this gift, we can discover a depth of love that is itself an answer to prayer, a form of divine response to the deepest longings of our hearts.

In the seventeenth chapter of John's Gospel, we see Jesus himself praying for us. In his high priestly prayer, Jesus lifts us all up into the presence of God, asking his Father to protect us in his Name, so that we may be one, even as he and the Father are one. The words of Jesus in this powerful prayer summon us to become what we already are, a united Body, gathered in the Spirit, sharing his own relationship with God. In the prayer, Jesus reminds us that we belong to him and therefore to God. For we have been given a Name that the world cannot take away.

In these days after our Lord's Ascension, we remember that Christ has entered into heaven on our behalf. Now he prays for us, day and night, within the heavenly temple. Jesus sits at the right hand of God, which is not so much a place, as a position of authority near to God's own heart.

By his Ascension and exaltation to the Father's right hand, Jesus consummates the purpose of the Incarnation. He brings our very flesh--the fullness of our humanity--into the near presence of God. In so doing, he brings our brokenness and all our various needs before God. And we have his promise--his sure and certain promise--that no matter what the world may bring, no matter what may happen to us, God will hear and answer our prayers. Perhaps not always in the ways we want, but in the ways we truly need.

And so, brothers and sisters, "Humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, so that he may exalt you in due time. Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you. "

The Rev. Dr. R. William Carroll is rector of the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd in Athens, Ohio. He received his Ph.D. in Christian theology from the University of Chicago Divinity School. His sermons appear on his parish blog. He also blogs at Living the Gospel. He is a member of the Third Order of the Society of Saint Francis.

Chance encounters on the speaking circuit

By Deirdre Good

Anyone who is invited to give talks or public addresses or lectures or workshops knows that one will encounter complete strangers as well as a few old friends. The nature of these chance meetings varies widely but, given that I speak about biblical matters, the possibility of deeply meaningful interactions is always present. On one occasion at a church in Brooklyn, someone introduced themselves to me as a friend of my parents from the time they were in Kenya. I was able to call my parents that day and pass on greetings. People have asked me after talks if I would be their spiritual director, which I decline, having had no training. People tell me stories about their lives evoked by my talk and our conversation. Sometimes, people ask for my email to begin an exchange of information about a topic on which they have heard me speak.

On one occasion, I went to another part of the country to give a day long workshop at a church on how the Bible came to be. It was well attended, having been given good publicity by the host rector, and people came from considerable distances including neighboring states. After the morning talk, the church parishioners served lunch and I sat down at a table of complete strangers having been waved over to it by two friendly faces. We began to talk. I asked where this couple had come from. They named a town in a neighboring state which I have never visited but which holds the grave of my mother-in-law, buried far away from any family or friends. It's not a large town so I was quite surprised. And when I told them of her grave, they both immediately offered to visit it. An extraordinary connection came into being that day from a chance encounter. They subsequently sent descriptions and pictures of the grave and accounts of their visits to it on several occasions, and a beautiful gift handcrafted by the husband.

In today's post we received a letter from the wife describing the death of her husband and her year-long grieving. I myself was deeply grieved at the news but my own sorrow at his death is tempered by the knowledge that, just as our connection in a place unknown to us, which each of us reached only by traveling a considerable distance, was made through the long-ago death of a person unknown to either of us, it will be sustained beyond death. And at the same time, that one fragile connection we made became so deep not so much because of what we said to each other, but because of who they were and what they did for my spouse and me. That connection becomes a symbol of what all other future encounters with strangers at other talks might become.

Dr. Deirdre Good is professor of New Testament at The General Theological Seminary, specializing in the Synoptic Gospels, Christian Origins, Noncanonical writings and biblical languages. An American citizen, she grew up in Kenya and keeps the blog On Not Being a Sausage.

A common tongue

By Marshall Scott

One afternoon when I was in college I took my girlfriend to a matinee at the movies. While we waited outside to buy our tickets, I found myself in conversation with a woman. She told me that she had come into town by bus, and was headed home again. She came in to shop twice a year, and once home, wouldn’t be back until perhaps the Christmas season. She had a rather thick and distinctive accent, sort of an odd combination of the Yorkshire Dales and Cockney East London – sort of. Still, I didn’t have any trouble understanding her myself.

My girlfriend, on the other hand, didn’t understand. “Who was that woman?”

“Oh, she just wanted to talk. She’s come in today from out in the country to shop, something she only does twice a year. She’s waiting on the bus to start her trip home. Mostly we talked about what a nice day it is.”

“Why did she talk like that,” she asked.

“She lives in the mountains,” I answered. “There are still some places so remote that not even radio gets in. Back that far in the mountains, accents haven’t changed much since the folks immigrated 250 years ago.”

“Well,” she said, “I’m glad to know what that was about. When she first started talking, I thought she was touched in the head! And then you answered her!”

I’ve thought about that experience as I’ve reflected on Pentecost. We all know the story: driven by the Spirit, marked with tongues of fire, the disciples poured out into the streets of Jerusalem; and in that cosmopolitan city, visitors from across the known world heard the Gospel proclaimed in the various languages that they spoke at home. It was the first, but far from the last, experience of the translation of the Gospel.

We still pursue that same effort. Bible and missionary societies continue in that effort. Every now and then we still hear of a first translation into another language. I often think that the work of the Church, and especially the tasks of Biblical interpretation and of theology, are efforts at translation: translating the truths of the Gospel into the social and philosophical languages of each succeeding generation.

At the same time, as I remember that woman on that summer day, I am conscious that in small but meaningful ways each of us speaks a “different language.” We incorporate the nuances of our lives in ways that change how we talk. In a rather broad way, we encounter that in the hospital all the time. Even without differences of national languages, we face issues of translation between professionals on the one hand, and patients and their families on the other. We professionals have to remember (and this can be as much an issue for chaplains as for others) to speak the common tongue, and not “medical.” Professional jargon can be a temptation. Used among peers, it is so concise, so precise, and so clear. On the other hand, used with non-professionals, it does more harm than good.

More broadly, each of us does have his or her own “language.” It certainly includes the various jargons of our many vocations and avocations, our jobs and our hobbies. It also includes the distinctive characteristics of our histories, our families, and our communities. Each pet name, with all its history; each private joke from the shared experiences of spouses, families, and friends, helps shape a unique, individual “language.”

And we as Christians have a vocation to preach the Gospel in each of those individual languages. Much of that work, of course, we can do in the various shared languages of our daily commerce. At the same time, to truly bring the Gospel to life calls for us to learn and use the languages of each individual we encounter.

That requires, I think, that we listen well and carefully. How shall we learn these individual “languages,” unless we spend time listening carefully to these individuals?

But I also think it requires that we make the Gospel incarnate by demonstrating it. To St. Francis we attribute the saying, “Preach always; and when you must, use words.” We have been told from childhood, “Actions speak louder than words;” and often they can transcend the different nuances of our individual languages. Living out the Gospel day by day will reach more persons, and reach them more profoundly, than the sum total of even our best preaching.

On the feast of Pentecost we remembered the day when Spirit descended on the disciples, and began the ongoing process of translating the truth of the Gospel in to the many languages and cultures that we humans have cobbled together. Now we’re living in the time after Pentecost (both in the Church’s history and in the Church year), and the vocation of Pentecost still goes on. On one great day, the disciples were called and empowered to proclaim the Gospel in the languages of many peoples. And now we in our baptism are called and empowered to proclaim the Gospel by how we act toward and how we listen to the many individuals we encounter. We are called and filled with the Spirit to proclaim the love of God in Christ in each person’s individual, personal language.

The Rev. Marshall Scott is a hospital chaplain in the Diocese of West Missouri. A past president of the Assembly of Episcopal Healthcare Chaplains, and an associate of the Order of the Holy Cross, he keeps the blog Episcopal Chaplain at the Bedside.

Cycling through the Digital Reformation

By Elizabeth Drescher

This week, the Pew Internet & American Life Project released a report, “Social Networking Sites and Our Lives,” based on a survey of the social networking practices of Americans. The most pronounced finding across all social networking social networking sites was that active social networking participation does not, as is commonly opined, result in social isolation or a lack of relational intimacy. Further, social networking participation tends to enrich rather than diminish participation in face-to-face relationships. What does this mean for churches? As I mulled this a bit through the week, I couldn’t help but think of the digital ministry of the Rev. Bruce Robison, of St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Pittsburgh, PA.

I profiled Robison in my new book, Tweet If You ♥ Jesus: Practicing Church in the Digital Reformation. Below is an excerpt from the book that highlights Robison’s minimalist, yet high impact social media practice. My take is that mainline ministry leaders like Robison have begun to capture some of the potential of new digital media platforms to enrich church communities by engaging believers and seekers in the midst of their everyday lives. As the most recent Pew report shows, regular integrating digital engagement with less frequent face-to-face encounters enriches relationships, nurtures community, and, it would seem, contributes to sustaining the Church as a meaningful—and multi-platform—site for social and spiritual connection.

  

I imagine Bruce Robison on one of those old-timey bikes—the kind with a basket on the front and a bell that goes brrrr-ring, brrrr-ring, brrrr-ring. In my mind’s eye, he’s dressed like a nineteenth-century parson just come from morning prayer, black cassock waving behind him as he wheels over cobblestone streets to visit Mrs. Dunby, who has been uncharacteristically absent the last three mornings. It could be her arthritis acting up, he thinks. Or, perhaps it’s the cold going around that’s punctuated the homily with sniffles and coughs the past couple weeks. Whatever, it’s not like Lily Dunby to miss Morning Prayer, so the Rev. Robison pedals toward the park, waving to the gaggle of old guys drinking coffee and gossiping at a table outside the local cafe.

When this scene plays out in my head, it is always autumn in the neighborhood where the thick-stoned St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church serves as a reminder of the more upscale history of Pittsburgh’s Highland Park neighborhood, dotted as it once was with the small estates of the Carnegie-Frick-Mellon set. I see gold and scarlet leaves floating from the trees as families stroll down the avenue after Sunday services. For a very long time, though, the neighborhood’s been on somewhat harder times, a victim of the collapse of the steel industry in the seventies and one downturn after another in the years since then. It’s still a lovely neighborhood, but it’s more urban now, a little grittier, more working class with an artsy, yuppie edge.

Still, Robison brought the Herbert-esque fantasy to mind himself as we talked about his use of social media in his ministry. ‘You know, the church used to be the center of a town or a village,” Robison said. “A priest helped to keep people connected with each other in that community in very practical ways that went beyond the Sunday service. The priest was an active presence in the community, not someone just ‘over there,’ in that building we go to on Sunday.”

For Robison, blogging and being active on Facebook enables him to be that presence in a world where changed patterns of work, family, and faith in neighborhoods like Highland Park—not to mention the periodic blizzard—often amplify separateness over connection. Robison, like so many other clergy and lay leaders, posts his sermons and offers other commentary on a blog, a practice he sees as valuable in particular for the many older adults in the congregation. But his day-to-day engagements take a more minimalist form by way of Facebook.

Unlike other leaders who use Facebook in the context of their ministry, Robison is the soul of brevity in his own posts. Between periodic updates on the Steelers and the long-suffering Pirates, he posts things like, “@ our diocesan clergy conference…” or “Great morning at St. Andrew’s…” more than he offers reflection, opinion, or information. True, there are periodic announcements of church events and a note once in a while on something he’s recently read. But the real energy of Robison’s engagement on Facebook is elsewhere. He is, I would suggest, one of the Great Listeners of the Digital Reformation, the evidence of which is not his laconic status updates and posts but the number of times his wall reads “Bruce commented on [someone’s] status” or “Bruce wrote on [someone’s] wall.”

More than almost anyone in my Facebook world, Robison seems to take particular care not just to draw people into conversations he initiates on his Facebook page, but to visit the pages of people in his network and participate in their conversations or comment on the things they’ve seen as sufficiently interesting to post on their walls. It all matters to him. “I just can’t see everyone as much as I would want to,” Robison explains. “But I can pay attention to what they’re posting on Facebook, so I have at least some sense of what’s happing in people’s lives.”

He takes particular care to connect to young adults in his congregation as they head off to college. “You know, lots of these kids grow up in the church. They were acolytes. They were active in youth group,” says Robison. He continues,
Then they go off to college, and we only see them on breaks. Maybe. It used to be the case that they would often just fade away from the church. Or, maybe the church faded away from them. Now I can be more aware of what’s happening while they’re at school. And, because so many people in the congregation are also on Facebook, we can all continue to be a community for them when they are home for Christmas or over the summer. We don’t have to say much for them to know we’re still here, that they continue to be important to us.

In his Facebook interactions, then, Robison offers a balance of listening and attentiveness that is particularly meaningful in the Digital Reformation. His is a digital ministry of presence that blends something of the pastoral practice idealized in George Herbert’s The Country Parson with the wisdom practice exemplified by the desert Abbas and Ammas, early Christian monks who took refuge in the deserts outside of Egypt, Syria, Persia (present-day Iran), and present-day Turkey in the third and fourth century. These desert Mothers (Ammas) and Fathers (Abbas) were renown for the depth of spiritual wisdom they doled out to disciples and more casual seekers in memorable morsels that could be shared with others. The Ammas and Abbas are ancient tweet-masters who remind us that, as theologian and blogger Susan Thistlethwaite has insisted, “Just because something is short, doesn’t mean it has to be stupid.”
  

Consciously or not, Robison and a developing contingent of mainline digital ministry companions follow in the footsteps of the Abbas and Ammas. Early pilgrims of the Digital Reformation, they seemed to have intuited what the Pew Internet & American Life study shows: people crave connection. They want to be seen and known. It turns out that it often takes very little effort, very few words to develop and sustain such connections. As E.M. Forster put it so well, “Only connect! … Live in fragments no longer.”

Elizabeth Drescher, PhD, is a religion writer and professor of religious studies and pastoral ministries at Santa Clara University. Her research and writing focus on the spiritual lives of ordinary believers today and in the past. She is the author of Tweet If You ♥ Jesus: Practicing Church in the Digital Reformation (Morehouse, 2011). This summer, with Lutheran pastor and blogger Keith Anderson, she will begin work on a hands-on guide for leaders in the Digital Reformation, Click2Save: The Digital Ministry Bible (Morehouse, 2012). Her Web site is

Discerning God's presence in a secular society

By George Clifford

A couple of weeks ago, I attended Evensong on a Wednesday at Winchester Cathedral. The Cathedral has a daily schedule of services that features Holy Eucharist and morning and evening prayer. About 60 people were present that evening, in addition to six vested clergy, twenty-two paid choristers, two vergers, and the organist. The size and apparently youthful (anybody without gray hair!) congregation impressed me. The service was beautiful and well-conducted in a place in which Christians have prayed daily for over 1000 years.

The second reading was Jesus’ parable of flood waters washing away a house built without a foundations while a house built on stone stood strong against the ravages of weather (Luke 6:47-49). Sitting in a choir stall that monks had once occupied, aware of the plunge in housing prices that had devastated many in both the United States and the United Kingdom, the warning not to construct one’s life on sand had special poignancy. Gazing at the magnificent stone work that still stood strong, with exposed beams high overhead evocative of a ship’s framing (perhaps because I’m a former naval chaplain and like the image of the church as the ark of our salvation), the injunction to build on stone also had a special emotional power.

Then the officiant announced that the chaplain and several students from a local college were present with family members, this being their graduation week. So much for hoping that a revitalized Christianity had established a toehold in Winchester! I did give thanks that the chaplaincy had sufficiently engaged at least a large handful of students such that those students would attend Evensong with their families. In the States, it is easy to forget how secular Europe has become and how marginalized the Church of England is.

Two weeks later, I am writing this on the 61st anniversary of D-Day in Normandy, site of Allied invasions that, after a hard fought campaign, liberated Western Europe from the Nazis, brought a much belated end to the Holocaust, and culminated in Hitler’s suicide.

Tourism is an economic force here in Normandy. It feels impossible to escape from other tourists speaking English in a variety of accents, the occasional Chinese, Scandinavian or Italian, and, to my surprise, a considerable number of Germans. In fact, there are enough German tourists that some signs and brochures actually use French, English, and German.

Why would Germans choose to visit Normandy? Some almost certainly have family members who during WWII fought, were wounded, or perhaps died in Normandy. Others may want to learn more about German history. And some may simply want to vacation at a scenic seashore with great food. But for whatever reasons, they are present in surprising numbers and I have seen no signs of anti-German sentiments.

Another shooting war between the United Kingdom, France, and Germany seems highly improbable, perhaps even impossible. These nations and peoples that fought as bitter enemies for centuries are now bound together in the European Union (EU) by common political, legal, economic, and social ties.

Does the EU rest on solid foundations, like the house built on stone in Jesus’ parable? Conversations with European friends, acquaintances, and strangers give me hope that it might – in spite of the economic stresses placed on the Euro by the economically weaker members of the European Union. Europeans remain aware of the death toll and pervasive destruction of WWI and WWII. European nations recognize that they have passed the apogee of their individual power and glory; future success depends more on mutual cooperation than nationalism. Today, no European nation has the military capacity to wage a European, let alone global, war.

So what does this have to do with the Church proclaiming the gospel? If a secularized Europe is on the cusp of a more perfect union in which they beat most of their swords into plows, what message does the Church have to proclaim?

A media circus surrounded Harold Camping’s latest prediction of the Rapture. Thankfully, most Episcopalians do not subscribe to any eschatological theory involving the Rapture, with or without a timeline supplied by Harold Camping. What then do we believe? That in Jesus God’s love broke into the world, precipitating the arrival of God’s kingdom that even now moves toward fulfillment?

I have visited WWII military cemeteries with the graves of thousands upon thousands of war dead. I have seen memorials to the war dead in French and British cities and towns in which the WWI dead far outnumber those who died in WWII. I have visited Nazi death camps and know that the numbers killed in those camps dwarf the WWI death toll. I have seen photos and read stories of the millions killed by dictators, famine, plague, and other disasters. And I understand why Christians are wary of naïve triumphalism and often very reluctant to proclaim that God’s kingdom is breaking into the world.

Yet, is that not our hope? Do we believe only in some deferred, post-death form of justice or do we believe that Jesus’ message of love and justice will someday prevail on earth?

The Jewish prophets were not foretellers but discerners of God at work in the world. If Christianity is to be credible in the twenty-first century, then we too need prophets, not foretellers (i.e., Harold Camping and others who think that they can tell the future need not apply).

Moves in Europe away from nationalism and toward pan-Europeanism are one sign that God is at work in the world. Moves in the United States and elsewhere toward full civil rights for all – regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, or religion – are other signs that God is at work. Although secular forces contributed to all of those moves, I believe that those moves have their roots in Christianity’s affirmation of the dignity and worth of all and Christianity’s demand for justice on earth; I believe that the impetus for those moves is from God.

The way that leads to the fullness of God’s kingdom is neither flat nor easy. Numerous unforeseen and unnecessary detours lie ahead, replete with tragedy, perhaps of greater magnitude than any humans have yet experienced. Yet let us boldly declare: God is at work; progress toward the fullness of God’s kingdom is not only possible but also visible. We build on a foundation of solid rock, one able to withstand the strongest tempest. Christianity that offers no bold hope for tomorrow is indeed an unattractive gospel.

George Clifford is an ethicist and a priest in the Diocese of North Carolina. He retired from the Navy after serving as a chaplain for twenty-four years and now blogs at Ethical Musings (

Touch is a loaded subject

By Donald Schell

I taught my dad to hug me, but not until after I’d been away from home for a dozen years, after my first marriage and the birth of his first grandchild, after my ordination, after my divorce and my second marriage, and after the birth of his second grandchild. I was in my early thirties.

I started teaching him to hug when we lived thirteen hours from my parents’ house, a very long day’s drive from our small town in Idaho down to the place in California where I’d grown up. After the first of those long drives, I startled my dad when we pulled into my parents’ drive and I burst out of the car and threw my arms around him in greeting. He smiled, but he felt stiff as if I’d put him in a straitjacket. Once I began, I persisted deliberately, and visit by visit slowly felt dad lose his startled response as he came to expect the hug. Eventually I felt him enjoying it. When we were leaving to drive back to Idaho, I’d hug him again and add, “I love you, Dad.” And in the same flow of re-patterning, “I love you too, Donald,” eventually declared what I’d felt for years in his accepting, affirming silence.

Listening was dad’s gift, listening and reflection. He remembered what he heard and thought about it, but dad was a measured, almost reticent speaker. Partly, I’d guess it was his generation, and maybe also the war and the deliberateness of touch that’s required of a physician, but my dad was cautious showing physical affection to his children– just a tussle of the hair. Still I never doubted his love and I had done my best to take into myself that patience and caring listening I felt in his presence and heard in the stories he told me of his medical practice.

Actually before I taught my dad, I had to teach myself to hug in greeting. It was a deliberate choice, a conscious change in behavior partly prompted, I guess by the generational shift that had younger people copying the Kennedys. We were learning from Europe, so we drank Cappuccino, preferred films with subtitles and hugged in greeting. Maybe people who’d put their bodies on the line in nonviolent love shaped us too, somehow. And doubtless the Summer of Love and Woodstock figured in our cultural shift.

For me it wasn’t just cultural, learning to hug had a spiritual heart and impetus. We moved to Idaho in 1976 after about fifteen hundred liturgies where I’d given and received hugs as we offered God’s peace to one another. At daily liturgies over six years, two in an Episcopal seminary and four in my first work at Episcopal Church at Yale, we’d made liturgical enactments of Christ’s peace in shared embraces around a congregation.

Whatever had gone into it, when Ellen and I moved from Connecticut to Idaho, it felt like a seismic moment. We had learned something together, something in our world had changed that we consciously and deliberately took to our new home in Idaho. And I chose to take my relationship with my dad along.

I had heard from colleagues that some people’s pained response to The Peace was, “I don’t come to church to greet other people and chat. I want to talk to God. I’ll greet my friends at coffee hour. I first heard that response myself in Idaho after I’d been a priest for five years.

There for the first time I heard the baffled, angry voices of good people who didn’t see how greeting another Christian in the liturgy could have anything to do with meeting God. With the best respect and compassion I could muster at twenty-nine I listened. From the simple hugs of six solid years of daily liturgy I knew in my bones that God could appear in ritual embrace of friend, stranger, and temporary ecclesial adversary. At its best body knowledge like that doesn’t need to win an argument. Hug by hug, my Idaho friends learned to embrace each other.

Now I’m asking myself to recall what I knew in my bones, because what’s got me thinking back over teaching my dad to hug and say, “I love you,” is pushing me hard toward making an argument when I need to listen and invite us to think together.
I’m concerned at how I see us Episcopalians keeping one another at arms’ length for the peace. I’m concerned that we’re backing away from the closer space where we can give and receive the caring, respectful touch we need. And I write this with deliberate caution, aiming for respect and compassion, because I do know how troubling touch can be for some.

So, patiently and compassionately I hope, I’m asking how we want to touch one another and be touched in the liturgy. And I’m concerned at this Eastertide, this season of hearing Jesus’ “Peace be with you,” that we’re seeing erosion of liturgical practice, as culturally manageable handshakes replace the healing, embarrassing awkwardness of ritual embrace.

Again, I know touch is a loaded subject, and we even find some of the mystery around that charge in the resurrection Gospels. When Jesus greets Mary Magdalene outside the tomb in John’s Gospel, he emphatically warns her, ‘Do not cling to me,’ and tells her instead to run tell the disciples that he’s “ascending to my God and your God, to my Father and your Father.” The scene hinges on Mary’s hearing her own name and Jesus telling her DON’T touch. So he steps back from touch, and doesn’t make his ringing resurrection greeting, “Peace be with you.” Those words come later, when Jesus appears where Mary and the other disciples are huddled together in their locked hideout. There he speaks that greeting that enacts what it offers.

Each time in the Gospels that Jesus says, “Peace be with you,” it’s a resurrection appearance, in fact a decisive resurrection appearance to the gathered community. In Luke, it’s explicitly ‘the eleven and their companions’ who are already gathered when Cleopas and his companion return from the Inn at Emmaus. In John it’s “the disciples,” implicitly including Mary Magdalene the first time but minus Thomas, so the second time he appears again to correct that omission and include Thomas in the community’s experience. In that first appearance to the gathered disciples in John, Jesus’ even says, “Peace be with you” TWICE. Each time Jesus says those powerful, life-changing words, it’s to a complete or nearly complete gathering of the founding community.

The writers of these two Gospels turn a familiar Jewish greeting into words that signify God’s breaking the power of death, estrangement, and everything else that silences love. In Luke after Jesus says, “Peace be with you,” he explicitly invites touch. In John, in the first appearance, he breathes on the disciples (but I’m picturing the Middle-Eastern gesture that readers may have recognized as a one-by-one blessing, the one blessing holding wrists to the sides of the blessed one’s head and breathing across the top of the head). In the second appearance in John Jesus invites Thomas to touch him.

The resurrected Jesus’ “Peace be with you” addresses the whole community, enacts an intimacy with Jesus, and changes who those hearing it will be.

With the Prayer Book reforms of the 70’s we began making such an exchange at The Peace a part of our regular liturgical experience. We moved through our awkwardness and felt the transforming power of our sisters’ and brothers’ faces and touch in the liturgy and sensed something new (or remembered something long forgotten) about the power of touch and being present to one another face to face as we prayed. I was hungry for everything we were doing. I felt my skin touched by ancient memory and inherited body patterning that makes touch healing and reconciling for most people.
In the conservative Christian setting where I grew up some of my Sunday School teachers asked why would anyone want to hold or embrace a person they weren’t married to except to flirt with the possibility of adultery? And wasn’t that all dancing was, a deliberate temptation to sin? Through high school and most of college, I said, “I don’t dance,” but saying it embarrassed me. I meant I didn’t know how to dance and was afraid to look foolish as I learned.

A folk dance group on our college campus gave me an unimagined new freedom, a beginning in my own history of finding my way to be at home in this body. In the 1960’s first visits to the Episcopal Church, kneeling and crossing myself, and coming forward to receive communion all felt like big steps toward inhabiting the body God gave me.

Since 1981, thirty years of daily Aikido practice have given me an hour every morning of being grabbed, held or struck at by women and men, close-partnered work that has us moving closer into people’s space than anyone would move socially in this culture - It’s reconciliation practice rather than striking back, but the creative process that gets us there crosses into people’s “personal space” a hundred times a morning.

“Peace be with you,” Jesus says to the disciples, he breathes on the twelve, and then in the next story says to Thomas, “Here are my hands and side. Touch me.”

I don’t know if I would have said it when I was teaching my dad to hug me, but certainly now I see the whole liturgy as a practice in reconciling intimacy, a practice significantly enacted by touch. How many ways do we touch one another in the liturgy? In all those ways we offer ourselves to one another as signs and instruments of God’s reconciling presence.

Touch is one of liturgy’s crucial, human building blocks. The restoration of The Peace to the liturgy almost forty years ago changed our church, but the work is not done. We’ve learned a great deal in the last thirty years about people’s fear of touch, about people for whom touch unleashes nightmares of real memories, of boundaries crossed, of bodies used, of selves made objects. Thinking of boundaries, thinking of people who can’t bear to be touched, thinking of people who abuse touch, I’ve moved from simple frustration at The Peace offered or received by someone whose body is angled away, left shoulder as remote as possible while the right arm is extended in a stiff, distancing handshake. I’ve become curious. I’m looking for grace and understanding in this event. I hope and pray it’s moving me to a new and wiser compassion. And I’m glad when it also moves us past a handshake to a hug.

Curiosity? I’m listening and working to feel the fear of touch that abuse brings. I welcome learning of neurological differences – for example Temple Grandin’s powerful witness to her autistic experience of the panic at touch as her autistic neurology and physiology plunged her into communication overload from a simple hug.

Recently I’ve been fascinated recently to read University of California professor Dacher Keltner’s research on the evolutionary roots and neurology of feelings and how we use them (in his book Born to be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life). Among the primal adaptive feelings he’s researched, like kindness, embarrassment, smile, laughter, tease, touch, love, compassion, and awe, embarrassment stands out as an evolutionary adaptation that Keltner argues makes human community and relationship possible. Sociopaths and people whose orbitofrontal cortexes are damaged can’t feel embarrassment and so are at constant risk of anti-social speech or expressions of anger or disdain.

Keltner’s observation about embarrassment got noticing how each and every liturgical exchange of the Peace does begin with a tiny moment of negotiation. Will we be most faithful and authentic in letting the handshake be our sign? Is this someone who’d welcome a closer touch, a left hand on the other arm or a half-hug? Now increasingly I’m coming to see that both sides of that negotiation and whatever expression of resurrection peace we produce is holy.

In the resurrection accounts, the disciples are afraid and, I think we can add, embarrassed, abashed, and ashamed in the presence of the Beloved whose death they fled, and to this shame and embarrassment, Jesus offers his greeting of Peace and his touch. Embarrassment is part of the work of reconciliation and community building. Our embarrassment reminds us and communicates to others our felt commitment to community. To the extended hand, when can I offer a second hand for a double handshake, an arm to the upper arm for a half-hug, and my gratitude that Jesus asks us to touch?

The Rev. Donald Schell, founder of St. Gregory of Nyssa Church in San Francisco, is President of All Saints Company.

Thousands have swum the river in both directions

By Daniel J. Webster

In a recent move to Baltimore I unearthed the October 5, 1973 issue of the National Catholic Reporter. I was a stringer for the paper then when TV news in Phoenix didn’t pay much. I even had a part time job teaching religion at a local Catholic high school. My ministry included playing guitar at Sunday night masses at the Franciscan Renewal Center in Scottsdale.

Finding this particular issue of NCR not only flooded me with memories (my byline was on page two) but propelled me into the present. On page one was the notice that John Cogley had become an Episcopalian. Cogley was a former executive editor of Commonweal, an NCR columnist and well known Catholic author and journalist.

His migration, I later discovered, is fondly referred to by those who keep score as “swimming the Thames”—the description for Catholics who become Episcopalians. Those going the other way “swim the Tiber.” These expressions acknowledge the two rivers next to seats of ecclesiastical authority of both branches of Christ’s “one, holy, catholic and apostolic church.”

My move to Baltimore came at the calling of the Episcopal bishop to join his staff as canon for evangelism and ministry development. I swam the Thames nearly 20 years ago, went to the Seminary of the Southwest, and was ordained nearly six years later. And so recent events have caused friends, old and new, to ask for my reactions.

The Vatican’s recent establishment of an ordinariate to make it easier on disaffected Anglicans/Episcopalians to return to Rome hit home in my diocese when Mt. Calvary Episcopal Church and its 24 voting members announced they were swimming the Tiber. (Negotiations on separation continue). Around the same time a handful of Church of England bishops announced they were leaving for Rome. The British media seem to be keeping the scorecard on this latest swimming meet.

The list of those who’ve made the swim in the past 450 years is exhaustive. Last September on his visit to England, Pope Benedict XVI beatified Cardinal John Henry Newman, described by some as the most important Anglican convert to Rome. (Cardinal Newman was added to The Episcopal Church’s calendar of saints in 2009. Feb. 21 is his feast day). One of my heroes, Bede Griffiths, a Church of England priest who became a Roman Catholic Benedictine, lived out his life in a Christian ashram in India. He has inspired many who see Christian meditation as a way to change the world.

This swim meet can get crowded at times. Fr. Alberto Cutie made headlines in 2009 when the Spanish language TV talk-show star became an Episcopalian. So did Matthew Fox in 1994 when his creation spirituality teachings got him in hot water with then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. When I asked the bishop who received Fox into the Episcopal Church about how many inquiries he had gotten from Roman priests during his 20-plus year episcopate, he said it was about one a month. To him it was understandable, since he thought the Episcopal Church had become the church Vatican II had envisioned. That ecumenical council profoundly changed the Episcopal Church and shaped the liturgy we use in our 1979 Book of Common Prayer. In the past 40 years Sunday worship has migrated from a predominant Morning Prayer service to the celebration of Holy Eucharist.

Baltimore is arguably the seat of Roman Catholicism in this country. I am one of millions formed by the Baltimore Catechism during childhood. I’ve been taught by Jesuits, Dominicans, Carmelites and Holy Ghost fathers. I embrace Pope Leo XIII’s stand for workers’ rights in Rerum Novarum and regret his invalidation of Anglican/Episcopal holy orders. I champion (and preach) Paul VI’s proclamation of Jesus’s “preferential option for the poor” and regret his undermining of Vatican II and promulgation of Humanae Vitae.

There are hundreds more, lay and ordained, who make the journey from one communion to the other without fanfare. I am still Catholic and will always be. I’m no longer Roman Catholic. I think Jesus wants me to be where I can most effectively at live out his Gospel.

The late John Cogley’s words in that 1973 NCR could speak for many who’ve swum either river either way: “I do not look upon this move as a ‘conversion’ since I have not changed any of the beliefs I formerly held. Rather, it is a matter of finding my proper spiritual home.”

The Rev. Canon Daniel J. Webster is canon for evangelism and ministry development in the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland. This article first appeared in the June issue of Episcopal Journal.

Vicar tells all: Sarah Palin's history flub, and how it happened

By Stephen T. Ayres

Here is the inside scoop on the Boston history massacre.

I had carefully set aside last Thursday to work on the sermon to be delivered at my 35th reunion at Hamilton College last weekend. Then the National Park Service called Wednesday afternoon inquiring whether we could open up early for a special visitor. No problem. We are a house of prayer for all people and we try to be hospitable to politicians of all stripes, whether or not we happen to agree with them.

I arrived around 7:45 Thursday morning and immediately fielded a phone call from the NPS police asking if they could bring a bomb sniffing dog by to secure the church. Given how freely Governor Palin mingled with the crowds later that morning, the bomb sniffer seemed like a bit of overkill, but I guess if you have a bomb sniffing dog, you take every advantage of an opportunity to use him. The intrepid hound found two suspicious looking bags, which turned out to be used clothing left in the donation box pew. The last time I saw the NPS bomb sniffer was aboard USS Constitution during a turnaround cruise. While there were no bombs aboard, the poor pup freaked out when the canons were fired.

About 8:30, we thought we spotted Governor Palin shopping by herself in the gift shop across the street. We went over to investigate, but she turned out to be a Sarah Palin impersonator, who just happened to be in the neighborhood returning a tee shirt she had purchased. Such a coincidence!

The governor's entourage pulled up around nine, just as a school group from Waltham was entering the church. She was accompanied by her parents, her daughter, Piper, two aides and a photographer. Fifteen or twenty media people materialized seconds after. The first to greet the Governor was Dino DiFronzo of Parziale's Bakery, who encouraged the governor to stop by for coffee and pastry after her visit to Old North. This is probably the first time a politician has gone anywhere but Mike's Pastry in the North End, and given Governor Palin's subsequent experience there, it may be the last.

The impersonator, named Cecelia Thompson, was next up to greet the governor, skillfully getting her picture with the governor in the paper. Governor Palin offered to let Cecelia take on press duties for the morning. Unfortunately for the governor, Cecilia stayed at Old North after the entourage headed off to Parziale's.

Finally Foundation director, Ed Pignone, and I greeted the governor and escorted her party inside. Governor Palin told me she had been to Old North once before as a hockey mom with her son's team. She encouraged them to pay attention because knowing our history is so important. On Thursday, she had to encourage her daughter to pay attention as the media cameras were somewhat distracting. The family was quite charming, particularly the governor's parents. They didn't strike me as very different from the 500,000 other visitors we see each year. They asked a number of questions about our story, laughed at my jokes, and enjoyed themselves.

I gave them our standard talk about Paul Revere and the two men who hung the lanterns in the steeple, Robert Newman and John Pulling. I added a bit about the debate between John Hancock and Sam Adams after they received the warning from Revere (Hancock: "Staying and fighting will look good on my resume when I run for president." Adams: "You are too rich to fight. Let's get out of here." Adams ultimately won that debate.) I did mention that Revere was arrested by British troops and led back to Lexington, warning those British troops that the minutemen had been alerted.

After the introductory talk, we climbed up to the bell ringing chamber, where I talked about how Paul Revere how founded our bell ringing guild in 1750 as a teenager. Governor Palin was particularly interested to see a copy of the original bell ringing contract between Paul Revere and his friends and the rector of Old North, Dr. Cutler. The contract portrays a group of teenagers using democratic principles to organize their bell ringing guild. We did not have the time to get to the top of the steeple to see the lanterns.

We briefly toured the tombs beneath the church before exiting to a large and excited crowd. Governor Palin handed out signed copies of the Constitution. Like John Hancock, her signature was clearly visible. The governor then went into the gift shop to buy a few souvenirs (like all good visitors should!) Her visit to Old North stay lasted nearly an hour.

We left the campus and walked down the street to Parziale's Bakery. I cannot testify to what happened inside, as I was distracted by The Daily Show's John Oliver, who was haranguing me about giving our fair city back to the British and questioning Old North's role in betraying the Crown and head of our church. The truth be told, my predecessor, the Rev. Mather Byles, Jr. left the employ of the church the morning the lanterns were hung and cannot be blamed for the unfortunate rebellion that ensued.

I was surprised and bemused when the video of Governor Palin's impromptu history quiz went viral the next day. I knew where all the factoids she cited came from and take responsibility for putting them in her head. I will not take the blame for the odd order those factoids came out. Perhaps it was too much information in too short a period of time to digest properly. Maybe if we climbed to the top of the steeple and viewed the lanterns, the governor wouldn't have focused on the bells. Who knows?

I am amazed that this silly story refuses to die. Lots of pundits berated Governor Palin's grasp of history. Many of them have made their own mistakes, usually of the Revere cried out "The British are coming!" variety. If Revere yelled anything streaking across the countryside, he might have been shot by a local Tory or by one of the many British patrols out that night. He never would have said "The British are coming!", because everyone was British then. He may have said "The Regulars are out!"

A story just came across the web from The Washington Post that a battle is brewing over at Wikipedia, where some Palin supporters have attempted to rewrite the entry on Paul Revere to reflect the governor's interview. This isn't the first time Paul Revere's story has been revised. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow took a great deal of poetic license in retelling the story in Paul Revere's Ride, a political poem published on the eve of the Civil War. While Longfellow upset antiquarians in New England, he was not subjected to thousands of newspaper stories and blog comments attacking or defending his poem. One hundred and fifty years later most of the pundits and many of us assume Longfellow's poem was historically correct. I hate to break it to you, but Revere was not standing on the opposite shore, did not make it as far as Concord (Massachusetts or New Hampshire) that night, and finished his ride to Lexington before midnight.

As vicar of the Old North Church, I am profoundly grateful for Governor Palin's visit. She succeeded in her stated intention of drawing attention to America's historical sites and inadvertently provided us with priceless free publicity by misplacing a few facts when quizzed on her visit. I hope all of her political peers from both parties come to visit the church where historically Paul Revere's ride began and where mythically, thanks to Longfellow, God blessed America. We will be happy to give any politician a thorough history lesson and a few crib cards in case the media is lurking in the weeds. You can't go wrong with "One if by land, or two if by sea" when the cameras are rolling.

I am somewhat saddened by what passes for news and for fact these days. We can laugh at Governor Palin, who may not have gotten all her facts wrong, but certainly didn't get them all straight. But what does this story, with its incredible legs, say about the rest of us? Why was such a large media contingent following the governor in the first place, particularly when many of them were publicly complaining that the trip was not newsworthy? What do we say to the pundits who accuse Palin of mangling history while treating Longfellow's poetic interpretation of the ride as fact? Why have so many prominent historians weighed in on this story to criticize or defend Palin's off the cuff remarks? For that matter, why am I weighing in?

Is spectacle more newsworthy than substance? Do firmly held opinions take precedence over fact? What is truth, or is it truthiness?

The Rev. Stephen T. Ayres is vicar of the Old North Church, also known as Christ Church in the City of Boston. This essay first appeared in the parish's weekly e-mail newsletter.

The Anglican Covenant and the "dominant melody"

By George Clifford

The proposed Anglican Covenant is un-American. More precisely, the proposed Covenant conflicts with the ethos of The Episcopal Church (TEC), an ethos defined not by sexuality but issues of authority, ecclesiastical culture, and scripture.

TEC tends to be skittish with respect to episcopal authority. On the one hand, we recognize the importance of bishops. The history of Scottish nonjuror Bishops ordaining the first American bishops and the belated recognition of those bishops by Canterbury is well known because of the centrality of bishops to our polity. Similarly, most TEC diocesan bishops are cherished as icons of unity and our connection to the larger church even when their leadership and authority are questioned.

On the other hand, TEC is consistently wary of episcopal authority. Our bicameral General Convention, diocesan standing committees and annual conventions, elected bishops, and many other aspects of TEC polity intentionally limit episcopal authority. Indeed, emotionally charged concerns about episcopal authority still occasionally surprise me, e.g., comments about selecting a bishop instead of a lay person or priest as TEC chief operating officer, comments focused not on the individual selected but a general wariness about enlarging episcopal authority.

Our mixed feelings about episcopal authority emerge out of our ecclesiastical culture. For better and worse, that cultural ethos is individualistic and egalitarian, attributes reflective of our national culture. Both attributes are also arguably biblical – but only when held in tension with the communal. Jesus instructed his followers to love one another. John’s gospel portrays Jesus as the vine and his followers as the branches; Paul’s epistles describe Jesus as the head and Christians as parts of a body. These metaphors intimately connect Christians in community with one another and with Jesus.

Historically, Episcopalians have struggled to balance connectivity and individual autonomy. Embracing full communion with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) exemplifies a high point in this balancing act. TEC recognized that Christian unity was of greater value than was consistently maintaining our understanding of ecclesial authority. Our bold acceptance of the ordination of existing ELCA clergy as valid enabled TEC and ELCA to chart a mutual path of present communion and future convergence.

Similarly, TEC clergy and laity generally hear the message of scripture colored by a dominant melody that affirms the dignity and worth of all people. Everyone – absolutely everyone – is made in God’s image. Consequently, people within TEC hear a scriptural mandate to ordain people based on calling and gifts, not marital history, gender, or sexual orientation. Increasing numbers of non-TEC Anglicans hear the same dominant melody.

However, loud voices from some other provinces of the Anglican Communion hear a radically different melody in scripture, sometimes claiming that it is scripture’s one true melody, which everyone must sing to be faithful to Jesus. This melody has prompted calls, often amplified in the media, for TEC to adopt a more authoritarian episcopate, to disenfranchise laity in episcopal elections, and to preserve traditional gender roles and sexual ethics. Diminishing numbers of TEC voices echo this melody; most who want to sing this melody have decamped for what they hope are more congenial choirs. The latest high profile defection was St. Luke’s parish in Bladensburg, MD, leaving for the Roman Catholic Church.

Christian unity is necessarily, though sadly, more mystical than organic. If this were not true, then only one branch would be the true branch of the vine and the other branches among whom organic unity does not exist – the Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Anglican, and various Protestant denominations – would all be heretics. Thankfully, most of the Church formally abandoned such thinking in the last century. For example, ELCA and TEC were both fully part of the body of Christ even before anyone dreamt of organic intercommunion. Similarly, TEC, the various North American splinter groups, and Anglican provinces distressed by TEC actions remain mystically united as branches of the vine that is Christ, regardless of what they (or we!) say.

Authoritarian ecclesial structures almost inevitably lead to further schism and division. There is no reason to think that the proposed Anglican Covenant with its implicit effort to define orthodox belief and explicit centralized authority structure (i.e., the disciplinary process) would be an exception to that generalization.

In fact, some provinces in the Anglican Communion have already decided de facto to exit. A global consortium of dissident provinces and voices (the Global Anglican Futures Conference – GAFCON) has initiated steps to establish alternative instruments of communion and unity among themselves that exclude TEC and like-minded Anglican provinces. Those moves seem to have an irreversible momentum. A unified Anglican Communion now exists only in appearance and not substance, a disparity whose roots probably predate the current conflicts over gender and sexual orientation.

As two recent and thoughtful Daily Episcopalian essays emphasized (Gay Jennings, We are ignoring the covenant we've already got; Winnie Varghese, The covenant before us is not the covenant we need), TEC agreeing to the proposed Anglican Covenant would be a mistake. We must heed God’s voice as we discern it, honoring our individual autonomy and equal dignity as a branch of the vine. The Covenant, quite simply, is un-American.

Nevertheless, TEC remains one branch of the larger vine that is Christ and has many branches. If the Anglican Communion adopts the proposed Covenant and subsequently relegates TEC to second-class status, so be it. This possibility feels sort of like historical déjà vu, a repeat of what happened following the American Revolution. Those events did not cripple the nascent TEC nor permanently impair the Anglican Communion.

Indeed, the mystical unity of the Church transcends every division, challenging us to demonstrate the visible unity of the Church in spite of its organic fractures. Do we, for example, invite TEC dissidents or schismatics to tea or to an ecumenical prayer service as often as we do others with whom we have equally strong basic disagreements (the Roman Catholics, the fundamentalist Baptist, the Latter Day Saints, etc.)? Do we show more love to members of other faiths (Buddhism, Judaism, etc.) than to those of our own tradition with whom we disagree?

George Clifford is an ethicist and a priest in the Diocese of North Carolina. He retired from the Navy after serving as a chaplain for twenty-four years and now blogs at Ethical Musings (

The practice of "thank you"

By Donald Schell

I wanted to write about a practice of gratitude, a new daily routine that I’m hoping to make as habitual as flossing my teeth. No, more than wanted to, I guess I am beginning to write about it. I’ll get to the problem in a moment.

The practice is new for me. For the past two weeks each night after I set the alarm and just before putting my bedside light out, I’ve journaled a short litany of specific “thank you’s.” Literally I begin each night’s journal page - “thank you God for…” and then simply make a new list, thank you’s for eight or ten specific things I’ve experienced or done or seen that day. I’m looking to remember that my life is blest, that all life is blest.

My inspiration for the practice came from reading Robert Emmons’ research on gratitude. Emmons is a professor at University of California, Davis. U.C. Davis’s website tell us, “Dr. Emmons' research is at the interface of personality psychology, the psychology of emotion and the psychology of religion. His primary interests are in the psychology of gratitude and the psychology of personal goals, and how each is related to positive psychological processes, including happiness, well-being, and personality integration.”

There’s no surprise in my interest - as a priest working with congregations and church leaders, especially clergy and church musicians - in this interface of personality, emotion, and religion. Even when I was a parish rector, and now, even more, as a teaching priest and liturgist, I’m trying to notice and understand community spiritual practices, the things we choose to do that shape our human and spiritual character.
Emmons, as a psychologist (along with some fascinating colleagues) is asking those big questions that contemporary neuro-psychology and primate studies struggle to answer –
- what is compassion?
- how does compassion become part of our human character?
- how does compassion relate to the violence and the competitive struggle of one against all that’s also in us?
- is compassion as natural to us as our violence, anger, and fear? and
- what can compassion teach us about common humanity and morals that might be deeper or more universal than particular human culture?

With too few in the church listening, these researchers are coming to new transformative understandings of the evolutionary bases of human character, communication, and community.

Whew! Did I really just dump all that in one paragraph? Bear with me - in much of my recent reading, I’ve been trying to catch up with a largely secular, often atheist or agnostic inquiry into human character that could be guiding, informing and even empowering our church’s wise and inspired emphasis on Christian formation. I’m hearing secular researchers asking powerful questions and giving arresting data of what they’re finding forms and nurtures people to become who we are most deeply, and, I guess I’m adding this part, who we’re meant to be.

Robert Emmons’ research on gratitude described an experiment in which he’d introduced a group to a simple practice that significantly changed participants’ experience of themselves and others’ experience of them.

Actually he had three study groups undertake distinct ten-week disciplines of journaling, none of the groups knowing what they other group had been asked to do.
- One group’s daily task was to write a single sentence giving thanks for five things that had happened to them or that they’d been able to do.
- Another group’s task was to write a one-sentence summary of five things that they’d experienced as hassles, things that they were displeased or troubled at.
- And the third group was simply asked to list five recent events that had some impact on them or had made some difference to them.

The group assigned to journal their gratitude reported that they were noticeably happier, more productive, and were sleeping better at night. Their measurable stress indicators (like blood pressure) went down. And they reported family and friends repeatedly asking them what had happened to them that they’d changed so much. Those recording hassles did not show the positive changes, and those in the neutral group showed some changes, but not nearly such big changes as the gratitude group.

I’m enjoying my first week of this new practice. I look forward to the few minutes’ writing before sleep. I think I may feel the small beginning of valuable shift in my spirit. All good. I was planning to reflect more on the practice, what it felt like, and what kinds of things I give thanks for, and then connect it to St. Paul’s repeated exhortation to us to “give thanks in all things.” I was thinking to tie that “all” to Paul’s longing to see Christ “all in all,” and the Gospel of John’s quoting Jesus saying, “When I am lifted up from the earth I will draw all people to myself.”

But am I giving thanks in, for and with American celebrations of Osama Bin Laden’s death? The sense of blessing is hard to find there. It’s a victory celebration, something that feels like what “we” did beating “them,” maybe too much like football fans cheering “their” defeat of a rival team.

And then I read The New York Times' story of Javier Sicilia, the distinguished Mexican poet whose twenty-four year old son was one of seven university students in Cuernavaca randomly kidnapped and murdered by drug traffickers.

Javier Sicilia is a Catholic poet. His last poem, the poem he wrote as he put down poetry to take up activism to end the violence in Mexico says:

The world is not worthy of words
they have been suffocated from the inside
as they suffocated you, as they tore apart your lungs…
the pain does not leave me
all that remains is a world
through the silence of the righteous,
only through your silence and my silence, Juanelo.

St. Paul, who admonished us to give thanks in all things, lived his life in a world as violent as ours, and with the bodies of crucified criminals hanging outside the gates of cities across the empire, a world where violence and death were more visible than in much of America.

And Jesus’ prophecy? Those words Desmond Tutu loves to quote so emphatically and yet so playfully, “he said, all people, ALL PEOPLE!”? Desmond Tutu knows the context well enough, “When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all people to myself.”
As I clipped out the story of Javier Sicilia’s loss and his witness, I remembered reading that Dostoyevsky used to save newspaper stories of human violence to make certain that when he wrote his steady hope that in Christ the whole world and all humanity would sing a hymn of praise together his steady vision had to include the whole of human suffering, human grief, and the evil we do to one another.

Juan Francisco Sicilia is dead, a loss that his father will carry for the rest of his life.
Osama Bin Laden is dead, a death that some felt justice had demanded; others were simply relieved.

Javier Sicilia, you are in my prayers. My twenty-four year old son is still alive. Yours is gone and a poem won’t bring him back. I’m grateful for your witness.

Osama Bin Laden, I pray for your soul and the souls of the many who died in the Twin Towers, in a field in Pennsylvania, and for my cousin and all who died with him in the plane crashed into the Pentagon. And I pray for all who grieve those many deaths and the many more deaths that followed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

And Episcopal Café readers? I will continue my ‘thank you’ prayers in the evening. Perhaps you’d like to join me in this practice. I may give a progress report on my experience some months from now and would welcome hearing the voices of others who have been exploring the practice. For now, I want to acknowledge (and give thanks) for the context, the hunch, the intuition that makes thanks possible:

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil: For thou art with me;
Thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies;
Thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
Tonight, before I write, I’ll pause to remember those two deaths and pray for the wisdom and simplicity to recall today and give thanks in all things.

The Rev. Donald Schell, founder of St. Gregory of Nyssa Church in San Francisco, is President of All Saints Company.

How a smartphone can be a holy thing

By Martin Smith

Getting used to having a smartphone-easier for some than for others. I have to take it slowly, partly because I am temperamentally wary of gadgets. But I also have to take time to figure out how it can be a holy thing. Holy things are friends to our souls, we have an intimacy with them, they become part of the meaningfulness of our lives. To use a holy thing is to know that God is present in the handling of it. In his great Rule for monks, St. Benedict states with his usual directness that the monastery officer responsible for tools and utensils 'should regard them as if they were the holy vessels of the altar.' The division between sacred and secular is mainly a figment of our lack of imagination, or a symptom of our fear of letting religion out of its safe compartment.

The holiness of my smartphone 'heated up' the other day when I was getting ready to lead a Lent retreat in a house on the Hudson. I was walking by a beautiful pond in a little nature reserve up in the hills, and found myself groping for the source of a saying that kept going through my head, "To my mind it is a marvel who was on the cross: he whose eyes are as a flame of fire piercing through heaven and earth at the same moment unable to see his creatures, the work of his hands." Ah, it was a line in one of the letters of the Welsh mystic and poet Ann Griffiths, I remembered.

Then I remembered my smartphone and within a few minutes I had found the Ann Griffiths website created by the University of Cardiff, tracked down the letter and found the sentence. It was almost as if I had just been texted by a saint! And then I sat on the rocks overlooking the pond and read through her wonderful hymns one by one until there were tears in my eyes. A connection had been made not just with the past-Ann died in 1805-but through the present to eternity where the saints are alive to us because they are alive in God.

It is taking time to get used to the reality that the vast riches of spiritual writings that until just recently were accessible only in specialized libraries, and hardly known outside circles of the devout and the learned, are now available at our fingertips almost anywhere. I was in Hartford airport the other day reading a magazine article about the virtual certainty that intelligent life in fantastic abundance has already evolved or will emerge eventually throughout the billions of galaxies. Something rang a bell in my mind and I remembered that Alice Meynell had written a poem a hundred years ago in which she imagined us in eternity learning how God had been manifest to other creatures in distant part of the cosmos, as in turn we show to them Christ, God's self- expression as a human being. A few keystrokes as I sipped my Starbuck's tea, and there it was: the poem Christ in the Universe:

But in the eternities,
Doubtless we shall compare together, hear
A million alien Gospels, in what guise
He trod the Pleiades, the Lyre, the Bear.
O, be prepared, my soul! To read the inconceivable, to scan The myriad forms of God those star
unroll When, in our turn, we show to them a

A poet of Edwardian England speaks to me in the Gate area of Hartford airport and eternity opens up for both of us, lost in wonder at the certainty that the phrase, "God so loved the world" cannot possibly be restricted just to this planet, but must mean that God reaches out in saving love to all creatures who attain consciousness in this vast universe. When my flight was called and I switched off my smartphone, this new utensil of mine, did seem every bit as holy as any vessel of the altar: a medium not just of communication but of communion.

Martin L. Smith is a well-known spiritual writer and priest. He is the senior associate rector at St. Columba's, D.C.

Life in the neutral zone

By Margaret M. Treadwell

"Everything changes but death and taxes," my grandmother said during her final illness in 1968. How amazed she would be at the acceleration of change today.

Change is an underlying cause of anxiety that brings many to my office in search of a quick fix. Often, people's first reaction is to try to solve the problem by cutting off the person or situation to blame - the marriage or job, the alcoholic parent, black sheep sibling or negative friend. Since this option usually causes deeper problems, we begin to look for alternative strategies that require making a transition in oneself.

In his book, Transitions, William Bridges argues that we benefit from seeing transition (whether we have chosen it or it has been imposed upon us) as a passage with a beginning, an important neutral stage neglected at our peril, and an end that leads to a new beginning. Choosing a neutral space of "attentive inactivity" provides time to contemplate "the four Ds" endemic to transition: disengagement; disidentification; disenchantment; disorientation. Bridges maintains that honoring the gray in-between time of the neutral zone leads to a thoughtful direction.

One stay-at-home mother with a teenage daughter and a son in first grade entered the "neutral zone" during Lent, before deciding to accept a job and return to the workplace. She learned the following lessons from working on the four Ds.

Disengagement: "I entered my own wilderness to pay attention to signals that personal and professional timing was ripe for transition. A five-day retreat supported by my husband and mother, who came to be with the children, became my best thinking time."

Disidentification: "It was frightening to give up my self-definition as wife, mother and volunteer who had time for lots of friends. I wasn't sure who I was without that identity, even though I knew that the old was standing in the way of transformation."

Disenchantment: "I felt like I was floating in limbo between my old and potential new world and that neither was real. I remembered similar childhood feelings of disappointment or shock like the day my parents' huge mistake taught me they weren't perfect, the time my best friend betrayed me and leaving home for a college that turned out to be the wrong one for me."

Disorientation: "During the week's break from the familiar, I wrote in my journal about the emptiness and con- fusion of feeling stuck and dead inside and the ways I had weathered previous challenges. Gradually as I wrote about my dreams, an image and vision for my life began to emerge."

"In retrospect, I had to walk through a sense of abandonment like the valley of the shadow of death to make the transition to another way of being."

Re-entering her old world after retreat was extremely difficult. It was as if a rock of resistance within kept shattering her resolve, and for a week she could not make the call to accept the professional position that would stamp her new life. Finally, she consulted three people she really respected and when they all said the same thing, she made the plunge with a "YES!"

She was astounded at the reaction she received from her husband and children who heretofore had applauded her resolve to redefine herself. Nearing the first day of employment, her daughter went into a full-blown rebellion, her son clung to her and her husband became so busy at work that he hadn't time to participate in the new child care decisions necessary to actualize her decision. Even her supportive mother asked if she was sure about her plan.

She wondered if she had made a mistake and should wait to fulfill her dreams until after her daughter graduated from high school. Clearly a completed transition does not occur at the moment of a decision but rather after those around us have become uncomfortable with change, sought to pull us back into our old way of being, and we have been able to resist the pull back to keep on keeping on with our dreams by living the decision well.

If you want your rebellious daughter to become more focused and live into her potential, begin living a more focused life yourself and she is likely to follow suit over time. Things often get worse before they get better when you set out in a new direction. In fact, if you don't get the pull back, you probably haven't made any change at all. This truth is what the "how to" books forget to tell us!

"Is there anything as horrible as starting on a trip?...the last moments are earthquake and convulsion, and the feeling that you are a snail being pulled off your rock."
- Anne Morrow Lindbergh

Margaret M. "Peggy" Treadwell, LICSW, is a family, individual and couples therapist and teacher inn private practice.

Courting the Holy Spirit by practicing retail politics

This article appeared earlier this week on the Times of London's blog Articles of Faith.

By Jim Naughton

Last week, while the Church of England was dealing with embarrassing revelations about how badly the Archbishops of Canterbury and York had behaved while selecting the current Bishop of Southwark, I was observing the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, D. C. as it prepared to choose the successor of Bishop John Bryson Chane, who retires in November.

The process that I witnessed was so different than the one described by the late Dean Colin Slee in his now-famous memo, that it seems almost unfair to draw comparisons. In filling the vacancy in Southwark, the English method of appointing bishops was clearly at its worst. Or so one hopes. A story of subterfuge leavened with a dash of Python-like absurdity, it featured a media leak meant to scuttle two candidacies, clumsy attempts to blame the leak on an innocent party, an investigation into the leak whose findings have been kept secret, and a delicious moment in which the Archbishop of York lobbied for votes while leading a group outing to the toilet. Little wonder that members of the Crown Nominating Committee were reduced to tears during the proceedings.

The process in Washington, on the other hand, has run relatively smoothly so far, although the election will not be held until June 18. Like most Episcopal Church elections, it has been a homey affair, featuring five nominees touring the diocese on a bus, visiting parish halls, a school gymnasium and a retirement community where they gave brief talks, answered questions, and engaged voters in a dance of mutual ingratiation. In the parlance of political reporting, this four-day program was an exercise in “retail politics”, and resembled our small-market political campaigns in which candidates woo voters at coffee klatches and community picnics, and futures are made and lost over crullers or ham salad.

The five nominees comprised a cathedral dean from Atlanta and rectors from Massachusetts, Minnesota, North Carolina and Washington itself. Three were men, two were women, and one of the men was an African-American. They had been selected from a field of ten priests who had attended a three-day retreat with the diocesan search committee in January. Those ten had been chosen from a pool of some 80 would-be candidates who had either “allowed their name to go forward,” or had put their names forward themselves.

On the evening that I caught up with the candidates, some 300 people had assembled in the gymnasium of an Episcopal school located in one of the four Maryland counties included in the diocese. A crowd of similar size had greeted them on the previous evening at a church in Washington near the State Department.

The average Episcopalian is older than the average American, a fact evident in the gymnasium that night. But the crowd was more diverse than the diocese as a whole, as it had been the previous evening. While certain Washington churches are home to the capitol’s elite, the sometimes-tedious work of running a church or diocese falls here, as elsewhere, to dedicated, but largely anonymous believers. There were no talk show fixtures in the gym, no deputy undersecretaries, but, this being Washington, there were probably several lawyers on hand.

Episcopalians refer to these events as “walkabouts,” realizing that Australians mean something different when they use that phrase. The gatherings are instructive as much for the sometimes deliberate and sometimes unintentional ways the nominees give glimpses into their characters, their passions and their leadership styles, as for their responses to questions about controversial issues.

One couldn’t leave the gym that night without knowing that the Rev. Marianne Budde of Minneapolis is fired by the opportunity to meld the insights of her faith with the insights of psychology and organizational behavior in running a complex faith-based organization, or that the Very Rev. Sam Candler of Atlanta thinks as deeply and speaks as movingly about what happens when a person comes forward to receive the Eucharist than any five people you know, or that the Rev. Jane Gould has responded with pastoral acumen and sensitivity when trouble came to her door in the depressed former mill town of Lynn, Massachusetts.

Over the course of the evening, one couldn’t help but notice that the Rev. Canon John Harmon of Washington, the most formal of the nominees, has a particular rapport with older members of the audience, and a disarming way of talking about the ways in which mother figures had shaped his ministry, or that the Rev. Ronald Abrams of Wilmington, N. C. built his ministry one relationship at a time, and that his direct and unpretentious nature spoke of a genuineness that was probably most impressive in a smaller format.

This sort of information may be more valuable than knowing where the nominees fit in the grand scheme of church politics. Bishop Chane, for instance, was a leader of our church’s left wing, but enjoyed an excellent relationship with the leaders of the diocese’s most conservative parish, who felt warmly toward him on a personal level, even though they thought he was a heretic.

Some controversial issues, however, are matters of immediate pastoral concern. The nominees were unanimous in their support for permitting—but not requiring—parishes to offer Holy Communion to the unbaptized, though most expressed the hope that the reception of Communion would lead to Baptism. (If you are in need of someone to defend this position in a room-quieting, pulse-quickening kind of way, Sam Candler is your man.) I believe they were unanimous in permitting clergy to bless same-sex relationships throughout the diocese—although it wasn’t clear how most felt about allowing clergy to marry such couples in the District of Columbia, where same-sex marriage is legal. Canon Harmon’s answer was the most nuanced of the five on this issue—He spoke of “building on” the current permissive policy—and I am not sure that I understood him.

I don’t believe that the election in Washington will turn on the question of the Anglican Covenant because the document has been largely ignored at the grassroots level in the Episcopal Church, just as it has in the wider Communion. Only Candler and Gould, the two nominees who have played significant roles at our church’s General Convention, offered firm opinions on whether Episcopalians should adopt or reject the covenant. Gould, who helped design a comprehensive review of the document in her diocese, said that Massachusetts wanted no part of the covenant, calling it “legalistic and punitive.” Candler, knowing that most of his usual allies in the church differ with him on this issue, acknowledged the weaknesses of the covenant, especially the disciplinary provisions in the fourth section, but argued that the church should sign it anyway. “I am not afraid of the Anglican Covenant,” he said, expressing confidence in the Episcopal Church’s ability to remain true to its moral convictions whether it signs the covenant or not.

As a member of the diocese, getting some sense of the candidate’s characters, styles and priorities was important to me, but I wondered to about the lessons that an outsider, especially a member of another church in the Anglican Communion, would have taken from the evening. Here are four:

1. That those who say that the leaders of the Episcopal Church are less interested in Christianity than in liberal social engineering are making sweeping generalizations based on too small a sample. Each of the nominees spoke movingly about his or her religious upbringing or moment of conversion, call to ordained ministry and prayer life.

2. That Episcopalians are guided by two Jewish rabbis, one who has risen from the dead, and one who has not. The work of Rabbi Edwin Freidman in using the insights of family systems therapy to make sense of congregational behavior, set healthy boundaries and manage resistance to change, was mentioned several times in this gathering, as it often is when Episcopal clergy get together.

3. That Episcopalians realize that their membership is dwindling, that numerous congregations in every diocese may be too small to succeed, and that no one quite knows what to do about this beyond merging or closing struggling parishes.

4. That on the questions of doctrine that threaten to break the Communion, Episcopalians are comfortable with the notion that doctrine develops over time, that our knowledge of God’s will is culturally and historically conditioned, and that what is morally sound in one era is an outrage in another. They have gained confidence in their ability to worry complex issues through to a proper conclusion—one that usually involves room for disagreement. And after they do so, they believe it is wrong not to act.

The Episcopal Church’s system is not without flaws. We sometimes elect nominees who are better suited to running for bishop than to being bishop, and women and African-Americans are still underrepresented in the ranks of the episcopacy. I am sure that no English reader will be surprised to learn that there are limits to American wisdom. Yet I do not believe it is necessary to defend the proposition that that all Christians are responsible for the church’s flourishing and its fidelity, and from this conviction flows our ways of electing our bishops and governing our church.

It is tempting, of course, to argue that the openness of the Episcopal system throws a harsh light on the cruel and clownish antics described in Dean Slee’s memo, but no political process, whether it ends in election or appointment, can reliably claim to have discerned the will of God. For that reason it would seem best to let each province in the Anglican Communion chart its own uncertain course, each encouraging the other despite our differences. This is a sentiment so banal that I express it only because it is not widely shared. For those of us outside of the Church of England, the lesson of the see of Southwark is not that the English system for selecting bishops is broken, but rather that disputes within the Anglican Communion cannot be resolved as the covenant would have it: with a small panel of insiders meeting in secret under the guidance of the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Jim Naughton is a partner in Canticle Communications and editor of Episcopal Café.

Advertising Space