Speaking Faithfully: Telling a story people hunger to hear

The following is an excerpt from Speaking Faithfully: Communications as Evangelism in a Noisy World by Rebecca Wilson and Jim Naughton from Morehouse Publishing.

By Rebecca Wilson and Jim Naughton

Despite the examples of Jesus and Paul, or, for that matter John Wesley, Billy Sunday, or Bishop Fulton J. Sheen, the church has been agonizingly slow to realize that communications is a ministry in its own right, not simply a support for “real” ministry. When parishes, dioceses, and churches are economizing, they will often cut communications budgets first. Parishes that would never dream of having a volunteer organist are happy to turn their communications ministry over to volunteers with no background in communications, and no opportunity to receive training.

Any number of church leaders will tell you that they did not establish an online presence because they were too busy building the church or feeding the hungry or visiting the sick—as though somehow learning to speak about these things in a way that gets others involved detracts from and is less sacred than these activities. But it is not a small thing to be able to put the word of God and the activities of God’s people in front of people. The printing press helped make the Reformation possible. The radio supported the growth of the vast network of nondenominational megachurches across the country. We probably don’t need to tell you that certain evangelists have built careers and fortunes from broadcasting their sermons on television.

People have always been eager to tell the story of God in their own times. We see this in the ways that the image of Jesus has been placed in settings and cultures across two millennia—note how Italian Renaissance paintings set the nativity in the palaces of burghers—and in the ways prayers are written to express timeless truths to people far removed from first-century Palestine and possibly unversed in the traditions of the Western Church.

Back in the sixteenth century, having the Bible in your own language was thought to be such a dangerous thing that Thomas More wanted to kill William Tyndale for making it possible. Having the liturgy in one’s own language was a cause of great celebration for Roman Catholics after the Second Vatican Council. It is easy for us to appreciate when the word of God is made accessible to a culture we consider exotic.

Think of the words of the Masai Creed:

We believe that God made good his promise by sending his son, Jesus Christ, a man in the flesh, a Jew by tribe, born poor in a little village, who left his home and was always on safari doing good, curing people by the power of God, teaching about God and man, showing that the meaning of religion is love. He was rejected by his people, tortured and nailed hands and feet to a cross, and died. He lay buried in the grave, but the hyenas did not touch him, and on the third day, he rose from the grave. He ascended to the skies. He is the Lord.

We can see that this is poetry, and that it is a skillful and devout attempt to reach new audiences and to articulate the distinctive way they understand the Christian faith. We understand the necessity of expressing Christianity in a way that speaks to the Masai, but too often we do not grasp the importance of expressing Christianity in a way that speaks to twenty-first-century Americans. …

Jesus said that no one lights a lamp and puts it under a bushel basket (Matthew 5:15), but Jesus had never met any Episcopalians or other mainline Christians. As a rule, we have been reluctant to call attention to ourselves. We are more comfortable being the church invisible, the church inoffensive, the church optional, and the church afraid of being associated with intolerant and heavy-handed people who are also Christian.

We need to get over this, but we won’t do that by illuminating the interiors of bushel baskets. We won’t do it by speaking in inoffensive generalities about kindness and politeness. Nor will we do it by announcing that we’re having a potluck supper.

Rather, what is required of us are compelling accounts of what our faith means to us, clear explanations of the nature of our spiritual experiences, descriptions of our church communities as places where people are committed to working for justice and peace, and stories about the ways that God has changed our lives and the lives of people we know. These can be hard stories to tell, and hard institutional communications to produce for people who sometimes hold inoffensiveness as a high virtue. But it is possible that the future of our churches depend upon it.

Even the word “evangelism” makes some people feel uncomfortable. We have worked with church communicators who argued hard and successfully 
against our efforts to include information about what Episcopalians believe and how they 
worship on their website. They
 were happy to have it conveyed 
on parish sites, or on the website 
of the Episcopal Church. They 
just didn’t want it on their site. 
We think this is symptomatic of 
the fear and unease that what
 people sometimes refer to as the “E word” arouses.

The Most Reverend Frank Griswold, former presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, once said that the Episcopal Church’s approach to evangelism was similar to setting an aquarium on the shore of the ocean and waiting for fish to jump in. That doesn’t work in an age in which churchgoing is no longer socially normative. We live increasingly in an on-demand world where activities that once required us to be in a specific place at a specific time (television shows, movies) can be indulged on our own schedule. We live in a culture in which youth soccer and other sports compete for the affection of our children, and there is no longer a taboo against holding those activities on Sunday mornings. Fear-based motivations for attending church (to avoid going to hell or being seen as an outcast by one’s neighbors) have lost their force, and people who think of themselves as “spiritual but not religious” look to Oprah as a spiritual guide, to therapists for moral direction, and to book clubs and cycling groups for their sense of community.

Churches are up against all of those competing forces. Too often we respond by retreating to the comfortable place in which we communicate primarily, even exclusively, with our own members. Take a look at a few church websites. Which ones seem more like they belong on an intranet than on the Internet? How many take a “member services” approach to communications aimed at making it convenient for those already in the church to find the information they need quickly and then be on their way? This doesn’t make much sense as a web strategy. Your highly motivated regular visitors are already deeply familiar with your site. They do not need primary homepage real estate to draw them into the church, and after a visit or two they are going to know how to find what they need. Instead, the homepage of a church website is for the stranger who needs the real welcome, and who wants a deeper understanding of what the church is about.

We have not yet awakened from the dream of a time when aspiring to mainline Protestantism was part of rising into the middle class, and coffee hour was an extension of Saturday night at the club or Sunday afternoon on the golf course. We have not yet adjusted to the fact that the world, in many places, has passed us by, or that to catch up we have to tell a story that shows we have been meeting God and living lives of genuine faith all the while.

Rebecca Wilson and Jim Naughton are the principles of Canticle Communications. Naughton is editor of Episcopal Cafe. Speaking Faithfully is available through Cokesbury and Amazon.

Happy Thanksgiving from Episcopal Cafe

I wrote this column ten years ago for Beliefnet.com.

By Jim Naughton

A few years ago, while I was on an academic fellowship, my family and I spent Thanksgiving with other fellows and their families. In religious terms, we were a mixed bunch: Christians, Unitarians, Jews, agnostics, and atheists.

A multi-religious dinner table always presents a bit of a problem when it is time to say the grace before meals. But Thanksgiving presents a particularly sticky situation, because it is the one occasion on which even the irreligious feel that some sort of invocation should be made. But who, or what, should we invoke?

After several minutes of communal hemming and hawing, one of the braver of our number delivered a prayer to the earth, thanking it for its bounty and seeking its forgiveness for our environmental sins. In all, it sounded more Green Party than pagan. Having crossed that hastily improvised bridge, we tucked into our feast.

But the moment stayed with me, for it illustrated what a peculiar, not to mention sneaky, holiday we were celebrating.

Thanksgiving is not a purely civic holiday like Memorial Day or Independence Day, although we are, in part, celebrating the fortitude of our Pilgrim forebears. Nor, like Christmas or Passover, does it come freighted with the content of a particular faith. Rather, Thanksgiving straddles these two categories; it is civic and religious. To paraphrase Jesus, Thanksgiving gives both to Caesar and to God.

In doing so, it discomfits believer and unbeliever equally. For giving thanks assumes the existence of one (One?) who deserves our gratitude--anathema to atheists. But giving thanks as a nation assumes that we stand before God as citizens of a country, as well as members of a faith. And that should offend anyone who believes that salvation flows from the church and not from the state.

Thanksgiving, in other words, assumes the existence of something that doesn't exist: an American faith.

On these grounds, I suppose one could argue that this holiday violates the establishment clause of the Constitution. I leave that task for some particularly dogmatic member of Americans for the Separation of Church and State. What interests me is the ubiquity of gratitude, the understanding, even among witnessing atheists, that it is important to be grateful for our good fortune.

For me, the desire to give thanks is evidence, at a minimum, that human beings are innately religious. The theologian Karl Rahner wrote that there is a "God-shaped hole" in every one of us. With Rahner, I believe that it is God who put it there.

You can take that argument or leave it. But if you leave it, help me to understand why we experience this particular species of gratitude. I'm not talking about the kind of gratitude we feel toward someone who has done us a favor. I mean the sort of global gratitude inspired by gifts we could not have known enough to ask for, or the kind we feel when matters beyond our control end well for us.

Who do you thank for your sweetheart's brown eyes; for growing up where it snows (or doesn't); for being alive at the same time as Bruce Springsteen; or for seeing your children born into a country that is prosperous and at peace?

You might argue that there is no one to be thanked. Maybe all our purported blessings are a matter of random chance. Perhaps the desire to extend gratitude beyond the human is an evolutionary glitch--a useful social trait that got too big for its britches.

Perhaps.

Or perhaps we awaken one day and realize that we are not now, and have never been, masters of our own destinies; that our successes were not entirely of our own making; that our souls magnify the Lord, whether we like it or not.

Again, you can take this argument or leave it. It is easier to believe in chance than in grace. Chance requires nothing from us. In fact, if life is a succession of random events, than any response to good fortune is superfluous.

Grace is different. In receiving grace, we are challenged to become channels of grace. This is more than a matter of a few good deeds (although those help); it is an invitation to place one's self in God's hands, and devote one's self toward what we perceive as God's ends.

Thanksgiving, then, is a call to action: a gentle poke to awaken our collective conscience from its postprandial slumber. To whom much is given, etc. etc.

In a county as religiously diverse as ours, we may never be able to express our gratitude in words that are acceptable to everyone. Fortunately, deeds work even better.

Jim Naughton is the editor of Episcopal Café.

The imagined Anglican Communion: a response

By Adrian Worsfold

Frank M. Turner's piece here on Anglicanism as an imaginacy community in the manner of Benedict Anderson's understanding of nationalism (1991) is rather a two edged sword.

Anderson's analysis is a response to the inability of Marxism and its class analysis to handle nationalism - a force Marxism expected to wither away but which has remained incredibly powerful, and more powerful than the actuality of communism and possibly commitments to democratic socialism. Nationalism is also a force that transcends racism; racism deals in (imagined) fixed concepts of exclusion but nationalism has a broader imaginary boundary of those who are out and those who are in with a clearer political project of governance. The argument about racism is important here because it involves identity that also cuts across social class. It all gets complicated by the argument about ethnicity, which involves more than race, as it introduces language, mythic history, space and place. If nationalism is closest to ethnicity then it is still ethnicity with a project for governing institutions.

I suspect that the fundamental human concept is the tribe. There just might be some sociobiology in this, that we are descendents of the chimpanzee social beings side of apes than of the isolated Orang Utans. Whatever may be a base cause, the social anthropologist notes the pervasive activity of ritual exchange (passing relatively useless tokens one to another) in a material effort or material sacrifice for the spiritual gift of reinforcing the community. Humans do look for collective conscience: we bind ourselves to one another through exchange that is economic and cultural and through additional relatively (on the face of it) pointless ritual. Indeed, the Eucharistic ritual is, in practical terms, a fairly pointless ritual exchange of tokens involving some material sacrifice (time, effort, presence, money given) for a spiritual gift (what it is said to involve within the religious outlook) via the actions of eating and drinking. But it is a central ritual that binds a community and regulates its outlook.

Thus ritual is a powerful reinforcement of collective identity, and any particular identifiable religion can reinforce ethnic identity through shared cultural content, and adds its organised and institutional power to creating national authority and power. In essence a national state is a castle wall and controlled gate around a broad ethnic identity. If the castle walls appear good and safe, the potential is actually to broaden the scope of ethnic identity, but if ethnic identity is divided to begin with then the national institutions will be weak at best.

The problem with applying the imagined community to Anglicanism is that it implies two contradictory things - an imagined community of identification that does not need and should not have an enforced reality (people imagine a Communion that is otherwise loose and made of of autonomous Churches) and then an imagined community that magnetically calls forth a project for governance. The Benedict Anderson analysis (transferred across) is clearly about the second. Both of these are in Frank Turner's understanding, but he clearly sees an episcopal imagination at work pursuing the project for governance, and then a project with a particular edge:

The so-called Anglican Communion exemplifies a religious version of Anderson's "imagined community." At its most banal, the Communion exists to justify bishops traveling about the world on funds contributed by the baptized. At its worst, it has come to represent an imagined community several of whose Episcopal spokespeople now seek to persecute and degrade or relegate into a second track churches who have opened themselves, their process of ordination, and their episcopate to gay and lesbian people.

Actually, the imagined community, as with nationalism, does not have to exclude anyone in the development of its imagined insiders, for its self-limitation and its sovereignty as part of its project. What it can do is draw a geographical boundary and exclude all else outside: if people on the inside are then more loyal to an outside institution they risk excluding themselves. It becomes a question of perceived disloyalty to the new tribe in its nation state. But it does depend on the condition of ethnic relationships, and the danger is that narrow ethnicity is the driving force behind governance that will therefore exclude.

Did the British State in its development exclude? The issue is complicated because of the differences around the English State and other States in the British Isles. Homing in on England and its Anglican Church, its tendency to exclude has been because it was not born in ideology but has nevertheless had ideological periods, fringes and parties, and because it was set up to exclude the influence of foreign institutions. Roman Catholics were seen as loyal to something outside: a threat to the British State. Nevertheless, the British State was unstable through the Reformation and Restoration, and thus its Church did gain a habit of excluding those who had a distinct identity beyond its social, educational and welfare establishment. The feudal State had restored itself at a time of change, with many merchants and capitalists forced to work for political reform via non-conformity and their own parallel institutions. First local government and later national government was opened to non-Anglicans. One of the broader effects of the radical theological Essays and Reviews (1860) was to remove subscription to the Church of England as a condition of attending Oxford University.

Is Frank Turner right: that we see in this Archbishop of Canterbury an imaginary community of Anglicanism that draws on a tradition of an excluding Church of England, and who has generated an episcopal drive towards central governance on the basis of excluding gay and lesbian people because the Archbishop states that they cannot be representative of Anglicanism at any level of ministry?

It looks that way; and it is a very dangerous course of action. It means that the ethnic identity that drives this form of ecclesiastical nationalism involves the specific exclusion of a particular group of people. By so excluding, the walls of governance become thicker and the potential of control stronger. It is a very old tactic.

It seems extraordinary that anything like this should even be considered; the parallels with recent history simply illustrate the completely unethical nature of this course of action.

At this point I would mention a different imagined community. The Unitarian community is nothing if not dispersed and autonomous. Even its own 'Churches' are congregationalist where its centres are only advisory. But around the world there are new concentrations of congregations appearing in Africa which are virtually unitarian-fundamentalist and universalist, there is the Anglo-American tradition that is non-credal, a central European tradition that has a catechism, and an Indian collection of non-Christian theist village churches, and generally there are theological tendencies to rationalism or romanticism. This is all in the present. Go back in history, and the one label 'Unitarian' has content that would be at odds withe the present day, and also evolved from origins in trinitarian Puritanism, the very thing the Church of England could not contain in 1662. Yet Unitarians imagine all of these, in different spaces and times, as part of its imagined community and inheritance. It defies, however, creating governance: the International Council of Unitarians and Universalists does nothing more than process information and funnel money to those widely different groups called 'Unitarian' and 'Universalist'. It cannot do anything else.

Cannot Anglicans, despite the purple, the doctrinal promises of clergy and above, maintain a looser 'imagined community' that does not demand moves towards governance, and certainly not governance that is based on exclusion? How can it do this?

It needs a different ecumenical vision. The one driving all this at present is the Covenant based mixture of reporting to Roman Catholicism, about institutional identity and consistency, mixed with a lowest common denominator of biblical interpretation - the fellowship of believers as narrowly drawn. The combination of Protestant and Catholic within the same Churches used to loosen them up, but under this central drive they have been inverted into a lurch for uniformity.

The breaking up of this project comes with dropping the Covenant. It fails and the project fails. Secondly, the ecumenical outlook has to look towards the Old Catholics and the Lutherans. Just as the UK and other once warring European powers have moderated their nationalisms by building the European Union, so Anglicanism can moderate its tendencies by looking outwards to these other episcopal and accountable groups. It also should consider how to merge and moderate itself by reincorporating the Methodists. Theologically too, it might reconsider legitimising such views as were expressed in Essays and Reviews (where there was clear Unitarian influence of its day!) so that a liberal view of the imagined ecclesiastical community is helped by having a place for liberal theology.

(To see footnotes, click Read more.)

Adrian Worsfold (Pluralist), has a doctorate in sociology and a masters degree in contemporary theology. He lives near Hull, in northeast England and keeps the blog Pluralist Speaks.

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By Kit Carlson

I was on Jeopardy! recently. Maybe you saw it. I was the woman in the middle. The one with the clerical collar on.

It’s strange enough to be a contestant on this 25-year-old, beloved game show (and it’s even older, if you count the original incarnation with host Art Fleming), but stranger still to be a priest playing Jeopardy!

“Wear your collar,” advised a former parishioner, who had won three days in a row a few years ago. “Oh, please, please, please wear your collar,” urged one of my Sunday School teachers. “You’re going to wear your collar, aren’t you?” asked a vestry member. For some reason, it was very important to these people that I be identifiable to the world as a priest playing Jeopardy!

It does seem odd, I guess, to have a cleric up there, zinging one-liners with Alex Trebek and trying to take home cash in Ken Jennings-sized quantities. Not as odd as you may think, however. There has been a little boomlet in clergy contestants on Jeopardy! Yes, usually they get lawyers and librarians and teachers. The show does self-select for geeky types who love to read. But most clergy fit that exact description: geeky types who love to read. At my live audition in Chicago (at which I did wear my collar), there was a UCC pastor in the group as well. In the intervening weeks between the audition and my own taping, I saw at least three other clerics give it a run.

And I have always wanted to go on Jeopardy! My cousin Richard Cordray (now Treasurer of Ohio) went on in the ‘80s and won five days in a row, then went back for Tournament of Champions. My mother always nagged me, “Why don’t you go on that show? You know as much as Richard. Look how well he did. You should go on Jeopardy! too.” And playing from my sofa, I often figured, yes – I could do this. I could be on Jeopardy!

So when I saw last winter that there was an internet audition, I did it. Just for laughs, and for my late mother’s memory, too. Then last spring, they called me to go for a live audition. So I went. Just for a few more laughs, and to silence my mother’s nagging inside my head. And four weeks later, they called and asked me to fly to LA to COMPETE ON JEOPARDY!!!! (Insert high-pitched squeals here …)

But it also messes with your head, to be a priest who plays Jeopardy! First of all, it’s hard to just get into the greedy, greedy, give-me-more game show mentality. Did I want to win five days in a row? Did I want to go on and on and on like Ken Jennings? That would totally mess with vestry meetings and hospital visitations, for sure. And what about that money, if I did win? Yes, I have credit card debt and kids in college and I need every penny of my salary and then some. But it also seemed inappropriate to just take a bunch of winnings and keep them to myself.

W.W.J.D? as the bracelets say. In between learning in April that I had been selected to go for a live audition in Chicago in May, I went on a mission trip to Haiti. This nation, only 500 miles from Miami, is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. The level of poverty is beyond imagining. And the group I traveled with, the Haiti Outreach Mission () (a group of Catholic and Episcopal parishes, mostly from Detroit), has built a clinic and an orphanage and is making some real impact in the town of Mirebalais. So that answered the question for me. Whatever I got, I would give to the Haiti Outreach Mission.

So I went to L.A. I wore my collar. I played the game. I came in second, by just $100 there in Final Jeopardy! But that still meant I would get a $2,000 runner-up prize. And that, at least, could go to Haiti.

The only issue then became dancing this strange dance of publicity and notoriety. Because after all these years of wanting to go on Jeopardy!, I did want people to know that I had finally made it on, and to watch the show. But it’s vaguely embarrassing to be calling attention to myself. Everything I do I want to point not to me, but to the gospel and to the joy of knowing that God loves us, and to the things that are good and strong about the Episcopal Church.

But Lansing is a smallish city, so the newspaper wanted to interview me. And the local affiliate that airs Jeopardy! wanted to interview me. And so I put the collar on again, because this time I also wanted the world to know that I was a priest who plays Jeopardy!

I wanted to see printed very boldly in the paper, and filmed very prominently on TV, the words ALL SAINTS EPISCOPAL CHURCH, so that people in our region would know there was a community that went with the collar, a place they might want to explore on a Sunday morning (if only to see if the sermon is delivered entirely in the form of a question).

But more than that, I hoped that people would stop for one second and think about that disconnect – a priest playing Jeopardy! I hoped they would think about what happens when a person who stands for God also stands in the crack between the church world and the secular world so that each can see the other. So that each might speak to each other. So that each might, a little bit less, stop fearing the other.

Answer: A priest and Jeopardy!

Question: What are two things that maybe do have something to do with each other after all?

The rector of All Saints Episcopal Church in East Lansing, Mich., she blogs at Saints Alive!
Who is the Rev. Kit Carlson?

From transparency to enlightenment

Second of two parts. (Part one is here.)

By Helen Thompson

Regular readers of this column may recall that earlier this year, I turned down a job offer. What I wasn't able to talk about in that essay was that part of the reason I turned it down was that there were still unknown doors waiting to open, and in late July I accepted a different job offer that allows me to continue to build my understanding of social media and how it can help organizations grow. It's a lovely parallel to the thing I was writing about in my last essay, that social media may be the door to reaching the hundreds of thousands of people who are unchurched yet spiritual. If that point wasn't clear in the last part of the essay, I'm underscoring it now, but that's not what I want to talk about this time around. Rather, I want to talk about how the Café's Ethic of Transparency opened the door to this new world.

I think I was invited to participate in the Café because my RevGalBlogPals "Ask the Matriarch" column (which I edited for the first year of its existence and recently resumed doing) had caught the attention of several Episcopalian priests. Truth be told, I have no formal training in theology, ecclesiology, homiletics, or any other of those ten-dollar Latin cognates that compose the Divinity curriculum. I'm barely even a good layperson--I'm not in the choir, not a lay reader, not a Daughter of the King, not on the Altar Guild, not working in the shelter, not.. not.. not.. I'm not even a good tither. Shame on me!

Part of the reason for this, despite the nifty blogroll I have over at Gallycat's Lounge about the churches I attend and have attended, is that I haven't been a regular churchgoer. I've moved a lot. I travel a lot on weekends. I have joint custody of my son, whom I didn't raise as a Christian, and so we find other ways of exploring the sacred on Sunday mornings. Sometimes it involves church, but not always, and not even often.

Yet. I am in my second year of Education for Ministry, and I'm very active in several online communities that are based around faith, spirituality and/or the Episcopal Church. But for a long time, people didn't know that I was me. I'm gun-shy about openly tying my name, Helen Thompson, to my various online handles. I have several. I compartmentalize myself in some ways, packaging the faithy bits at Gallycat, the irreverent bits at Deviathan, the work-related stuff to Exurbanista, the deeply personal journal to Zen Pooky, the reproductive clock angst to Kersplunkity, the Second Life persona to Vahnia, the knitster knots at Knitster, the life-in-the-valley explorations at NorthShenandoah.com and so on. One person recently told me that my collection of Web 2.0 presences might be a manifestation of Multiple Personality Disorder, to which I strenuously (but guiltily) objected, knowing, as I do, some people with truly dissociative issues. But when a friend of mine today made an allusion to forming a 12-step group to help those with a compulsive urge to register domain names, it hit really close to home.

Mine is one more akin to the author trying her hand to many different genres and hoping that one will take off. Nora Roberts is J.D. Robb, for instance. In my case, working as a professional journalist and still very midlevel in my career, I had a byline that was a brand, that of Helen H. Thompson. I was worried that if I started writing prolifically about faith as Helen Thompson, it might compromise my ability to find a job. Now, ideally, someday my vocation will merge with my profession and I'll become a communications officer for the church in some capacity that will still allow me to pay my exorbitant mortgage payment. (I live modestly; honest. Housing prices are so bad in the DC area, even in a cooling real estate market, that I had to move 75 miles west of the Capitol just to get a foot in the door, if you'll pardon the pun.) But in the meantime, being a Good Christian Person (progessive, conservative, whatever the stripe) can be a liability in my world. When I first confessed to my friends that I had come back to the faith, I was challenged on many levels to defend how a reasonable, thoughtful, intelligent young postmodern woman could buy into the hokey nonsense that was religion. And as such, I was shy. I became Gallycat (first here, then here). Gally, the "fallen angel" of a Japanese manga series, and "cat."

Enter Jim Naughton and the Episcopal Café and their Ethic of Transparency. OMG, was I going to have to SIGN MY NAME to a post? Scary. Sticking my neck out and admitting that I'm brazen enough to talk about my faith life when I'm oh so very.... me? Scary. Covering anything above and beyond my diocese or interesting news items about faith in the postmodern world? Scary.

Do you remember the first time you ever addressed a group of people, whether it was your first sermon or your first public speaking class or your first time lay reading? It's sort of like that, at least as I experienced it. Signing my name to a post about faith created anxious tension. Even though I wasn't hiding my identity per se--just not coming out and saying so or undertaking the daunting task of writing a bio about myself in third person (which I can't do without making some kind of smartass comment about myself)--it scared me.

But I signed my name. And once I owned that work, I did something else, too. I updated my resume to reflect the fact that I do volunteer work for the church, by helping blog users get acquainted with the technology, by helping the good folks in Second Life get their Anglican Cathedral up and running, by editing stuff for the RevGals and by coordinating posts for the Lead here at Episcopal Café. Just two months later, I was having a phone conversation with the director of a publication who wants to take advantage of these technologies--blogs, podcasts, wikis, virtual worlds, streaming media, RSS, distributed bookmarking, tags, and so on; this world of new toys we collectively call "social media"--and by September I was one step closer to merging my vocation and profession. They hired me because I had demonstrated familiarity with these tools.

I was, perhaps, the Café's most ardent voice in favor of allowing people to post under pen names. And I was soundly outvoted. But I have come to see the wisdom of the policy. All of us who participate in these forums are part of the future of the church, for better, for worse. I can take responsibility for what I do. But God rewarded me for being brave enough to do so, for being brave enough to open my mind to a new way of thinking—God also let me get credit for what I do.

Helen Thompson directs social media initiatives for an international association in Northern Virginia and is a freelance writer and editor. She lives in the northern Shenandoah Valley, where she is in her second year of studies in Education for Ministry and plugging away at her first novel. Catch her on the web at Gallycat's Lounge, among others.

A Proverb for bloggers

By Marshall Scott

So there I was, today, looking in at one of the Episcopal blogs -- one of THOSE blogs. You know the type: issues are raised by blog owners and moderators, who do have a clear position, but who are themselves relatively orderly and polite. Then, extensive comments are posted, most by folks who agree with the owners and moderators; some by folks who agree intemperately; and a few by folks who are, well, virulent. I do visit such sites, of more than one position, and some more than others; but they exist across the spectrum of our current Episcopal and Anglican disagreements.

And for each of those sites there are a few respondents who don’t fit the mold. They may hold the “other” position, or they may simply want to play [angel’s or devil’s] advocate. And among them there are gadflies. Gadflies are usually civil (and uncivil gadflies usually get moderated out), but are always both consistent and persistent. They are convicted of the rightness of their respective causes, principles, and authorities. They assert much more than they reason, however reasonable they perceive themselves to be. They are happy, or at least determined, to stand as Daniel in the lions’ den in order to proclaim their positions. They delight in taking on all comers. They find moral satisfaction in being challenged, and even more in being attacked; for blessed are they indeed if they “suffer for the sake of the Gospel.”

And, predictably enough, it does indeed become a den, although whether of lions, foxes, or adders is not always clear. A gadfly is inevitably successful in generating not simply challenge and discussion, but also an attack. Shortly some few of the regulars on the site fall into intemperate and uncivil posts, largely of thinly veiled (if veiled at all) ad hominem attacks. There are those, of course, who seek to discuss and to argue logically and civilly; but they can be drowned out by the volume if not the number of the more personal, less temperate responses. And those less temperate responses are less likely to be moderated away, because the moderator is so conscious of the suffering that has led the responder to speak truth, however intemperately.

So, there I was today, looking at one of those Episcopal blogs, and I was struck suddenly by my favorite verses from Proverbs:

[4] Answer not a fool according to his folly,
lest you be like him yourself.
[5] Answer a fool according to his folly,
lest he be wise in his own eyes.
(Proverbs 26:4-5, RSV)


I looked at how the discussion had descended into diatribe and distraction, and I suddenly wondered what I was to do. Should I put my two cents in, trying to reason against the assertions of the gadfly? If I did, would I be associating myself with the intemperance of the intemperate responders? Should I refrain, and allow both the assertions of the gadfly and the virulence of the intemperate to stand unchallenged for both had gone beyond reason? What to do?

I spent Saturday of Labor Day Weekend in the midst of a cultural experience. Specifically, I attended my first feis, my first Irish dancing competition. My niece made her first parent-less trip to come and compete. Family members outnumbered dancers in the room, but they faded from view, overwhelmed by the colorful riot of dancing dresses. They showed every color in the crayon box (although there is surprisingly little green and, less surprisingly, even less orange), decorated as they were with shapes and patterns that once showed family and tribe and allegiance.

In a way, the current Episcopal and Anglican discussions have all the ordered chaos of a feis: within the parameters of the larger event there is the dull mutter of the crowded room, the mingling of hundreds of conversations, until someone calls a tune. Then, for a period there is great focused interest, as most in the room watch the competitors doing their very best to outdo one another in optimizing the balance of authentic choreography, competent performance, and that little bit of added presentation that might hold the attention of the judge. After that there is applause for all, or at least for one’s own; and impatient waiting to see who has outdone whom; and a return to the dull mutter. There will, of course, be some ranking at the end, and some competitors will be thrilled and some disappointed, and their respective families with them. But most present simply want to have danced well, and to have heard their efforts appreciated.

In parallel, we who want to take our own places in this discussion, have opportunities in the blogosphere (and elsewhere, certainly) to share our reflections and to see the reflections of others. At our best, we’re also trying to optimize a balance of authenticity, competence, and that little bit of added presentation that we hope will allow us to stand out a bit. Most of the time as a common enterprise I think we manage relatively well; but sometimes it isn’t any prettier for us than for the poor, unprepared dancer. And in all those situations, there are the colors and patterns of opinion that claim family and tribe and allegiance. It is in just those circumstances that we need to think about the passage from Proverbs: whether our participation will challenge foolishness, or simply contribute to it.

It’s September; and there are those who have seen events of this September, and of the Autumn to follow, as critical, literally as moments of crisis. There is much talk of deadlines and decisions, of imposition and resistance, of the standing and falling of many in Zion. Because I continue to think these are struggles for identity (and I do think it’s about identity, with such issues as sexual morality and Biblical authority and historical precedent being discriminators within the identities at issue), they’re all the more liable to be personal, ad hominem responses. I think Episcopal Café is one place that has worked hard to maintain discourse instead of dissonance; and while most of us who write here would be considered “progressive,” we have all sought to offer our best, and to offer the best of the Episcopal Church as we see it.

But out there in the rest of the blogosphere, on our own blogs and in responding to the blogs of others, I think we need to reflect on Proverbs. We believe the voices of the Net are meaningful and in some sense representative in Episcopal and Anglican discussions. We believe them part of the conversation, along with sermons and official statements and press releases. If we didn’t, we wouldn’t be putting our own view out, and we wouldn’t be reading and responding to the voices of others. As we do so, let’s think carefully, and respond appropriately. The lessons from Proverbs should give us all pause; and if they don’t, there is always that other proverb: “Better to be silent and be thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt.”

The Rev. Marshall Scott is a chaplain in the Saint Luke’s Health System, a ministry of 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.

Owning your words

By Nicholas Knisely

When Jim Naughton, our esteemed editor-in-chief here at Episcopal Café, approached a few of us with the idea of creating this site, one of the very first things we realized we were going to have to deal with was coming up with a policy on comments left on the posts on this site. We talked amongst ourselves for months weighing the various merits and weaknesses of all the different kinds of policies and moderation strategies that you can find out there. We were concerned about issues of confidentiality, of keeping conversations from turning poisonous and ultimately, should we become successful in creating a place of conversation, dealing with the work-load.

We eventually arrived at our present policy of only allowing comments from people willing to sign them with their real name.

Over the past few months I’ve been trying to write an short essay on why we made that decision and what we hoped to gain from it. This is my third attempt. The other two ended up being rants and not essays. If you’re reading this, then it means I’ve finally managed to put something together that steps back from that edge.

The policy that we’ve set here is not typical of the blog-sphere. It's closer to the policy of a “Letters to the Editors” page in a newspaper than anything else. That’s probably partly because a number of the people who volunteered their time working on creating this site come from print and journalism backgrounds. (I’m not one of those people. But many of us in the initial discussions have.) That may be why I was one of the folks who objected to the policy initially. I was pushing for a comment policy closer to what you can see on a site like “Digg” or “Slashdot” where anybody is allowed to post pretty much anything - but then the community votes to approve or disapprove what you have said. Posts that are generally disapproved of are buried out of most people’s sight. The net result is that while it is possible to see everything both good and bad, most readers will only see the very best comments unless they actively choose to read the lower rated comments. Eventually I came to see (they didn't just wear me down...) that the present policy was better than what I wanted after we all came to some shared clarity about what we were trying to do here.

There are lots of blogs and websites on the internet today that represent a polemical point of view within the Episcopal/Anglican Communion. There are eloquent voices, strident voices, quiet and loud voices using various techniques to make their points and to promote their understanding of what it means to be Anglican and how the Communion as a whole should be dealing with the questions that confront us at this moment in history.

But this blog is not meant to be one of those. Sure we’ll talk about the issues, and we’ll talk about the tensions that are arising out of them. And we’ll probably be covering the various viewpoints presented regularly in the blog-sphere. But this site is meant primarily to be a way to support Episcopalians in their daily life of faith, and more importantly to present the Episcopal Church honestly to people who might not know much about it. As we have said elsewhere, there is a decidedly evangelistic intent about the work we are doing here. We mean to present the Episcopal Church as best we can, glories and warts intact, so that people who are seeking to learn more about us will have a chance to do so without having to figure out a way to filter out the internal and external criticism that, while a necessary and important part of Anglicanism, can be a bar to those not steeped in our ethos and, um, conversational methodology.

And, as a way of keeping that focus, we have decided to ask people who comment to remember that they are making public comments in a public space that is meant for outsiders at least as much as it is for insiders. Insisting that people sign their real name to their comments has so far served as useful reminder of that.

We’ve had plenty of push back from potential commentators about this policy. Many are worried that publicly admitting their faith or being open about their beliefs would endanger their careers or to them financially. (NB: This is usually where I start ranting in my earlier attempts to write this piece.) I guess I can hear their concerns and recognize them for what they are. I’m concerned however when that at a moment in history when people are being killed for their faith in many parts of the world, including our own hemisphere, that our unwillingness to be public about our personal faith means we probably have some personal soul-searching to do about how important our own faith ultimately is.

Mostly the policy we set has had the effect we desired. The people who have left comments here have done so in respectful ways honoring the idea that all of us are seeking to serve our Lord Jesus as best we can, even though we may disagree on the details that service should take. Those who are not willing to use their real name have taken their anonymous shots at us on their own blogs, where they are free to use what we have published to further their own missions and agendas. Which is not to say a-priori that said missions and agendas are bad, just that they are not in most cases the same as ours is in this particular corner of God’s cyber-world.

So how’s that? Clearer? Certainly less full of fulminations than my previous goes at it. At least you now know what we on the editorial board were thinking we set this comments policy.

The Very Rev. W. Nicholas Knisely is Dean of Trinity Cathedral in Phoenix Ariz. He serves as Chair of the Standing Commission on Episcopal Church Communication, is active in ecumenical works and was originally trained as an astronomer before he was ordained. His blog is Entangled States.

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Coming attraction

In the coming weeks, we will be discussing Miranda K. Hassett's book Anglican Communion in Crisis: How Episcopal Dissidents and Their African Allies Are Reshaping Anglicanism, and interviewing the author.

The book is due out in July from Princeton University Press, but you can order it now. Ms. Hassett, who has a doctorate in anthropology, attends the Episcopal Divinity School, and is a candidate for ordination in the Diocese of North Carolina.

Her publisher describes the book this way:

"Based on wide research, interviews with key participants and observers, and months Hassett spent in a southern U.S. parish of the Episcopal Church of Rwanda and in Anglican communities in Uganda, Anglican Communion in Crisis is the first anthropological examination of the coalition between American Episcopalians and African Anglicans. The book challenges common views--that the relationship between the Americans and Africans is merely one of convenience or even that the Americans bought the support of the Africans. Instead, Hassett argues that their partnership is a deliberate and committed movement that has tapped the power and language of globalization in an effort to move both the American Episcopal Church and the worldwide Anglican Communion to the right."

Stay tuned.

A little housekeeping

One of these days, you are going to be able to leave a comment on the various blogs that compose the Episcopal Cafe. But that day has not yet come. We will announce it loudly when it does. Thanks for your patience. While waiting for the blessed day, please have a look at our feedback policy, and note that we won't be publishing anonymous comments, or comments from individuals whom we know are using a pseudonym. If you've got a nom de net that you like to use, that's fine, just put in in parenthesis after your real name.

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