Episcopal Communicators meet in Seattle

Annual conference explores 'Emerging Communications for an Emerging Church'
April 9, 2008

As the 35th annual meeting of Episcopal Communicators got underway April 9 in Seattle, Washington, participants began to experience the conference's theme of "Emerging Communications for an Emerging Church."


They gathered for an emerging Episcopal Church Eucharist led by members of Church of the Apostles, a Seattle congregation that describes itself as an "incarnational, monastic, christian community, affiliated with God, through Jesus Christ, in the power of the Spirit." It also claims affiliation with both of what its website calls the Episcopal Church and Evangelical Lutheran Church in America "tribes."

The Eucharist, held in the ballroom of the Hotel Deca, included guitars and drums, lyrics of new and traditional music projected on a screen above the conference-table altar and an "Open Spaces" time of meditation and prayer stations in place of a traditional sermon.

In the conference's keynote address, author and scholar Diana Butler Bass told the gathering that communicators, as people who tell the story of the Episcopal Church, can be the "bards" of a historic chapter in the denomination's life.

Episcopal Diocese of Olympia Bishop Greg Rickel, speaking during the conference's April 9 opening banquet at the Burke Museum on the University of Washington campus, told participants that he prayed they would not be "mere spectators" to the changing Episcopal Church but that they would teach the church.

During the morning of April 9, participants attended workshops on topics ranging from technology issues to theology and communications.

Prior to the official start of the conference, House of Deputies President Bonnie Anderson hosted a reception for the communicators on the evening of April 8. Anderson encouraged communicators to educate their dioceses about how the Episcopal Church works, saying that the story of the church's governance "is important not as a political reality but as a theological truth."

Diana Butler Bass
When considering new congregations that are emerging from mainline Protestant denominations (in which she includes the Episcopal Church), Butler Bass suggested asking "from what are we emerging" and "toward what are we emerging." She noted that the two questions are connected because every group or individual carries everything from the past on the journey to the future.

The Episcopal Church is emerging, she suggested, from "a place of cultural prominence" that was connected to its "racial prominence," from the liberal theology of the 20th century, and from a sense of "the church as a religious corporation."

Butler Bass said that the part of the Episcopal Church's cultural prominence that it will carry with it toward the future is the fact that "we're not afraid of power." Episcopalians know how to use their knowledge of how the political sphere works to effect real change in people's lives, she said.

As Episcopalians move into what is being called the era of "post-liberal theology," she said, they can take with them liberal theology's openness of questioning and exploring faith as they try to renew the sense of transcendence and mystery that often got lost in the previous era.

Thirdly, Episcopalians' sense of the church as business has taught them "how to structure communities" and "how to shape religious work," Butler Bass said. This knowledge includes skills such as governance, how to run capital campaigns and how to fairly compensate people for their work. "It's actually a gift to know how to do this," she said.

Butler Bass was project director of a Lilly Endowment study of mainline Protestant vitality from which emerged the best-selling book "The Practicing Congregation: Imagining a New Old Church" (Alban, 2004). The research, she said, showed that emerging vital congregations have flattened-out structures that operate in three overlapping spheres. She labeled the spheres practice, tradition or memory, and wisdom or mission.

Observation and interaction with some 450 members and leaders of 50 such congregations showed that the Christian practices most commonly lived out were theological reflection, hospitality and an embracing of diversity. Such practices were linked to what people saw as the tradition of the church in ways that renewed the tradition and made it come alive, she said. The congregations tried to operate with a sense of wisdom that was not a completed certainty but "actionable knowledge" that helped give people a meaningful way of life that they could not find elsewhere in the world, Butler Bass told the conference.

Butler Bass suggested that those with the ministry of communications have a role to play as "bards of the emerging church" who "can lead change by the stories we tell."

"Words lead," she said. "We are the storytellers -- the storytellers of the place we once were -- and we can be storytellers of the place where we are going."

Greg Rickel
The world is watching two churches -- the established church and the emerging church -- "trying desperately to speak to each other," Rickel told communicators.

One part of the struggle, he said, is the tension between authenticity and loyalty. "We have forgotten how to be ourselves," he said, and in the process have wrung mystery "completely out of our existence."

Those attracted to the emerging church -- and those skeptical of the established church -- look for what Rickel called "the authenticity of 'maybe' and 'I don't know.'" They are not skeptical of institutions in general but only of those that cannot be introspective and self-critical, he added.

There is also a tension between authority and leadership, Rickel said, explaining that leadership is the quality that can call the established structure to task, and move beyond it when needed. Such movement can push people "beyond the boundaries of where we have been," he said.

It is not that authority is not needed, he said, but that it can stifle growth when it is wielded for its own sake.

Rickel cited a third tension between what he termed the center and the edges. "The emerging church is at the edge and they have so much to teach" those who are at the center. Yet the center wants to remain the same. "We continue to use our code…ECW…narthex…815…even the word Eucharist," he said, calling such language "the code for insiders."

He urged communicators to help those at the center listen to the stories of those at the edges because the established church tends to stay focused on the center and "mired in our discontent."

"The church needs to travel to the edges," he said. "You can take us there" by hearing and seeing the emergent church and helping to tell its story.

Bonnie Anderson
During the April 8 reception, Anderson told communicators that "it's not just the outside that doesn't understand how we're governed; it's us," She added that both the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion would benefit knowing that the Episcopal Church values the voices of all orders of ministry.

Communicators ought to educate their dioceses about the connection between the Baptismal Covenant's call to ministry and the participation of both lay and ordained people in the governance of the church, Anderson said. "Tell the story of the authority of the laity" in the Episcopal Church, she urged the communicators.

She also suggested that they look for ways to make the story of governance interesting and to watch for opportunities to portray the work of both houses of the church's bicameral system of governance. "Very often we only hear about the events of one of the houses of our bicameral system," Anderson said, noting that she was not calling for the House of Deputies to meet outside of General Convention as does the House of Bishops.

Anderson encouraged communicators to find ways to include the voices of their diocesan General Convention deputations and to tell the story of the ministry that goes on every day between General Conventions.

Communicators need to know the right mix of media for their specific audiences, Anderson said, and advocate for that mix. During a time of budget cuts and the ongoing debate about print versus digital media, she said, communicators need to be able to show that the best way to deliver news and information "isn't always the cheapest."

The Episcopal Church's infrastructure, especially in terms of communications technology, has lagged behind that in other parts of society, Anderson told the communicators, adding that she would like to see a commitment in the next triennium to reversing that lag. The work of communications and the infrastructure needed to deliver news and information ought to be seen as a mission priority, Anderson said.

The conference continues
About 120 people, including 43 first-time attendees, are gathered for the April 9-12 meeting. Episcopal Communicators includes nearly 200 people with communication responsibilities in the Episcopal Church at congregational, diocesan, regional, and national levels in both print and electronic media.

On April 10, participants will hear from David Domke, head of the Journalism Department in the School of Communications at the University of Washington and author of "The God Strategy: How Religion Became a Political Weapon." Workshops on topics such as the emerging church, electronic newsletters and taking portraits with point-and-shoot cameras will round out the day.

The Rev. Matthew Moretz speaks to the conference on April 11. Moretz is known for his "webisodes" he posts to YouTube, available here. That day's schedule also includes a slate of workshops.

The Communicators' annual Polly Bond Awards banquet is set for that evening.

On April 12, the organization will conduct its business meeting and close the conference with worship.

-- The Rev. Mary Frances Schjonberg is Episcopal Life Media correspondent for Episcopal Church governance, structure, and trends, as well as news of the dioceses of Province II. She is based in Neptune, New Jersey, and New York City.

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