Episcopalians practice ancient art of conversation

Public narrative training continues Saturday, Monday
July 8, 2009

With more than 2,000 other Episcopalians, Becky Hunter took a seat in the cavernous worship hall of General Convention on July 9 and rediscovered the ancient and biblical art of heart-felt conversation.

"I sat at our diocesan table, and I thought I knew the people I was sitting with, but I have learned so much more about them today," said Hunter, a deputy from Indianapolis. "I was brought up with this type of narrative. I was raised in a family where we told stories, listened to stories – related to each other – so it wasn't completely new to me.

"What was eye-opening to me, though, was how we as a church are having to learn how to tell stories to connect. That's a little frustrating."

Hunter participated in the first of three 90-minute sessions titled Mission Conversation which are at the heart of the public narrative project calling for dialogue on mission in the church.

Thursday's session focused on the "Story of Self," an exercise in which participants shared the origins of their personal ministry; the story content will be broadened on July 11 to "Story of Us"; on July 13, table conversations will seek ways of "Linking Self and Us to Now."

With help from about 200 table coaches, each participant spent two minutes telling their story, followed by three minutes of feedback from the group. Each table ended their time by asking what they learned about themselves and each other, and pondering whether anything learned can be taken into the world.

"This is an ancient form of communication; this is nothing new," said Marshall Ganz, who teaches the public narrative process at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government and is leading the sessions during convention. "But in the modern world, we get so overloaded with professional, expert ways to communicate that we think we're not supposed to share too much or tell stories that mean something to us because we think, 'Oh, that's too emotional…'

"As a result, we lose what is really quite natural, which is the ability to communicate feelings to one another through stories."

To get a feel for what was expected, three personal stories were told to the whole gathering, including one from the Rev. David Ota, a deputy from California. Ota recalled how he confronted a man who had insulted his Japanese heritage and in the course of the conversation heard the man's story of extreme personal loss during World War II.

"He spoke of a pain and sorrow that I did not know," Ota said. "I realized I did not understand his pain. We ended up shaking hands… Because we spoke to one another, I believe we both came closer to seeing one another more clearly and came closer to the truth that we are both children of God."

Some participants, however, said they were not convinced that the public narrative project is as eager to hear from some members of the Episcopal Church as it is from others.

South Carolina deputies Reid Boyleston, Wade Logan and Elizabeth Pennewill said they and other "orthodox conservatives" within the church are being invited not into an experience of conversation, but an exercise of conversion.

"It was a compelling story the young man told about being Japanese American, and what he said was exactly true," said Boyleston. "But some people here want to take that issue of understanding one another and turn it around so that we will understand things that aren't scriptural.

"We're getting away from the scripture and turning it into a feel-good story."

Logan agreed: "Certainly, there's merit to hearing other people's stories. The problem is that in order to find out the core values you can agree on, you've got to agree on the core values, and there may be a problem that we don't all have the same core values. There's a political agenda that's trying to be advanced, and [the national church] is trying to manipulate us into dealing with that agenda."

Overcoming not just disagreement but also such distrust is exactly what the public narrative project and these Mission Conversations are all about, Ganz said.

"Learning the public narrative is not about learning script," he said. "It's about learning the process, learning the way of listening and communicating and finding expressions of shared values. It can be done."

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