A New Tool for Teaching About the Church

Via Media uses Alpha’s dinners and table talks, but favors progressive theology
July 1, 2004

The Rev. Rosa Lee Harden and her husband, Kevin Jones, were busy turning Every Voice Network into a Web portal for progressive Episcopalians when they began rethinking their long-term goals.

As they attended General Convention and published a daily Every Voice newsletter, the couple felt they were reliving familiar battles from the years they spent as Southern Baptists. In some of their fellow Episcopalians, Jones and Harden — rector of Church of the Holy Innocents in San Francisco — believed they heard echoes of conservative Baptist assumptions about Scripture, salvation and evangelism.
Harden had similar experiences as she thought about creating a progressive version of Alpha, the curriculum developed by Holy Trinity Church, Brompton, London, and used by more than one million people worldwide.

“We decided it was an oil-and-water thing, and it really wasn’t practical to help parishes put together an alternative form of Alpha,” Harden said. “I was having flashbacks to the fundamentalist takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention, and I thought, ‘If we don’t want to go through this again, we have to get serious about teaching Anglican theology.’”

Jones and Harden decided their fellow Episcopalians would benefit more from the long-term effects of a video-and-text curriculum than from breaking-news reports. They replaced news staff with a different team, and the result — a package called Via Media — was scheduled for full release July 1.

As a curriculum, Via Media combines videotaped conversations, dinners, and small-group conversations to help progressive Episcopalians engage in evangelism.

Jones and Harden returned to their former home base of Jackson, Miss., in late May to lead a training session for about 30 participants. Their stop in Jackson was one of several regional training sessions during a busy summer for the Via Media team. They expect to license Via Media in at least 200 parishes by the end of the year.

Alpha Versus Via Media
Among the people who traveled to St. Andrew’s Cathedral in Jackson for a one-day training session were priests who have run Alpha before and wanted to compare it to Via Media. About a third of participants who mentioned Alpha said they hoped Via Media would offer different content that’s more sympathetic to progressives’ beliefs.

The Rev. Buddy Stallings of Staten Island, N.Y., who served on the Via Media design team, made some comparisons to Alpha.
“We, like you, have watched it and have admired it,” Stallings said. “But we do feel like its fairly narrow evangelical approach leaves us wishing for something bigger, more comprehensive, broader, that gives us more breathing room.”

Like Alpha, Via Media is built around a shared meal and small-group discussions, and it involves a commitment of several weeks. Via Media offers seven weekly sessions, plus an optional retreat. Unlike Alpha, which usually relies on teaching videos by the Rev. Nicky Gumbel of Holy Trinity, Brompton, Via Media videos use five-person discussions around a table.

“Our pedagogy is that real learning happens in community,” Stallings said.
For those on-camera discussions, Via Media draws from a pool of 24 people, nearly all of whom are best known in progressive Episcopal circles.

It also differs from Alpha in how it distributes the curriculum. Anyone can buy a copy of Alpha’s curriculum through its website, though Alpha asks congregations to register courses, and Alpha offers frequent regional conferences to help people run the program well.

Via Media “licenses” its curriculum, like software. People who want to run Via Media not only buy the curriculum, but also must attend a one-day training session. (Inquirers may attend the training first to help them decide whether to buy the curriculum.)

Resource brings people to church by will
Harden says the reason for mandatory training is to help build community, to learn from collective intelligence, to allay fears and to demonstrate the theological diversity that Via Media wants to embody.

Via Media’s creators want it to be used across the broad spectrum of the church, but they also said the curriculum clearly celebrates last summer’s General Convention decisions regarding gays and lesbians.

Stallings said last summer’s General Convention created a divine opportunity for progressive Episcopalians who want to share their faith with their neighbors.

“We don’t believe the way to survive is to hunker down and not talk about it,” he said of the church’s decisions on sexuality. “We believe it’s a springboard to say, ‘Yippee! We’re not the church of the past, but of the present.’”

Via Media wants to help people become Episcopalians “by intention and not by repulsion” from other churches, Stallings said. He later recalled how often he’s heard people say they became Episcopalians because they could walk into a liquor store without shame. “If I ever have to hear that again,” Stallings said in a lingering Southern drawl, “I think I’ll vomit.”

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