Requesting entries by June 30, organizers have launched a church-wide contest for logo designs conveying the 2009 General Convention theme of "ubuntu" (pronounced oo-boon-too), a Zulu or Xhosa word that describes humaneness encompassing a sense of caring, sharing and being in harmony with all of creation.
The central focus on ubuntu -- a concept that South African Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu interprets to express "a person is a person through other persons" -- will be complemented by Convention sub-themes of "Identity" and "Mission," planners say.
Sponsored by General Convention's Joint Standing Commission on Planning and Arrangements, the contest offers a $5,000 first-prize contribution to an organization addressing one or more of the Millennium Development Goals. Contest rules are here.
Note to readers: The newly published May 2008 edition of Episcopal Life's monthly newspaper also carries coverage of the contest and the theme for General Convention's 76th meeting, set for July 8-17, 2009, in Anaheim, California, located in the six-county Diocese of Los Angeles.
Dating from 1785 as the Episcopal Church's chief legislative body, the bicameral General Convention includes the House of Bishops and the House of Deputies.
'Ubuntu': General Convention theme invites exploration of identity and mission
By Mary Frances Schjonberg
[Episcopal Life] General Convention can be called a legislature, a family reunion, a marketplace of ideas and products, a very large congregation, or all of the above. No matter what metaphors or descriptors one uses, to experience General Convention is to experience the Episcopal Church as a web of relationships.
To live in that web, even for the relatively short time that is known as General Convention, is to learn something new about one's self, about others, and about what makes the Episcopal Church distinctive. Participants often return home with a new sense of connection and involvement, of wanting to play a greater role of the mission of the Episcopal Church. Some might say they have experienced a taste of "ubuntu."
Ubuntu (pronounced oo-boon-too) is a Zulu or Xhosa word that describes humaneness encompassing a sense of caring, sharing and being in harmony with all of creation. Finding an exact translation for this word and concept in western thought is difficult, but many other cultures have similar words for describing this way of being.
Participants at the 76th meeting of the General Convention -- set for July 8-17, 2009, in Anaheim, California -- will explore the Episcopal Church's call to mission through the themes of Ubuntu, Identity and Mission, planners say. [Organizers have also invited Episcopalians into an opportunity to explore the ubuntu theme through a Convention logo-design context. See related story, here]
"An exploration of ubuntu may provide us with new understandings of our mission call and the relationships God has given us through which we may respond to God's call," Bonnie Anderson, president of the Episcopal Church's House of Deputies and chair of the General Convention's Joint Committee on Planning and Arrangements, told Episcopal Life.
"As Episcopalians and Christians, we seek to not only love our neighbors as ourselves, but we seek to internalize that love of neighbor so that it is a part of our very being," Anderson said. She added that western Christians might find theological connections between ubuntu and Jesus' Great Commandment to love God with heart, soul and mind, and to love one's neighbor as one's self (Mark 12:28-34).
Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori also points to the theme's potential for inspiring new perspectives. "I suggested ubuntu as a theme for several reasons," she told Episcopal Life. "Because it is unfamiliar, it may be able to invite us into a larger and more expansive way of understanding identity in community.
"Almost all of us will begin at the same place in that journey," Jefferts Schori added. "Our participation in God's mission grows out of our understanding of being in relationship with God, other human beings, and the rest of creation. The Baptismal Covenant is a statement of our understanding of being in relationship with God-in-relationship (i.e., the Trinity) and our neighbors, and how we intend to live into that relationship in life-giving and holy ways."
Similarities across cultures
In his book "No Future Without Forgiveness," Cape Town Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu explains that people in his culture understand ubuntu to convey that "a person is a person through other persons." Someone who has ubuntu, he writes, is "open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, for he or she has a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured or oppressed."
The Very Rev. Canon Michael Battle, priest-in-charge, Church of Our Saviour, San Gabriel, California, has written that Tutu's view of ubuntu is that it uses people's "holy respect" for God and each other to fulfill God's intention of uniting all the separates the people of the world.
The purpose of the church is to be the instrument of this intention," Battle writes in his book "Reconciliation: The Ubuntu Theology of Desmond Tutu."
Battle suggests that Tutu's ubuntu theology balances western individualism and African communalism to "build an interdependent community" because "only by means of absolute dependency on God and neighbor ... can truly human identity be discovered."
The theological concept that Tutu and others describe as ubuntu is more universally understood than one might think initially. For instance, the Spanish word "abrazo" can mean more than simply a physical embrace. It can describe an intimate experience of unity, connection and acceptance; and it can create a space into which is invited a sense of belonging, fellowship and compassion.
The O'odham ñiok language of the Tohono O'odham Nation in Arizona and northwest Mexico speaks of "himdag" (him-dug). It is a gift from the Creator and becomes a life-long journey to walk in balance with one's self, with others, with nature, and with the Creator.
The Dutch speak of "gezellig" (ghe-zel-ligh), a togetherness that knows no time. Its rough translation means a warm and cozy feeling but it transcends belonging, welcoming, sheltering and being tolerant. It creates a environment in which good things happen.
Most participants and observers would agree that General Convention is distinctly Episcopalian. Yet, some may agree that the depth of what it means to be an Episcopalian can be somewhat hard to describe.
"The mission and ministry that we do together in the name of Jesus Christ is at the very core of our identity as
Episcopalians," Anderson said. "We often struggle with the ability to articulate our identity. We often struggle with our relationships with each other, yet we are a people of mission, called into Christian community to be partners in God's mission in the world."
Planners say the exploration envisioned for General Convention can be deepened by a process known as public narrative. The process seeks to help people answer the perennial questions of "what I am called to do, what we are called to do as communities, and what we are called to do now?"
Dr. Marshall Ganz, lecturer in public policy at Harvard University's Kennedy School and consultant to the planning and arrangements committee, says public narrative is the art of using stories to translate articulated values into action. It not just about learning how a group should act, but inspiring the group to act.
Stories do more than simply communicate who a person is or who a group of people are together, he added. "It's about what am I called to do in the world," Ganz said.
At Anderson's invitation, Ganz will explain the use of public narrative on June 16 during a meeting in Albuquerque, N.M. Planning and Arrangements committee members, members of Executive Council's Standing Committee on Congregations in Ministry, provincial representatives to Executive Council, co-chairs of General Convention Worship Committee co-chairs, along with other invited deputies and bishops will be coached in the tool, beginning with the story of self.
Skills learned could have future application at the pre-convention provincial synod meetings as well as the Convention, organizers say. The planning and arrangements committee has proposed that at General Convention, deputies and bishops familiar with and trained in public narrative as a tool for mission would facilitate a public narrative practice.
The transforming power of public narrative is something people have to experience, Anderson said. "They have to get involved. They have to use it. This is a skill that needs to be developed and in developing that skill, relationships are built."
Through those relationships people can be inspired to respond more deeply to their baptismal call to mission and ministry, she said. "The ultimate goal is to truly become a people of mission," she added. While many in the Episcopal Church talk about mission, "we haven't internalized mission" as a deeply held value, she suggested.
"In our baptism we promise, with God's help, to seek and serve Christ, love our neighbors as ourselves, respecting the dignity of every human being," she said. "Discussions of the theme of ubuntu will provide deputies, bishops and visitors with the chance to explore together the concept of spiritual interdependence and mission. Isn't that what the promises we make at baptism are about?"
-- 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, N.J, and New York City.