What the world sees, by Megan Castellan

This summer has been a season of reflection and consideration, not just for the Episcopal Church, but across the Christian spectrum.  Voices across the Mainline spectrum have united in calling for a renewed focus on our mission and ministry to the world.  And so, we, in the church, have been quite preoccupied with what this new thing that God appears to be doing will look like.  Where are we called?  What are we to do?  What committees shall we form?

But, lest we forget, while we’ve been bustling around inside our churches, the unchurchifed world has twirled merrily onwards.  This summer, Hulu started showing a British show called “Rev.”–marking the first time this show has been made available in the States (legally, cough cough).  The show follows an up-and-coming Anglican priest who is appointed vicar at a tiny inner-city London parish (played by Tom Hollander).    He struggles with disillusionment, odd parishioners, and pressure from the diocese to fill the seats at any cost, all the while wondering if what he’s doing makes any sense in the rapidly-changing world around him.

The show is brilliant as an examination of church life, so go watch it and cringe and laugh appropriately.  (It’s here.) But what’s really been fascinating to watch is the critical reaction in America.

The AV Club, the Onion‘s serious, culture-discussing sibling, has been reviewing each episode as it appears, and has fallen in un-ironic love with the show.  Each review has prompted the critic and the community of commenters to discuss themes of faith, doubt, God, and what it means to be an ethical person in this day and age.  This went so well, in fact, that the AV Club interviewed the creators and writers of the show about their perspective on faith.

One of the unique hallmarks of the show is that it depicts people struggling with being faithful, and struggling with being Christian, but at least making an effort in the struggle.  The protagonist, Adam, is frequently depicted praying, but never gets a response, at least directly.  But he does keep talking.

When we talk about evangelism and mission, it is at least as important to clarify how the world sees us, before we figure out what we want to say to the world.  The temptation is always to pass ourselves off as Brilliant Experts in Life, Faith, and Everything by virtue of our Church Attendance Excellence! Somehow, we think this will make people want to be like us, for we have, after all, achieved Excellence in Everything, and who wouldn’t want that?

But I don’t think that’s either believable or attractive.  Reading through the comments at The AV Club, I don’t have the sense people long for a Stepford community to make them all perfect.  I have the sense that people want to know that others struggle with the larger questions, just like they do.  They want to hear the hard-won wisdom of others who’ve been through some similar struggle.  They’d sort of appreciate it if they could see the put-together churchy folks laugh at ourselves once in a while.

And the good news for us is:

We can do all of that.

Standing in the Presence of God, by Susan Snook

In the sanctuary of Church of the Nativity, Scottsdale, where I serve, one of our most cherished items is our icon of the Annunciation.  This is a true icon, written by Laura Fisher Smith, a noted iconographer (as well as the wife of +Kirk Smith, our diocesan bishop).

This Annunciation is different from most traditional depictions of this event, because we don’t see the angel. We see Mary, a simple peasant girl, at the moment when the angel comes to her.  Eyes closed, hands uplifted in an attitude of prayer, we see her experiencing God’s call to her.

Laura created this icon after a great deal of prayer, and after she and I had discussed our vision for this Annunciation icon.  We made the conscious decision not to depict the angel Gabriel, for who can really say what an angel looks like?  Surely all the gold and halos in the world cannot depict the sheer power and terror of standing in the presence of an angel.

But if we cannot imagine the appearance of an angel, surely we can imagine what a human being looks like who is open to the news an angel brings.  Mary, in our icon, is praying, open, humble.  She seems to be bathed in light from above.  She is preparing herself to say, “Let it be with me according to your word.”

I thought of this icon last week as our diocesan clergy attended a seminar on preaching as spiritual direction.  Our keynote speaker, Kay Northcutt, has written a book called Kindling Desire for God: Preaching as Spiritual Direction, in which she says that the true task of the preacher is not to explain, counsel, or entertain, but to act as spiritual director to the congregation.  In this role, we should help people who are yearning for God’s presence to begin to experience it.

Northcutt says that in our over-busy world, people are hungry for an experience of God.  How do we provide that in worship?  How do we help our congregations to learn spiritual disciplines that will open their hearts and minds to God’s voice?    I interpreted Kay’s model of the preacher as spiritual director as meaning that in preaching, we help people to ask questions about real-life experience like, where is God in this?  How is God calling to me right here and now?  The preacher then becomes the one who teaches spiritual disciplines to open our minds and hearts, and who calls the congregation to a life of noticing God’s presence and handiwork.

In our Acts 8 gatherings at General Convention, I think that many of us experienced an openness to God’s presence, through Bible study, prayer, and dreaming together about what the church could be.  Now that we are home, how can we call our congregations and our church into a practice of openness to God’s presence?  How can each of us act as spiritual directors to a yearning world?

Making the Choice to Pray, by Steve Pankey

Good afternoon everyone.  My name is Steve Pankey, and Tuesday is my day to  be the voice of Acts 8.  It is always risky to post one’s own work on a group site like this, but since today is my day, I blogged with Acts 8 in mind.  Particularly, I was interested in the passage from Joshua appointed for this Sunday and the growing interest in praying for the Church.  Here’s an excerpt:

“As the deadline for application to the Task Force for Restructuring the Church nears (apply here), I can’t help but wonder, “Which god will this Task Force serve?”  It is my hope that they will choose the path of Joshua and serve the LORD, but I also know that they will need help getting there.

That is where the rest of us come in.  If we will choose to serve the Lord, then we will also choose to pray for our leaders.  Pray that they might make wise choices.  Pray that they might look to the Scriptures for direction.  Pray that they would be cloaked in prayer.  And pray that they might “put away the gods that their ancestors served.”  In the coming weeks, Frank Logue and I will be developing an Acts 8 prayer cycle that will certainly include the membership of the Task Force.  If you have specific requests for that prayer chain: local Acts 8 groups, Diocesan restructuring work, persons of influence, etc. please don’t hesitate to pass them along.”

Read the rest here.

The tagline for this website is “Praying for and reimagining The Episcopal Church,” and before we can do the latter, the former is absolutely a requirement.  I hope you will join with me in praying for The Church.

“Gracious Father, we pray for they holy Catholic Church. Fill it
with all truth, in all truth with all peace. Where it is corrupt,
purify it; where it is in error, direct it; where in any thing it is
amiss, reform it. Where it is right, strengthen it; where it is in
want, provide for it; where it is divided, reunite it; for the sake
of Jesus Christ thy Son our Savior. Amen.” (BCP p. 816)

Restructuring and Reawakening, by Susan Snook

I’ve been fairly silent since returning home from General Convention – partly because I came home, did my laundry, and headed out the next day on my family vacation.  We made it as far as St. Petersburg, Russia, this year – here’s a photo for you:

This is the interior of the Church of the Savior on the Spilled Blood in St. Petersburg.  We got there as a service was going on in a side chapel: incense burning, heavenly chant by the choir, priest arrayed in vestments of finest gold, people gathered, standing, silently bowing and crossing themselves and lighting candles as the service went on.  Of course the church in Russia was nearly dead during the Soviet years: 1,000 churches in St. Petersburg at the time of the czars had been reduced to about 5 or 6 still open by 1990.  Other church buildings were demolished, or turned into warehouses, military training facilities, or even (in one case) an indoor swimming pool.  Now, the church is coming back to life.  Five hundred churches are now open in the city, and in each one we entered (on weekdays), there were worshipers gathered for the Divine Liturgy in progress.  Christ is risen, indeed.

Which brings me to wonder why we are so concerned about the future of our church.  Amidst great anxiety about declining numbers and tight finances, The Episcopal Church gathered in General Convention this summer.  It was my second Convention, and after my first, in 2009, I wasn’t sure I would return.  The anxiety, conflict, and stuck-ness seemed hopeless.  We made some good decisions, but seemed unable to address the vital issue of how to reverse, or event confront, the church’s decline.

This year was different.  Not only did we address the issues before us, we did it with excitement and a sense of positive vision and hope for the future.  We created Enterprise Zones to encourage evangelism with new populations.  We agreed to move our church headquarters away from 815 Second Avenue.  We created a Task Force for Restructuring the Church. (By the way, if you haven’t yet applied to serve on the Task Force, the deadline is Thursday, Aug. 23, and the application is here.)

Like many people, I hope that “restructuring” is about more than, well, restructuring.  I hope this is not just another organizational quick-fix that changes a few lines of authority and re-draws our church’s flow chart.  I hope that instead, this “restructuring” becomes a reawakening.  I hope that we pray together, discuss together, gain insights from people not otherwise heard, and learn from each other.  I hope we follow the guidance of the Holy Spirit.  I hope this becomes a new beginning for our church, the start of an explosion of new energy, new ideas, and new people.

In the meantime, I have been elected, along with 37 other people, to serve on Executive Council, our church’s Board of Directors.  Members of Executive Council recently received a request to write a one-page introduction and name what we see as the three top priorities for us to address this triennium.  We also were invited to ask any questions we have about how Executive Council works.  For my priorities, see my blog post here.  I would welcome your comments and additions.

For Acts 8 folks – how should we be praying for this restructuring and reawakening to unfold?  How can we spark a renewal movement, through the kind of prayer and Bible study and vision for the future and dreaming that we shared at General Convention?  How can we begin to share what we have experienced, and what we long for, with people throughout the church?  It is my honest opinion that without prayer and reawakening, this restructuring will be simply a restructuring.  And that would be a loss for all of us.

I believe the most vital thing for us to discover is, how is the Holy Spirit leading us into a new era?  Difficult times have beset the church from the very beginning, and Holy Spirit has always led us into new possibilities we never would have imagined on our own.  Re-read Acts Chapter 8 if you have any doubts about this.  Or, if you still doubt that a declining church can be reawakened, maybe the Church of the Savior on the Spilled Blood in St. Petersburg will inspire you.  The refurbishing is almost complete.  The smell of incense fills the air.  The sound of heavenly chanting fills the hearts of the worshipers who gather to pray and hope and share the Eucharist together.

Christ is risen, indeed.  Alleluia.

#MainlineSummer and the Ecumenical Autumn, by David Simmons

One of the challenges from the movements in the #mainlinesummer, including #acts8, #dreamumc, #dreampcusa and others is how to re-envision our denominations for the future. Whatever those visions entail, I believe they will all include one common ingredient – ecumenism. For those of us who are not ecumenical wonks (and I know that I’m in the less than one percent for being one) “ecumenical” is a word that creates yawns. It brings up visions of long, tepid joint Thanksgiving services. But the future of our churches will be ecumenical for two reasons. One is a glass half-empty, the other is a glass half-full.

The glass half-empty reason is because we can literally no longer afford to walk apart. In the sixties, we could afford to each build high-rise denominational headquarters in major cities and employ hundreds of staffers as our churches built out in the ’burbs. In our time, as denominations shrink down to more historical levels of membership, we are all faced with budget cuts that threaten important ministries. What better way to continue these ministries than to walk together where we can! Do we all need separate denominational health plans? Do we really need completely separated national youth ministries? What about disaster relief? These separate programs used to be tools of competition between our denominations, but they are rapidly becoming ministries that simply cannot stand unless we find ways to cooperate. What about co-locating denominational headquarters? Could not support staff and office equipment contracts be shared? As the corporately-ordered denominations continue to implode, ecumenism is becoming a reality of survival rather than a polite sideline.

But let’s spend more time on the glass half-full, shall we? Jesus prayed in his high-priestly prayer that we might be one. Wow, we’ve really screwed that one up. But we are in a time of opportunity. There are those that have talked about an “Ecumenical Winter,” since we as Christians don’t get mainstream recognition for ecumenical progress like we used to a century ago. No one is handing our Nobel prizes these days for ecumenical work. But I don’t agree with that. Dr. Tom Ferguson, AKA the Crusty Old Dean, has written that we are in an “Ecumenical Autumn”. (His articles are excellent on this, find the first part here.) This is not the dead time, it is the time for harvesting the rich fruits of the Faith and Order movement in order to prepare for winter (see glass half-empty) and then a spring.

Continue reading #MainlineSummer and the Ecumenical Autumn, by David Simmons

Mainline Summer, by Frank Logue

This summer, the Holy Spirit has been moving in and around the old mainline Christian denominations. During conventions of the United Methodist, Presbyterian, and Episcopal churches Twitter.com feeds for #dreamUMC, #dreamPCUSA, #acts8 and others such as #dreamCCDOC and #dreamUCC have talked about a new way of being the church. Each movement has grown out of unique circumstances and will result in different responses in different places, but it is hard not to notice what God is doing this summer.

What is holding us back from taking action within our denominations? What can we begin to do to incarnate the change we wish to see without the denominations’ formal backing? How might we be increasingly faithful to the Gospel?

The Acts 8 Mo(ve)ment — Suggestions for Next Steps

July 16, 2012
Adam Tambley

On of the most exciting and hopeful aspects of the Episcopal Church’s 77th General Convention was the Acts 8 Moment.  The initiative takes its name from the chapter in Acts of the Apostles when the church faced a great persecution and scattered out of Jerusalem.  The result was the spread of the good news to new people and places with great joy.  Three Episcopal bloggers, Scott Gunn, Susan Snook and Tom Ferguson, hatched the Acts 8 Moment idea after reading each others’ writings and thinking about how to move the church forward.  Two meetings at convention gathered dozens of people for prayer, Bible study, dreaming and discussion.  A video of most of the powerful completions of the end of the sentence, “I dream of a church that…” can be found here.

At the end of the second meeting, some time was spent brainstorming how to move forward.  Susan Snook has summarized that discussion in her blog, also posted here at the Acts 8 Moment website. Putting together the website (thank you Frank Logue!) was a big first step.  In the interests of continued brainstorming, I’d suggest the following as a framework for thinking about next steps for the Acts 8 Moment.

Hearing our discussions and thinking about what this group of people could add at this time, I would suggest three broad goals for our work:

Continue reading The Acts 8 Mo(ve)ment — Suggestions for Next Steps

The Acts 8 Moment: Where Do We Go From Here?

July 13, 2012
Susan Snook

The Episcopal Church is a gigantic ship, and surely turning this ship will be a monumental task. Yet a deeply hopeful General Convention created a mandate for change in passing the Structure resolution, providing my favorite moment of the whole Convention. As the vote was taken, the House of Deputies resounded with a hearty “aye” – and not a single “no.” Of one accord, every person present – nearly 900 people – agreed to form a Task Force that would lead a process of change. Then we stood in a standing ovation, cheering and clapping, and joined together in singing the hymn, “Sing a New Church Into Being.”

The Structure resolution was a good one: carefully drafted, taking the input of many into account, providing for an independent group that will not be supervised or sabotaged by current leadership structures that will want to protect their own standing and their natural inclination to say, “But we’ve always done it that way before!” This group is accountable only to the 2015 General Convention.

Continue reading The Acts 8 Moment: Where Do We Go From Here?

Eldad and Medad—an Acts 8 Moment

The following is a reflection of restructuring the church from outside the camp which was written by the Rev. John Ohmer for Center Aisle, a General Convention newsletter created by the Diocese of Virginia. The original article is online here: What If the Real Purpose of General Convention Lies Outside Its Structure?

The unanimous passage of the resolution to create a Task Force to restructure the Church may be the clearest sign yet that the real work of God takes place outside the official structures we’ve inherited. Indeed, the Holy Spirit seems to be most active and alive in what I’d call “Eldad Events” and “Medad Moments.”

Remember the story in the Book of Numbers about Eldad and Medad? God gives official prophetic powers to 70 people whom God has asked Moses to assemble at the Tent of Meeting. Two men, however — Eldad and Medad – have remained behind in the camp, and are not present when God commissions the 70.They prophesy anyway.

When someone complains about it, Moses says, “Don’t stop them – I wish that all the Lord’s people were prophets!” In other words, what God is doing outside the official structures is often every bit as important, or even more important, as what God is doing inside, or through the structures.

Continue reading Eldad and Medad—an Acts 8 Moment