Center Aisle convened a roundtable discussion Tuesday night as a follow-up to the work begun last week by the Acts 8 Moment. Seventeen people gathered to talk about what they had heard at General Convention; ideas for changing and reinvigorating the Church; and where they thought the discussion they have been having might lead.
“I would never have guessed, coming into this General Convention, that there would be such a widespread desire to rethink our Church,” said the Rev. Scott Gunn, one of the three originators of the Acts 8 Moment. “The fact that C095 (the resolution on creating a Task Force to restructure the Church) passed unanimously – when does that ever happen? … Honestly, it was astounding.”
The Very Rev. Tom Ferguson, dean of Bexley Hall and another co-founder of the Acts 8 Moment, agreed.
“When I was coming to this General Convention,” he said, “I confess to having some anxiety. On the one hand, I am pleased, thrilled, astounded. But I’m also realizing there’s still a lot left to do” concerning changing the Church. “The proof will be in the implementation.”
The Rev. Susan Snook, the third co-founder of the movement, warned that “change hasn’t happened yet. It is a hopeful moment. We set up the process for change. But we will see whether the system can sustain the change that we all hope will happen and what happens at the next convention. Right now, it was such a high today in the House of Deputies.”
Those gathered at the roundtable agreed that this convention was filled with energy, and talked about what to do with that energy.
“It’s like, ‘Yeah, let’s do it!’” said the Rev. Martin Yabroff, with the Episcopal Evangelism Network. “There is much less partisanship than I expected to find … there is fertile ground here. I’m not sure what the Lord will plant in it.”
The Rev. Jim Papile, a deputy from Virginia, wondered how those interested in changing and reforming the Church would help the leadership of the Church “understand that this is something that will not threaten them but empower them too.”
There also was discussion about how those who are what the Rev. Stephanie Spellers calls “margin riders” will deal with the “sea change” of having “bishops approaching them saying, ‘Tell me what you people are doing.’”
“The Church that did not know what to do with these prophetic voices, rather than shutting them out, is now listening,” said Spellers, a priest at the Crossing in Boston and co-chair of the Standing Commission on Mission and Evangelism. “And we’re saying, ‘All right, you really want this? Here we come!’”
The Rev. Terri Bays, from Northern Indiana, who is also at convention with the Episcopal Evangelism Network, agreed with Spellers. “It hit me,” she said. “What I have been witnessing – that there’s this willingness to roll up our sleeves, and I think, ‘Oh, we’re not on the margins anymore,’ and we have to make it work. We’ve got to build this new thing.
“We love this Church,” she said, “and we’re going to do what we need to do; do what it takes to make it work. I think there’s a willingness to listen, to say, ‘Oh, wait a minute …’ It’s really a beautiful thing.”
Papile told a cautionary tale of having been “around in the late ’60s and ’70s … [after a while] we flinched. Somewhere along the line, we thought [everything] was done, or we got distracted or something. The people making change got to a certain point in the institutional Church” and all forward progress stopped.
“How do you maintain the flexibility and that optimism?” Papile asked.
Gunn said that before the Acts 8 Moment held its first open meeting at convention last week, “I had a number of conversations with people asking, ‘What’s the agenda? What’s the plan?’ The plan is to get together and pray and see what happens.”
He said that what happens next is “maybe occasionally just gathering with complete openness and trusting that something will happen.”
Snook said that at that first gathering last week she experienced “a real deep longing for a different kind of church. I experienced a deep inner longing for something new to come. … It seems to be the right time for that to happen. Apparently, the same thing is happening in other mainline churches. It’s like the Holy Spirit is doing something.”
Spellers pointed out that the conversations begun at this General Convention mirror what is happening in many emergent communities. “Over there, it just popped,” she said. “There were people who had some skin in the game and were in a position to make a shift, and [there were] those margins riders. Those groups have merged and clearly something is emerging. What do you do? You link and watch it grow even further and the Holy Spirit does what she does. … Who knows what else is out there? It’s exponential what the Holy Spirit is doing right now. It goes way beyond” convention.
Discussing what to do next, Joey Rick, canon for congregational vitality in the Diocese of Washington, wondered: “In all of these conversations, has anybody talked about what they are willing to give up? We have to say goodbye to something …”
The Rev. Canon Paul Lebens-Englund, who serves on the Structure Committee, said that convention would be faced with that very question when B027 – “a gift from Bishop Doyle of Texas” – comes to the floor. “Essentially it suggests that we cut all of the standing commissions except two, Canons and Constitution, and Structure,” Lebens-Englund said. “We are well aware as a committee that this is a litmus test. It is intentionally provocative. … These are things we are suggesting are not helpful anymore. … There are a lot of sacred cows.”
The Rt. Rev. Greg Rickel of Olympia warned of how easy it is to “be drawn back into the institution.” Groups, he said, “become institutional after a while.”
The Rt. Rev. Eugene Sutton of Maryland agreed. He spoke of growing up in Washington, D.C., as a Baptist, where “everything was kingdom of God. It was Jesus. But then we would get out of church and be on the streets. And so what I’m about to say comes from living in the Kingdom but also living in the streets. Sometimes, to get things done, it’s the rule of the streets. … Sometimes, you have to do what you have to do. What I wonder about is that sometimes I think the Holy Spirit, in order to make it so that we are not too elated … forces us into the streets and to things as they are.”
Structures, he said, are necessary. “Unfortunately or fortunately, we only live in structures. We only live in systems. But no structure is going to bring in the Kingdom. We can think of new structures, and I hope we do, and it may be that some new things will emerge. But guess what’s going to happen? They are not going to work forever.”
What excites him, Sutton said, is that there are “newer voices in the Church saying, ‘You know, we want to do a mission enterprise zone kind of thing,’ and then us old fogies go, ‘You know, give them a million dollars and then we can get some things done.’ That’s what excites me. In the old structures, I see sprouts of green. We don’t have to tear the whole system down. We grow what we can in the cracks of that cement and see what happens.”
Bays agreed. “Part of what cracks that cement so those sprouts can grow,” she said, “is the insistent return to prayer. Again and again and again. That it’s only God in whichever person God shows up in that’s going to make that space so the sprouts can grow. That’s going to take hard-packed ground and beat it up. Some things are going to have to go away. Some things are going to be broken. And some things are going to grow strong and we’re going to have to graft on to it. We have to have willingness and wisdom to figure out which we’re being call to do in which place.”
The Rev. Otis Gaddis III, with the Episcopal Evangelism Network, wanted to ask, “What do we think the Church actually needs to move forward? What do we need to do to accomplish it? … There’s probably some concrete things we want to see, and to say those things and what we can do to make them happen. What are the resources in this room? How can we use the energy in this room?”
The Rt. Rev. Mariann Budde of Washington was clear that “the Episcopal Church is never short of vision and visionaries and really great moments. But,” she said, “what we lack are moments that build on each other into something that lasts. This feels to me like my life’s work. I don’t want to invest in [things] that don’t bear fruit somewhere down the line. I want to put my oar in the water with things that build upon each other.
“Yes,” she said, “it is messy and imperfect, but in some ways, it is coherent and strategic. … If the Acts 8 Moment is so powerful, how do we keep those things going? We talk and pray together.”
Gunn agreed. “We create these moments, ideas, and people,” he said. “One of the things that was great about” the Acts 8 Moment meeting last week “was where people described in one sentence their dream. Taken together, this is a vision of the Promised Land – if we were all those things that all those people said.
“Acts 8 showed us the Promised Land; how do we get there?” he asked. “The first thing we have to do is to let things go. … What if we say we are willing to give up everything except Jesus? It can all go. There’s the Promised Land, and we’re willing to go there. I know this is dreamy metaphorical language. But with that direction we can start to make concrete plans.”
The Rev. Canon Preston B. Hannibal, canon for academic and transition ministries in the Diocese of Washington, said that “one of the things that we don’t do … [because] we spend so much time on parishes that are hurting … we don’t lift up parishes that are doing really good stuff in our dioceses.” He spoke of parishes that are lay-led, “but we don’t lift those parishes up enough as models for other parishes, for what other churches can do.”
Ferguson said that “one of the more specific dreams was that Acts 8 might be that group that continues to call the Church to accountability for what it’s trying to do. One thing we learned from Exodus is that the fleshpots of Egypt start to look really good after a while. … There is still a whole lot of follow-up and implementation” that needs to take place.
Gaddis concentrated on the need for creating a plan for action, and spoke of the group with which he has been working that created a design “which is flexible and open.” It was a group of people, he said, “who have an interest in actually getting something done.”
“It was our sense that what is needed is to gather the missional people in our Church,” he said. “The first thing that needs to happen is really gathering and networking organizations … that can create the resources we want. And then there are the people. We are a church filled with community organizers. With evangelists. [we believe] that if they were all directed in the same course of action, there would be no way to stop the missional direction of this church.”
Snook agreed. “What I think you’re talking about is church planters and new missional communities. How do we turn people in our church from chaplains into missionaries so that we’re all missionaries, not focused on just taking care of each other? I would like to see somehow this become a movement that helps reawaken the spirituality of everyone in the Church.”
Lebens-Englund added, “I want to reinforce again what Susan is talking about. The reality is that we need to be grounded deeply in the work of the Spirit … if we can be a non-anxious crowd that is going to really trust that there’s room [in the Church], that’s powerful. There’s this notion of this new apostolic age that everyone is talking about. It means that you travel light, because your essentials are really basic. … To be that in the midst of all this would make a difference.”
Gaddis concluded that “whatever we decide to do will require organization .. the organization of the people of the Church. There has to be a way for us to basically have the scaffolding; that means structure among people, and among organizations not tied to the official structure of the Church.”
–Lauren R. Stanley
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The Acts 8 Moment will hold another gathering Wednesday night in the Indiana Rooms A and B at the Downtown Marriott. The meeting will be held at 8 p.m., unless there is a late legislative session. If there is an additional legislative session, the meeting will begin at 9:30 p.m.
Visit the Episcopal Evangelism Network online at episcopalevangelismnetwork.org.