Episcopal Café serves up nourishing spiritual food online
Blogsite amplifies Church’s cyber voice.
What do Fenway Park, a blue and gold oil rendering of Our Lady of Good Counsel’s sacred spaces, international reaction to the Lambeth guest list, and reflections on William Countryman’s “Living on the Border of the Holy” have in common?
They’re all on the “menu” at Episcopal Café, a nexus that links the “Church of Baseball,” Heidi Shott’s reflections about the faithful in baseball and congregational venues, with Erin McGee Ferrell’s sacred art, spiritual commentary, and breaking news. It presents, hopefully, a broader view of the Episcopal Church and conversation about all of the above, says Canon Jim Naughton, the café’s founder.
A ministry of the Diocese of Washington in partnership with the Episcopal Church in the Visual Arts (ECVA), the café, http://www.episcopalcafe.com/, is the church’s latest effort at offering the faithful and seekers alike a cyber presence.
Naughton, canon for communications and advancement in the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, said the café is a four-blogs-in-one site, inspired by the diocesan blog Daily Episcopalian and a desire to tell the church’s entire story.
The “meat-and-potatoes” of the Daily Episcopalian was the news and commentary on the Anglican Communion, “for which there’s a pretty sizeable audience,” Naughton recalled recently. “At the same time, in my role as a media strategist I was trying to say there’s more to our church than this endless bickering over homosexuality. It occurred to me that what we needed was a site that gave a more comprehensive sense of what our church is all about.”
Naughton partnered with Episcopal Church in the Visual Arts (ECVA), and recruited more than two dozen bishops, priests, General Convention deputies, chaplains and bloggers as writers, editors and contributors, from the United Arab Emirates to Hawaii. The café, which officially debuted April 19, is linked to a number of diocesan websites across the country, and has logged about 5,000 unique visitors on an especially active day. Daily Episcopalian, meanwhile, had as many 8,000 visitors during its coverage of the February Primates’ Meeting in Dar es Salaam, Naughton said.
Visitors interested in commenting on the site may do so directly by e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. Those offering comments are required to register and sign all posts using a full name. “We think it is important that people take responsibility for their words, and we think that requiring people to own their words improves the tone of the conversation,” Naughton said.
Online text is complemented by artful illustrations and photographs, and a growing list of visual artists whose work reflects the mission and ministry of the church are included through ECVA. “Contemporary art and contemporary artists have an extraordinarily important role to play in how we proclaim ourselves as church in the coming decade,” said Mel Ahlborn, ECVA’s board president. “We are a visual society and so it’s essential that we as the Episcopal Church begin to proclaim ourselves visually,” she said, adding that contributing artists range from teen-agers to “deeply sage” years.
“This creative collaboration is a model of what can be achieved when Episcopalians work together,” said Canon Robert Williams, communication director for the Episcopal Church. “The café reflects the Episcopal Church at its best, and it is a place I like to visit again and again.”
Now, the Rest of the Story
The Episcopal Café’s four blog sites include: “the Lead,” which is devoted to breaking news about the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion; “Daily Episcopalian,” a blog of commentary; “Speaking to the Soul,” which features reflections, multimedia meditations, and excerpts from books on spirituality; and the “Art Blog.”
One photo, for example, reflects the church’s outreach to the poor and suffering, through agencies like Episcopal Relief and Development, and offers a more balanced view of the church, said Ahlborn, who started ECVA seven years ago with a vision to return the visual arts to a central role in church worship and community.
She also hopes to educate. “A lot of people don’t know what ECVA is, and the general impression is ’what do artists have to do with the church’? But, if they visit the art blog a few times a week, they’ll be exposed to a wide variety of fine art that has a well-integrated relevance to our life as Christian community.” ECVA’s Visual Preludes were featured at General Convention.
The café offers a balanced view of the church, says board member Carol E. Barnwell, communications director of the Episcopal Diocese of Texas. “It’s a place for new people to learn about the Episcopal Church and to see the best of it online. It’s wonderful for people outside the church to experience the openness, the diversity of opinion and the news in an objective manner instead of hearing one side or the other of an issue.”
Its content allows “for vigorous debate, which is healthy,” says contributor, news blogger and board member Dr. John B. Chilton, an economist at the American University of Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates.
Initial feedback has been mission-focused rather than issue-driven, he said. “What appears to resonate most are our reports on innovations in evangelism, the small ways in which parishes make a difference in their community, or the reflection pieces, be they on individual piety or living in community.”
Those are just the kinds of stories the Rev. Ann Fontaine, a General Convention deputy from Wyoming and café contributor, seeks during her weekly stint as news blogger, “things that might build up the body, the good things happening and ministry opportunities.”
At the same time, Fontaine and others say the café offers “a great collaboration of people who really love the church and yet are not uncritical about it, who are not afraid to say these are areas that we wonder about.”
Other regular contributors to the site include Bishop Steven Charleston, dean of the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts; the Very Rev. Sam Candler, dean of St. Philip’s Cathedral in Atlanta; Professor Deirdre Good of the General Theological Seminary in New York City, and Canon Howard Anderson, warden of the Cathedral College at Washington National Cathedral.
Washington Bishop John Bryson Chane also provides strategic support to the site, having been among its strongest advocates during the development and launch stages. “We’d be nowhere without his support,” Naughton said.
Cyber-Evangelism: the New Frontier
The Very Rev. W. Nicholas Knisely, dean of Trinity Cathedral in Phoenix, Arizona, who serves as technical advisor, board member and contributor, believes the church needs to maximize increasing opportunities in the online world.
“Unfortunately, there’s not yet developed a strong consensus among the elected and ordained leadership that the cyber voice of the Church is important,” said Knisely, chair of the Standing Commission on Episcopal Church Communication. “But I think we’re starting to have the tools in place, and there’s beginning to be the recognition that doing work in the cyber world brings great challenges, but also brings great rewards, allowing us to reach out to people who we normally wouldn’t be able to reach.”
Knisely added his concern about the elimination of churchwide advertising funding by General Convention 2006 in Columbus, Ohio. “I continue to be concerned that we don’t recognize the value of evangelism in the mass media -- having cut off all funding for advertising at the last General Convention,” he said. “I think our problems in cyber-space grow out of the same inability to be willing to take seriously our need to be evangelists in the places where people are gathering.”
What distinguishes the Café from other Episcopal blogs is a broad collection of contributors and artistic and spiritual content. “We want seekers who are looking for more info on our church to get a sense of who we really are, and what sort of ethos and aesthetic we strive to live into,” Knisely said. “Hopefully we’ll continue to see the best and the most articulate voices of the Episcopal Church publishing their thinking on the site. I’d love it if we could attract some conservative voices as well, and that may happen over time as we are able to show that we’re serious about trying to present the whole of the Episcopal Church to the larger world.”
Insider and Outsider Cyber Space: Where the Church Needs to Be
Although the café is still “in its early days,” Naughton foresees eventual inclusion of podcasts, video, and other multimedia to appeal to both tech-savvy youthful and more traditional audiences. “We are in very earnest conversations with a potential video partner,” he added.
“We’re trying to hold one audience while reaching out to the second one,” Naughton said. “We want people who are interested in fighting the fight on behalf of the inclusive church to feel this is a place they can find aid and comfort and, at the same time, we’re trying to reach out to a younger tech-savvy audience that might not yet be willing to step through the door of a church but is more than willing to explore the world of religion on the internet. So, it’s a bit of a trick, trying to reach the insider and outsider audiences at the same time.”
In some ways it is still unexplored territory, says contributor Heidi Shott, communications director of the Genesis Fund, a revolving loan fund in Maine that provides expertise and low-interest loans to nonprofits engaged in community development.
Shott’s recent post, “The Church of Baseball,” was inspired by a Fenway Park outing with her family. She compared love of the game with keeping the faith because, “the future of the church doesn’t depend on individual superstars or villains, any more than in baseball,” she said. “It depends on us just showing up every week and going out every week and doing our best to move our neighbor and live the Gospel.”
The café offers accessibility, Shott believes, like “a youth baseball game where people gather and talk about the real events in their lives, about what to do about an aging parent, or surgery, or some pressing deep consideration. I can’t tell you how many of these conversations I’ve had. I look around the group and say ’boy, they don’t know anything about the Episcopal Church, where are we?’ This is where the church needs to be.”
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