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Holding the center means holding onto Christ
Closing panelists say living in communities that practice Christ's ministry are key

By Mary Frances Schjonberg
[Episcopal News Service]  In order to be "strong at the center and soft at the edges," the panelists at the close of the Consortium of Endowed Episcopal Parishes' annual meeting on February 25 called for people to be in relationship with Christ and each other.

Speaking in front of the altar at historic St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Alexandria were Mark Dyer, former bishop of Bethlehem and currently systematic theology professor at Virginia Theological Seminary; Samuel Lloyd, dean of Washington National Cathedral; and Robert Willis, dean of Canterbury Cathedral.

"It is our responsibility to be the affirmative center of the Episcopal Church, rather than to be the passive center," said Dyer.

He then listed seven marks of congregations that have such a center, saying that they were all characteristics that reflect Christ's life and ministry. The first is a vital prayer life that can sustain people and organizations when they come to "apocalyptic moments" that bring them to their knees and are also "pregnant with revelation."

The second mark is teaching, and "we need to start with our children," Dyer said. He urged congregations to take risks and spend the money needed to begin teaching and forming children in faith.

Then there is worship, which Dyer said is the thing that unites all Anglicans and can keep them together. "We did not write a creed, we wrote a prayer book," he said.

"I see our worship as the choreography of how Anglicans celebrate identity," he said.

Strong pastoral care for all who come to a congregation is another mark. Dyer that early Christians were known for how they loved each other in their diversity. He cited the way Paul treated the "profound diversity" of the church in Corinth with love as an example of how to act.

Another mark of a strong community is how it reaches out in mission, he said. Echoing a call he said comes from former Republican U.S. Senator and United Nations Ambassador John Danforth, who is also an Episcopal priest, Dyer said it is time for Episcopalians "to speak out strongly and not allow others to take the initiative from us."

Dyer said the Episcopal Church needs to reach out to people in need not only by way of such ministries as soup kitchens but by "addressing the culture that makes [these needs] happen with the voice of prophecy."

He said that strong stewardship relates contemporary communities to the early Christian communities that shared their goods in common.

Finally, Dyer said, there is evangelism, and it will come naturally because if all the other marks are there "then I guarantee you won't be able to keep your mouth shut about what is happening in your congregation."

Such congregations will "have the face of Jesus Christ" while being diverse and thus will be at the affirming center of Anglican identity, he said.

Lloyd, who called himself the technician of the group, said the word community is his touchstone when he thinks about how to make Christianity mean more to people than an hour on Sunday morning. He said the only thing that can hold together "this dynamic, complex time" is communities that are "grounded in the common experience of God's love for us in Christ."

When he was rector at Trinity Copley Square in Boston, Lloyd said 1,100 people attended the 11 a.m. service and "it was a smashing hour" but that there were virtually no adult education programs and many people didn't know each others' names.

"The challenge was to create a living, breathing community of Christians who were learning what it meant to be Christ to each others," he said.

He used the Disciples of Christ in Community program as a means to do that. Participants learned about the Christian faith and had a profound experience of being in a small Christian community where differences emerge and conflicts arise and they are worked through.

That experience meant that when issues of human sexuality began to blow through Boston "like a gale force wind" there was "something there binding us together," he said.

Community, Lloyd said, is not about warm, fuzzy feelings. In times of conflict, previous experiences in community help people answer the question of whether "there is something holding me in this that is stronger than what is pushing away."

Willis said that not every member of the Church of England would claim the Anglican Communion as the center of their faith, finding the center instead in the ministry of their parish, but most understand that Anglicans are part of something larger. They also understand that the history of that membership has been one of "untidiness and fracturing and reassembling."

That disruption is caused by the "committed passion" of people who want to see things change, he said, citing Charles and John Wesley, whose reforming work in the Anglican church led to a fracture now called Methodism.

Willis recounted an exercise he once was involved in with other priests during a retreat at Windsor Castle. They were divided into groups and given seemingly disparate objects. The groups had to work together to make one thing using all the objects and so they had to talk to each other, and listen to outside voices who came in and suggested what meanings and values some of the objects held. The exercise frustrated some participants but Willis said when he hears the word "Windsor," he thinks of that exercise in listening and cooperation.

"No one has the total answer of where our value lies," Willis said. "We need each other."

When the panel moderator, James Cooper, rector of Trinity Wall Street, asked for a definition of "the center," Lloyd said the center is Christ and not any one image that anyone has about Christ. No one knows the complete truth about Christ, he said, and so people must listen to each other's stories of their experiences of Christ's truth.

Responding to a question about whether people are called to respect the dignity of every idea as well as every person, Dyer said he prays for the wisdom to understand other people's opinions and to be open to being converted by them.

Lloyd said he had a "more modest" prayer that he would recognize a "piece of the truth" in other people's opinions and stories so that he remembers that no one person knows it all and that all people, no matter their opinions, are members of the body of Christ.

Willis tempered those responses somewhat by saying that his job as the dean of the cathedral at the symbolic middle of the Anglican Communion requires him to be open to all and to be able to set some disciplinary order so that everyone is safe to worship and hear other people's stories.