This last weekend (December 4-6), dozens of Episcopalians came together in Memphis for a unique conversation about some of the new realities emerging in our Church. In well-organized fashion, Emergent Village and roughly 20 presenters, 10 sponsors and several organizers brought them together with 200 more attendees in a gathering advertised as “The Great Emergence.” At least 23 denominations and movements came to the Cathedral of St Mary in Memphis to explore what it means to be part of “Emerging” Christianity in the United States.
From the start, the event modeled a “both/and” approach to a wide spectrum of theological and liturgical sensibilities. Instead of reacting to the polarities presently plaguing American religions, participants were invited to well-planned events marked by a generous inclusivity, a celebration of differences and a commitment to focusing on what is working in (dis)organized religion. The organizers offered a multi-sensory approach to learning and sharing – calling on presenters and participants to move, to breathe, to turn towards each other and to take plenty of breaks. In fact, the whole event was a big “break” from the usual conference format! The leaders demonstrated a genuine ease with unanswered questions and unfinished dialogue.
During the conference, roughly twenty practitioners were invited to share what it meant for them to offer emergent ministry in their contexts. Presentations included video and Powerpoints followed by a speed dating style of Q and A where practitioners hosted a rapid rotation of small groups in interactive sessions. Much of the Conference’s energy was focused through the lens of Phyllis Tickle’s recently released book, The Great Emergence. Phyllis (and her husband Sam) added a sense of hopeful curiosity to plenary sessions exploring key questions such as, “Where now is our authority?” and “How do we partner with the work of the Spirit in a world no longer wedded to Modernity and its assumptions?” Phyllis repeatedly called on Bishop Mark Dyer’s image of the church hosting a giant “Rummage Sale” every 500 years – a sale where that which no longer serves the work of the Spirit is cleared away to make room for fresh expressions of ministry. Participants were invited to explore what the church might be letting go of, for the sake of new life. They were also invited to name their experiences of the dizzying chaos that such “letting go” has produced in their own particular contexts. Remarkably, the denominational disillusionment typical in these discussions was overshadowed by an energetic and creative exploration of new ministries and opportunities, within existing structures. Seminarians and their professors were simultaneously invited to explore dynamic theological education for the church of the future.
Instead of the usual exchange of business cards and passing of paper notes, there was a live Twitter feed on a screen near the Cathedral’s lectern so that participants could share their comments and responses publicly. Several presenters uploaded their presentations to websites for instant sharing with those who could not attend. Dozens of participants followed the live feed from around the world, joining into several of the Q and A sessions remotely. There was even the token Rummage Sale in the Cathedral’s Parish Hall where participants contributed kitsch ranging from vintage T-shirts and crystal “Praying Hands” to Elvis memorabilia! It was a fine match for the good humor underlying all of the conference.
Even though only seventeen visitors from around the country had registered for the “Mind the Gap” session that prefaced the conference on Thursday, almost 60 showed up on time and another 15 joined us later in the weekend. It was clear that there is growing an intense interest in stretching our denominational structures to make space for new expressions, especially among the largest contingency present – the Episcopalians.
Once again on Saturday, a loose gathering of these same Episcopalian Emergents gathered in the nave and committed themselves to spreading the good news of what is happening, especially in our Episcopal Church. They began plans for another national gathering in 2009, as well as regional gatherings in the meantime. For more information on the content and intention of this Anglimergent conversation, as well as to learn how this movement is gathering momentum, visit the online community at www.anglimergent.org.
Reverend Thomas Brackett
Program Officer, Church Planting and Redevelopment