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A Gathering on Acts Chapter 8

posted Jul 7, 2012, 6:35 PM by Mel Soriano

One of the fascinating things about General Convention is the number of side meetings, receptions and gatherings that take place. Some are spontaneous, and some are pre-arranged. I attended a gathering that was organized by Tom Ferguson, Dean of Bexley Hall Episcopal Seminary, Susan Brown Snook, a priest from Arizona, and Scott Gunn of Forward Movement. Prior to the start of the meeting, I asked Susan what the meeting was about, she said she didn’t know, but a study of Acts 8 and discussion would be involved.

Dean Ferguson
Dean Ferguson stressed, “There is no agenda; we are the agenda. It is for those who love this church.” He opened the session with a collect that addressed God as Father, followed by a series of “he-he who he-he,” references to God. He then talked about Anglican Christianity and had a verbal hitch when mentioning Episcopalians. This felt like an afterthought. I wondered what was transpiring.

Ferguson has served the national church as ecumenical officer. He cited motivators for the discussion such as the end of Christendom and globalization. He is a church historian and readily offered that culture has adapted and molded the church while still preserving the essential core of the gospel.

Susan Brown Snook
Susan Brown Snook mentioned that the House of Deputies President Bonnie Anderson has called upon us to pray and meditate on behalf of the church. Snook is concerned that the same tired complaints arise that the church is shrinking, has no money, and is aging out of existence. She said that we would read part of Acts 8 that picks up after something bad has just happened. Interestingly, she did not initially mention that it was the persecution and stoning of St. Stephen, first deacon and martyr of the church. 

She also said that the Episcopal Church is not being persecuted. Did she mean it has nothing to do with persecution? The church is involved in addressing persecution through the Millennial Goals, as an example.  Individual members of the church are persecuted every day. I’m assuming her social location is that of a well-educated white woman, and I was trying to give her the benefit of the doubt. I found her statements to be curious but was willing to go with the experiment, at least for a while. 

The passage was about how all the followers scattered, except the apostles, and went out to the people to evangelize in Samaria, of all places, and to heal and to exorcize. And, there was great joy. We broke into small groups to discuss. People mentioned several things about the text that spoke to them:
  • There was an interesting juxtaposition between persecution and yet the description of great joy being present;
  • Persecution is not automatic evidence of wrongdoing;
  • It seems preposterous that the scattering of the church resulted in good things happening;
  • It took great courage to go out despite the persecutions that were led by the powerful Saul of Tarsus;
  • Just because you are afraid does not mean you should not proclaim the gospel;
  • The apostles did not do anything in this passage, the “laity” did;
  • Jerusalem was not the place to be.
Scott Gunn
We were asked to discuss when we personally have felt scattered, and when we have felt joy. For me, that was an easy answer. I’ve felt scattered by the church, closed out, and unloved, because I am a lesbian. I had to the leave the toxicity of a homophobic church to quiet the suicidal thoughts. I feel joy at this convention because TEC is taking historic steps for formal inclusion of LGBT people. The people in my group grew very quiet. Several were from historically conservative areas of the country. There were two supportive smiles, and the rest did not make any eye contact. I immediately started to think this was a grassroots effort of traditional Christians who are really uncomfortable about where TEC is headed, but perhaps feel it is not politically correct to say so overtly. 

To be fair, I have never met the organizers. But when a meeting is called under the auspices of no agenda, I think it is natural to listen for subtleties that would provide some kind of compass. I’m not sure it is possible for a group of human beings to be together without any sense of a purpose of direction. We are not wired that way. Perhaps that is a reason to do it.
However, I was very intrigued about the spontaneity of the moment. Tom, Susan, and Scott conceived of the idea that as Christians we can assemble and listen to the leadings of the Holy Spirit outside of the rubrics of liturgy. This is a marvelous notion, and I would say that the Spirit was present per St. Chrysostom’s prayer, “where two or three are gathered, God is in the midst.” What Spirit was saying was less than clear.

People were asked to state, in one sentence, their dreams for the church. Here are a few:
  • One can’t tell where the world ends and the church begins;
  • The church is not afraid to follow the Holy Spirit;
  • The church honors its past without sacrificing the future;
  • It is ecumenical;
  • It raises the dead;
  • Where people can sing their song;
  • The church is a home for all;
  • It is a church that takes a risk;
  • It says yes much more often than no;
  • Doesn’t say, “We’ve always done it that way;”
  • The average age is not 62;
  • It recognizes idols;
  • It lays its life down for the world rather than focuses on self-preservation;
  • Does mission instead of studying it;
  • There is no “I’m just a lay person” attitude;
  • There are no barriers to disability.
After this sharing, people broke into groups to begin “organizing.” Someone mentioned after that, the mood changed markedly. The emotional tenor scaled back to business as usual. I think it was a fascinating encounter in seeking the Holy Spirits as strangers together who are part of the body of Christ. It seems to me that the better next step would be to take the experience back to the home parish. Part of the frustration is about how over-orchestrated our business model feels at times. It has the ability to squelch our spirituality if we let it. Yes, it is orderly, but sometimes it just bogs down and the message gets lost or truncated.

Instead, like the creatures of habit that we are, we went right back into our default mode of groupings, meetings, and strategizing. There’s a saying, “People want change, but they don’t want to change.” There was some of that going on last night. There were good ideas, but there was also wandering and tacit expressions of feeling lost. Perhaps it is a wilderness time. Change is scary, even when it is the right thing to do. 

Perhaps this was an Acts 2 meeting where we were in fact speaking a common language despite a polyglot of language. There was understated confusion, fear, concern, and lack of direction. Perhaps this assembly will have the greatest impact by just talking about those feelings and sharing the experience of when we all get home.

by Marcia Ledford

A Gathering on Acts Chapter Eight