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Around One Table: Groundbreaking report showcases Episcopal identity

Thursday, October 8, 2009
A groundbreaking report that describes how Episcopalians look at their church has been released with plans for future use.

Finding that more unites than divides The Episcopal Church, the comprehensive report, called Around One Table, highlights the many attributes and feelings that are common to Episcopalians. "Around One Table is a multi-layered initiative designed to engage people in constructive conversations about the identity and mission of the Episcopal Church and how that relates to their lives and ministries," the report states.

The Around One Table report, along with videos and other useful information, are available at: www.episcopalchurch.org/aroundonetable

This first-of-its-kind report cites among the top findings: "Episcopalians passionately want their church to hold Christ as central and believe their church attempts to do so. Episcopalians see the Church both actually and ideally as a people of the book whose faith is united by and expressed in their Book of Common Prayer. Episcopalians view their Church as both aspiring to hold and successfully expressing a sacramental understanding of the Christian life and relationship with God."

"Understanding who we are is essential to knowing what our task is," said Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori. "Sometimes we sum up that quest for understanding as knowing ‘who we are, whose we are, and where we"re going." Around One Table offers Episcopalians an objective tool to use in discovering how the broader community of Episcopalians is answering those questions."

Especially important at a time when some are discussing division within the Church, Around One Table illustrates the many commonalities among members of The Episcopal Church.

"The findings are broad in scope, richly descriptive in content, and current in reflecting Episcopal identity as expressed by Episcopalians themselves," noted Dr. Mathew Sheep, assistant professor at Illinois State University and primary researcher in the Episcopal Identity Project. "When navigating the whitewater of change and the uncertainty that sometimes ebbs and flows around it, what is core to an organization"s identity is such a crucial foundation from which to build and grow."

Around One Table was sponsored by the College for Bishops and CREDO Institute, Inc., and is based on the Episcopal Identity Project conducted by researchers from the University of Cincinnati, Pennsylvania State University and Illinois State University. The Around One Table report was written by the Rev. Dr. David Gortner of Virginia Theological Seminary, and three Episcopal Identity Project researchers: Dr. Elaine Hollensbe of the University of Cincinnati; Dr. Mathew Sheep of Illinois State University; and Dr. Glen Kreiner of the Pennsylvania State University.

"Around One Table offers a mirror to reflect upon The Episcopal Church and its perceived identities," commented Dr. Timothy Sedgwick, professor at Virginia Theological Seminary and member of the College For Bishops Advisory Committee. "The breadth of perceptions--bishops, clergy, retired clergy, and members of congregation--offers an account persons will recognize as the Episcopal Church they know with all its struggles and diversity. A center, though, is clear: the Episcopal Church understanding of Christian faith as Christ centered, grounded in Scripture, born by the church as sacramental, mediated by the Book of Common Prayer, and creating a pastoral community."

Episcopal Identity

Based on years of extensive research, the primary goal of Around One Table is to discuss Episcopal identity. To that end, the research discovered 23 identity themes that Episcopalians used most often to describe themselves.

President of the House of Deputies Bonnie Anderson noted, "If we, The Episcopal Church, cannot articulate who we are, how on earth can we evangelize others? How can we possibly expect God"s Church to grow if we don"t have the words to explain ourselves?"

She continued, "How do we know if we are on the ‘right track" if we can"t say what track we are on? The Episcopal church is a complex organization, but just how complex are we? If the term, ‘Catholic light" is a default description that we sometimes use in explaining our identity as the Episcopal Church, then Around One Table is essential for reflection and discussion."

The report notes that Around One Table is a "mirror for those inside The Episcopal Church and a window for those outside" by exploring four major areas: how Episcopalians understand the identity and character of the church; ways that members identify with the church on many levels; how Episcopalians talk with and about each other; and how Episcopalians "respond to challenging issues."

Who was surveyed?

The multi-method study collected data between 2004-2008, based on 2569 surveys and 75 interviews including bishops, lay and clergy deputies, seminary deans, active and retired clergy, and laity.

The detailed breakdown of the 2569 surveys is: 92 bishops; 414 active clergy; 385 retired clergy; 674 lay and clergy General Convention deputies; and 1004 laity. The 75 interviews were conducted with: 22 bishops; 14 General Convention deputies; 18 lay and ordained leaders representing various positions and concerns; and 21 Episcopalians who have garnered media attention in the past.

Findings

Findings in this pioneering report include:

-"Episcopalians passionately want their church to hold Christ as central and believe their church attempts to do so.

-"Episcopalians see the Church both actually and ideally as a people of the book whose faith is united by and expressed in their Book of Common Prayer.

-"Episcopalians view their Church as both aspiring to hold and successfully expressing a sacramental understanding of the Christian life and relationship with God.

-"Episcopalians view the church as committed to sacramental and incarnational understanding.

-"The Episcopal Church gathers around the Book of Common Prayer as one of its core unifying features and most profound expressions of faith.

-"Episcopalians see their Church as holding multiple theological perspectives, both locally and broadly, and have a deep appreciation for this aspect of Episcopal life.

-"Episcopalians would very much like to de-emphasis any notion of their church as elite."

"Even among those who most strongly disagree with one another, there is some deeply held common agreement about core themes that are most central to Episcopal identity – holding Christ as central, ordering around the Book of Common Prayer and a sacramental life of faith, emphasizing scripture, holding incarnational theology as important, and being pastoral in response to life"s challenges," observed Gortner. "The findings also provide some exciting opportunities for deeper discussion about how Episcopalians choose to live and express what is most central, enduring, and distinctive about their shared Christian life and faith."

Uses for Episcopalians

"I hope that this material will be used to enrich conversations, guide theological and biblical discussion, help all Christians in the Episcopal Church become more articulate about what they believe their Church stands for, and encourage decision-making that takes into account the central versus more peripheral concerns of our Church," Gortner said.

Noted Anderson, "In the Around One Table report, the Church is presented with a springboard for conversation and reflection about Episcopal Identity."

Sedgwick agreed. "Around One Table opens conversations for newcomers to the church and old timers in the church. It holds the promise of creating deeper understandings of the faith shared in common and of making sense of areas of disagreement and conflict."

The Presiding Bishop concluded, "The findings of this study will be important in shaping understandings of identity and mission, as well as guiding formation for all Episcopalians. Conversations prompted by Around One Table have the ability to strengthen relationships within and beyond this Church as we seek to live as faithful members of this part of Christ"s body."

Additionally, the findings delineated in Around One Table will contribute to a larger overall communication strategy for The Episcopal Church

The Episcopal Church, with 110 dioceses in 16 nations, is a member province of the worldwide Anglican Communion.

The Episcopal Church: www.episcopalchurch.org

Around One Table: www.episcopalchurch.org/aroundonetable

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College for Bishops: http://www.collegeforbishops.org/

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