The EES Board recently participated in an extended reflection on the nature of evangelism, led by Board member the Rev. Canon Stephanie Spellers. Our context was Canon Spellers’ new book, The Church Cracked Open: Disruption, Decline, and New Hope for Beloved Community.
In it, she explores how decline in the Episcopal Church has led to a moment of cracked-openness, in pandemic and in the Black Lives Matter movement, that she compares to the Biblical story of the woman cracking open the alabaster jar and anointing Jesus with the expensive nard that flowed out. When something cracks open, Spellers says, our instinct is to put it back together, to save the contents. But what if we’re called to let it flow, out and all over everybody? To live into the cracked-openness?
Through a deeply engaging conversation, we explored how the understanding of evangelism that causes Episcopalians to cringe – the practice of forcing our beliefs on others, seeking their conversion, with disregard for their beliefs or context – is, essentially, a tool for advancing empire. This is apparent in examples of American colonialism, slavery, and immigration, as Spirit-led conversations in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement are beginning to make white church leadership aware. The deeply disturbing truth is that colonized Anglicanism is in our DNA; Canon Spellers’ book is a must read if only for a deeper exploration of this theme.
So, what does EES believe evangelism can and should be in the 21st century, and how does EES grant work engage and transform our grantees Episcopal evangelists? We believe that evangelism is rooted in the recognition that God is already present and active in the communities we engage, and that the evangelist’s job is to listen deeply to the stories that reveal this truth. From a place of mutual respect and understanding, an authentic Episcopal evangelism invites others into deeper life with God, whatever that may look like. The evangelist is willing to be cracked open, and transformed, by the stories they hear. And the invitation into deeper life with God carries with it the opportunity to heal old divisions and restore the church to a place that represents, first and foremost, God’s love for the world.
We believe that doing this work while in leadership formation will make all the difference in the kind of leaders our grantees become. EES invites our grantees to practice the kenosis – the self-emptying love that Jesus modelled – in projects that give them the opportunity to develop the spiritual practice of Episcopal evangelism. Whether a project is relatively simple and finite, such as sharing a series of conversations between very different people, or more complex and enduring, such as beginning a new ministry, the practice will prepare the grantee to represent leadership in a church that is centered in God’s way of love, as revealed in Jesus Christ.