Inquiring Minds Want to Know: Is Episcopal Cafe Dying?

By | October 1, 2020

Episcopal CafeFor years, the blog has been the go-to for progressive news, discussion, and engagement about the Episcopal Church and issues important to its members. But recent signs suggest that, much like the church as a whole, things are not going well for the publication, affectionately known to some as “e-Cafe.”

Is that the case? And if it is the case, what are the causes and what can be done? And why should we care?

Full disclosure: For many years I was a regular contributor to e-Cafe, covering topics ranging from change management, to clergy misconduct, to ghost stories within the church (just in time for Halloween!).

Purpose

Per the blog’s footer:

The Episcopal Café seeks to be an independent voice, reporting and reflecting on the Episcopal Church and the Anglican tradition.  The Café is not a platform of advocacy, but it does aim to tell the story of the church from the perspective of Progressive Christianity.  Our collective sympathy, as the Café, lies with the project of widening the circle of inclusion within the church and empowering all the baptized for the role to which they have been called as followers of Christ.

But that’s only a partial understanding of the blog’s purpose and role within the church.

The Episcopal Church, never good at telling its story, in 2019 eliminated all discussion and commentary on the already moribund Episcopal News Service (ENS). The decision to do so was justified by the cost and time of moderating comments and discussion — a move that, in true Episcopal fashion, was penny wise and pound foolish. Indeed, modern comment management systems make handling thousands of comments a day easy, with automated flags for profanity and otherwise inappropriate comments. Nor does the evidence suggest that the church ever bothered to consider enlisting volunteers — a move that, in itself would have increased engagement.

And while ENS publishes information on clergy disciplinary cases and other negative stories, the fact that it is published by church headquarters and only includes one or two articles most days limits its value, even to church loyalists.

Thus, Episcopal Cafe is the only independent voice for the church with a widespread following. And it’s the only meaningful forum for the free discussion and exchange of ideas, including the very necessary role of holding church leaders accountable.

History

Originally, e-Cafe was a publication of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington (EDOW). Produced and edited by then-canon for diocesan communications and advancement Jim Naughton, the blog was funded by the diocese.

Subsequently, EDOW decided to spin off the publication, apparently as a cost-cutting move. Even after his departure from diocesan staff, Jim continued to edit and produce the blog on a volunteer basis, helped by a loyal contingent of volunteers. Meanwhile Jim, a former reporter for The New York Times, Washington Post, and myriad other publications, had formed Canticle Communications, a highly regarded communications firm that does strategic communications, media coaching, and other consulting, often with a faith-based perspective.

Among Jim’s team members at the blog was the late Ann Fontaine, an Episcopal priest in Oregon. A former member of the house of deputies, Ann was known both for her amazing network and her work on behalf of the abused, marginalized and excluded. All who knew Ann, myself included, quickly came to regard her as a friend, and she was adept at asking insightful questions and otherwise engaging those of varying perspectives and beliefs. She also was amazing at supporting and engaging those who had been hurt by the church.

Over time, the blog amassed a loyal following, ranging from the beloved late June Butler to the amusing and colorful David Allen, known for referring to himself as “Dahveed.” My experience was that, as “regulars,” all involved shared a bond that transcended momentary disagreements.

Jim left the volunteer role of editor in 2014 and was succeeded by the Rev. Jon White, an Episcopal priest then serving in West Virginia.

In 2017 e-Cafe briefly hit a snag, when Nazi sympathizers connected with Charlottesville launched multiple denial of service and other attacks against the site. As a result, the blog was offline for several weeks. It came back online with additional security measures and, as a result, an increased need for income.

Ann Fontaine, who had been seriously ill for some time, died in May 2018, and was succeeded in her work by the Rev. Amy Haynie.

Jon White handed over the editorial reins in February 2020 to Amy Haynie and Tracie Middleton, both from the Diocese of Ft. Worth. 

Where are We Now?

Today, many Episcopal Cafe regulars are gone. Most notable is the absence of the late Ann Fontaine, whose thoughtful engagement encouraged respectful discourse on a variety of topics.Tellingly, Amy Haynie often writes for the publication, but rarely if ever engages in discussion.

Others regular commenters, like David Allen and JC Fisher, have simply vanished.

Some, like Helen Kromm, whose acerbic comments often align with my own thinking, are around, albeit on an intermittent basis.

Others, including this author, find that Episcopal Cafe isn’t exactly widening the circle of inclusion. Indeed, two pieces I sent to Amy Haynie were neither acknowledged nor published. Hardly encouraging.

Meanwhile, a number of trolls have surfaced, included Christopher Seitz, who can always be counted on for irrational, baiting commentary on behalf of GAFCON, otherwise known as trolling.

And while trolls are a fact of life in cyberspace, their continuing presence at Episcopal Cafe is jarring, particularly in light of the blog’s commenting policy, The latter states:

Our comment policy requires that you use your real first and last names and provide an email address (your email will not be published). Comments that use non-PG rated language, include personal attacks, that are not provable as fact or that we deem in any way to be counter to our mission of fostering respectful dialogue will not be posted.

Episcopal Cafe

The latter increasingly is being applied at random. I have had several comments critical of the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia pulled, even though there is myriad evidence to demonstrate that my comments complied with the policy above.

Others report similar experiences. Yet even that’s not consistent, for Helen Kromm has unleashed several well-deserved fiery broadsides at EDOW’s Bishop Budde—whom I like tremendously, but who all too often takes a pass when it comes to issues involving clergy misconduct.

In short, the mercurial approach on e-Cafe to managing comments, in addition to the lack of someone fulling Ann Fontaine’s role of engaging and promoting discussion, is proving profoundly detrimental to Episcopal Cafe. Moreover, I suspect the underlying issue is that the current team simply does not understand the importance of user engagement in this day and age of social media.

Nor have I shied away from sharing my concerns directly with Amy Haynie. Indeed, I emailed my concerns directly to her, only to get a typical Episcopal response to criticism: Deafening silence. That’s not only stupid and disrespectful, but it misses a tremendous opportunity to turn conflict into a positive outcome. (No doubt Amy believes that, in some manner, the Kingdom of God is coming. But how she expects this happen without any criticism or conflict is a mystery to me.)

Moreover, with the exception of John Chilton’s excellent article on the deplorable situation with the diocese of SE Florida’s Saint Andrew’s Residence, now uninhabitable for several months, the Cafe is almost never seen to question or call to account church officials.

Nor is e-Cafe keeping current. Indeed, the advertising page still lists Jon White as managing editor. While Jon is still on staff, albeit not as editor, it’s hard to generate enthusiasm, either among prospective advertisers or others, when you can’t bother to update the site with staffing changes.

In short, while it adds podcasts and personal spiritual reflections, as an independent source of news and a platform for engagement and discussion, Episcopal Cafe offers little not already available through ENS. Thus, in a day and age when social media reigns, and engagement is the name of the game, the Episcopal Church is regressing to a Madmen-era time warp in which communication involves little more than banging out press releases and media advisories.

Episcopal Cafe has lost its way.

What Next?

All of this begs the question, what next?

Much like a person with a substance abuse problem, the first step towards recovery is admitting you have a problem.

On this score, I don’t see any sign that Amy Haynie, or the church at large, recognize the importance of engagement. Indeed, the last edition of DioVA’s magazine, The Virginia Episcopalian, was published almost a year ago. Similarly, the diocesan blog hasn’t been updated since 2017. And five years later, we see no meaningful outcomes from the DioVA listening sessions on race, held in 2015.

But for the sake of argument, let’s assume that The Episcopal Church really does understand that it needs to engage with the world around it in order to have any sort of role in that world.

If that’s the case, there’s a real need for The Episcopal Cafe to get its act together. That means treating the platform as a national priority, and obtaining funding from the national church.

It also means:

  • Bringing in someone with expertise in strategic communication — like Jim Naughton — to assess the situation and map out a solution.
  • Recruiting additional volunteer resources, including several dozen regular contributors, editors, and moderators.
  • Developing and implementing a shared understanding of the commenting policy. Just because something is critical of church officials does not make offensive, mean spirited, or worthy of exclusion.
  • Thinking through the true meanings of inclusion and diversity. You simply cannot be inclusive and exclude critics.
  • Recognizing that the Episcopal Church is in dire need of change, but it cannot change if its decisions and actions are immune from public scrutiny and criticism.
  • Understanding that the church’s best friends may be its most vociferous critics.

Simply put, the Episcopal Church will not survive if it continues to persecute, in ways large and small, its critics. And if the church wants to turn over a new leaf, and wants to engage with its friends, its critics, and the world around it, there’s no better place to start than the imperiled Episcopal Cafe.

Jim Naughton, where are you when we need you?

Readers, what suggestions do you have for social media in the Episcopal Church? For Episcopal Cafe?

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