Monday, November 24, 2014

Godspeed, Farewell, Amen!

I only met Jim Naughton once.
We communicated nearly every day for seven and a half years, and with increasing regularity before that.
But we only met once.
It was March 1, 2014. I was chairing the Special Convention of the Diocese of Bethlehem that would elect Bishop Sean Rowe, the Bishop of Northwestern Pennsylvania as our new Bishop Provisional. As President of the Standing Committee, it was my job to chair the meeting, oversee the election and along the way I would preach and celebrate the Eucharist. The Standing Committee had contracted with Canticle Communications to handle the press work and help us communicate to the people of our diocese why the Standing Committee chose to undertake this unprecedented arrangement.
So there I was, behind a table at the top of the chancel steps and there all the way in the back of the nave was Jim, laptop open, live tweeting the proceedings with Rebecca Wilson, also from Canticle. I had to stop and give a shout out saying something like “in seven years of almost daily interaction, this was the first we were actually in the same room.”
And when we got to talking during a coffee break, we were having such a good time that neither of us thought to get a picture. Not even a selfie!
It was appropriate that we were together in a Cathedral, during a church meeting, while history (or at least news) was being made. And it was appropriate that we never let a good photo-op get in the way of relationship. 
I write all this because today, Jim finishes up his stint as editor and chief cat herder at the Episcopal Cafe. I will miss working with him.
Back before there was a Café, there was the Daily Episcopalian, and before that was The Blog of Daniel. That first blog was meant to be a running commentary about a short-lived TV show centered on an Episcopal priest. There was a lot of buzz about this in the Episcopal Church, and I remember how people (including in my parish) were at the time grousing about all the little details the show got wrong. So I wrote a thing for my parish newsletter that said, essentially, that the point of the show was not for NBC to do our job of communicating the Episcopal Church—or the Gospel—to the world, but instead it was our job to listen and watch the show for what the culture is telling us about how they perceive us—what they think we are like—and what we can be—what the writers and producers wish we can become. These were actors, directors, writers and producers imaging themselves in our shoes and wondering what they’d do in our place.
Anyway, Nick Knisely, now the Bishop of Rhode Island, but then a priest in Bethlehem, passed the essay onto Jim and it went on the Blog of Daniel. Then I wrote a few things for when the Blog of Daniel became the Daily Episcopalian. Then one day I get a phone call about this idea of an online magazine for the Episcopal Church that reflected a progressive, independent voice.
Back then, there was a huge variety in the Anglican blogosphere (I know…I was one teeny-tiny part of that) and while there was lots and lots of opinion, there was only a few places that was gathering and reporting Anglican and Episcopal News with any quality or consistency. Most of them are still at it: Anglicans On-Line (the grand-daddy of them all), Thinking Anglicans, and Titus One Nine. The printed diocesan and national papers were dying fast. An attempt to start a news-gathering blog from the Episcopal Church's communication office (“Episcope”) showed much promise but was not supported and went away.
I remember the conversations that led to the Café. The vision was for something visually attractive, that covered news, reflected theologically, and fed spiritually. The Episcopal Café was born out of that. 
When Jim asked me if I could be a regular contributor to the Daily Episcopalian and one of the newsteam at The Lead, I was both thrilled and humbled.
I’ve had an attraction to journalism for most of my life. But other than dabbling on my high-school and college papers, I never really followed that urge. Working with the Café allowed me to get to know the Church on a whole different level, it has made me think, and it has made me listen. Along the way, Jim patiently taught our happy band of cub-reporters/bloggers…all of whom had other jobs and work to do…how to report and write on the fly. He taught us about fact-checking, and about how to distinguish a real story from mere rumor, and how to know what out there was worth passing along.
He let us try stuff: like the “Saturday Coffee Hour” where we’d gather all the little good news stories that were left in the inbox unused and summarize them on Saturday morning. And when the experiment ran its course, he helped us let it go.
He let us put up our very first April Fool's Day post, which has become something of a Café tradition. I like to think of myself as the unofficial editor of the April Fool's Desk at the Café. It's a tough job, but someone has to do it.
One thing about the Café that tickles me is our fanatical adherence to baseball. Even if the Episcopal Church is not really the official church of MLB, it was certainly the official sport of the Episcopal Café . Somehow, I think that fits that we at the Café keep tabs on the Church of Baseball while The Other Guys (you know who you are) follow tennis. 
I wonder what, Jim, the real journalist of the bunch, thought of all that ecclestiastical silliness.
We did get to do some real reporting…sometimes we ended up being the only reliable news that ordinary Episcopalians would have on the ground of what was going around them. Jim led the way with his investigation of the Institute for Religion and Democracy called “Following the Money” before the Café was born. 
Just when we thought that this job might not be needed any longer—that maybe with the daily battles that marked church life a decade ago largely over, our job was donethen came the blow-out between the faculty and the Dean/Trustees at General Seminary. For a while, the Café was the only consistent news-source following that story. Big papers like the Washington Post were linking to us! Jim led us through. Not bad for a bunch of volunteers who only met by IM, Tweet or e-mail. 
This surely demonstrated that the need for an independent news and opinion “paper” with a progressive voice has not gone away.
And when Jim decided to put out to the world that he was stepping down and put out a call for interested people--I must admit that this made me nervous--I was amazed to see what a talented and gifted group of people stepped forward and asked to take this on!
I am very excited and confident about the future of the Café, and can’t wait to see what happens when we go live with the new version next week. I am very happy to continue to do what I have come to love doing. 
But I will surely miss Jim at the Café and thank him for all he brought to me, the Episcopal Church and to the work of the Gospel.
God go with you in all you do, Jim!

Read Jim's two farewell blog posts on The Lead of the Episcopal Café here and here.