Cathedral's dean values Episcopal Church's 'via media'
The Very Rev. Heather VanDeventer, dean of the Episcopal Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist in Spokane since August 2018, believes the Episcopal Church's "via media" is a gift in today's divisive world.
"Via media" means the middle way or way between two extremes.
The Latin phrase is from Aristotle's philosophy and came into use when theologian Richard Hooker in the 1590s encouraged Anglicans to see the Church of England as a middle way between Roman Catholicism and Puritanism.
"Anglicans/Episcopalians see ourselves as neither Catholic nor Protestant but both. We are a creedal church, not a confessional nor dogmatic church, but a creedal church recognizing that additional matters of doctrine and dogma change over time," Heather said.
"To live into via media means to hold conversations," she explained. "The Episcopal church is a gift to the wider community where people are fractured and today often do not come to the table to discuss concerns."
For Heather, it means she is careful not to preach in a partisan way, but is aware faith is political.
"People came to church to seek refuge from partisan politics," she said, "but Jesus said things we see as political. Via media means inviting people into the center and conversation—to listen more than speak, hear more than debate."
Last spring, she led the adult forum on "Civil Discourse," a curriculum developed by the Episcopal Public Policy Network.
"People of faith have different perspectives on values about issues like freedom," she said.
She and other forum leaders also meet differences in the Bible study this fall—as some read the Bible from a literalist perspective and some read it from a progressive, deconstructionist perspective.
When looking to move from Alexandria, Va., Heather, who was serving the historic Christ Church, and her husband, the Rev. David Gortner, who was teaching at Virginia Theological Seminary, took the idea of a middle way seriously. They decided to look for a place that would be "purple" politically.
Having lived most of their lives together in "blue" regions in the West, Midwest and East—Chicago, Berkeley and Alexandria, they were looking for "a purple place, where we could seek to hold the middle in conversations." They sought to live into the via media Anglican commitment.
"We looked for a place in a purple zone, so we could look at different issues and bridge differences," she said.
After David's father died in 2014, they chose to come west to be near Heather's family in Post Falls and Salt Lake City, Utah.
Heather said that growing up Episcopalian in Salt Lake City, she experienced being a religious minority in a culture that carried assumptions of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-Day Saints, which is dominant there.
Her experience of interaction with diversity continued in her undergraduate studies at Yale University in New Haven, Conn., where her roommates were a woman from Texas with British parents, a woman from Beijing, a Puerto Rican Seventh-Day Adventist, a Reform Jewish woman and a Conservative Jewish woman.
Heather shifted from majoring in physics to medieval history.
"My sense of call came early. I was active in the church, singing in the choir, attending youth group and on the diocesan youth team," said Heather, who now, as mother of 14- and 16-year-olds, appreciates opportunities for their involvement in church life.
Her call to ministry was gradual and natural. She applied for the priesthood as a junior in college after discerning that her call was to teach church history and life as a priest in a church setting, not in a secular setting.
She graduated from Yale in 1994, graduated from Chicago-area Seabury Western Theological Seminary in 1998 and was ordained as a priest when she was 25.
After seminary, she was associate for six years at Wilmette, a surburb north of Chicago. She was responsible for Sunday school and youth, and was mentored by colleagues in the many aspects of parish life—preaching, worship, adult education and pastoral care.
While there, she married David, who earned a doctoral degree at the University of Chicago and was ordained. They moved to Berkeley, Calif, where he taught seminary for four years, and Heather was a stay-at-home mother, doing supply preaching.
Their next move was to Alexandria, Va., where she was a part-time chaplain and teacher at an Episcopal boarding high school, challenging students who had grown up in literalist traditions in the Southeast U.S. to think critically and with a new theological eye about the Bible.
After three years at the school, she returned to parish ministry at Christ Church, a historic church founded in 1773. George Washington had been on the vestry. The church not only drew tourists and presidents, but was active in outreach to the city. She served there seven years.
Heather was called to the Cathedral of St. John in Spokane. David recently began as priest at St. Luke's Episcopal in Coeur d'Alene. Although they had visited her father, who has lived in Post Falls 16 years, they had spent their time in Idaho and knew little of the cathedral or Spokane.
Heather appreciates how the cathedral is open to the community.
Many come to concerts the cathedral presents or hosts.
Along with being "an amazing space for music," the cathedral is open from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. weekdays for prayer and tours.
In 1924, Bishop Edward Makin Cross, the third bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Spokane, began his ministry envisioning a cathedral that would be a light on the hill. He combined St. James and St. Peter's churches with All Saints Cathedral downtown, and oversaw construction of the Gothic cathedral at 12th and Grand during his service as bishop from 1924 to 1954.
"The cathedral is open for the community," Heather said, telling of people with loved ones at Sacred Heart Hospital coming up the hill to pray. "Anyone is welcome."
The idea of being open to everyone is behind Yoga in the Cathedral, which a parishioner offers once a month. About 150 children to grandparents fill the aisles—the age range of members.
"Something holy goes on in Yoga in the Cathedral," she said.
Heather finds it in tune with U.S. Presiding Bishop Michael Curry's invitation "for us to walk in the way of love as we follow Jesus."
The cathedral will also be open to the community for a spring conference the weekend after Easter and before Earth Day.
"A Hope for Creation" will gather people to talk about the environment and the stewardship of creation. Heather sees it as an opportunity for different strands of Christianity with different understandings about care of creation to gather. The cathedral's Environmental Stewardship Ministry is partnering with Whitworth University to plan the event.
That ministry is involved in several environmental efforts. With Ponderosa Spokane, members helped replant ponderosa pine on the North South corridor last spring and had volunteers help water them during the summer.
The cathedral is also exploring ways to have solar power and changing out hundreds of incandescent and fluorescent lights to LEDS in the whole building."
To spread Bishop Curry's message of love, the cathedral invited him to be keynote speaker and preacher for the fall 2020 Diocesan Convention in Spokane. He will also give a public talk.
"We live in God's love," said Heather in a recent sermon. "We are the apple of God's eye."
The cathedral's community philanthropy and outreach express their love and commitment to justice. Four times a year, it hosts Family Promise for a week. Former second floor Sunday school rooms house families. Meals are in the guild room, which has a view over the city and valley, the same space where the Daughters of the American Revolution meets each month. Those diverse groups eat and are in community, using the same space at different times.
Other outreach ministries include West Central Episcopal Mission's weekly Dinner Table, a Community Garden, Meals on Wheels, Crosswalk meals and the Tree of Sharing.
Church Service League volunteers have operated The Windfall thrift store since the 1960s, serving the South Perry and Grant School neighborhood.
The cathedral locally supports Crosswalk, Shalom Ministries, A Cup of Cool Water, Daybreak Youth Services and Martin Luther King Jr. Center. Internationally, it supports the Stephen Novak Foundation for ministries in Nepal.
For information, call 838-4277 or visit stjohns-cathedral.org.
Copyright@ The Fig Tree, December, 2019