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Michael Kinnamon: ecumenism and media
have 'common cause' to promote community

New York, October 2, 2009 -- The General Secretary of the National Council of Churches, addressing the 27th annual Everett C. Parker Ethics in Telecommunications Lecture at Riverside Church, said this week that ecumenical and media leaders share a "common cause" to "promote a genuine sense of community" in today's fragmented society.

The Rev. Dr. Michael Kinnamon urged his audience -- which included the 96-year-old Everett Parker himself -- to help assure that powerful media are available to as wide a segment of society as possible.

"New forms of telecommunications offer an immediacy that transcends time and distance, but they also increase dramatically the gulf between those with access to such technology and those still deprived of even the basic essentials of life. Communications technology is not only reshaping the our world, it is also contributing to the increasing disparity within it.

Kinnamon also urged his audience to work to restore civility to the debate on controversial issues.

"When I was a professor at Eden Theological Seminary in St. Louis," Kinnamon said, "I would require students in courses on ecumenism to listen to Rush Limbaugh in order to experience the antithesis of dialogue -- caricatures of other positions and ideologically-driven assertions designed to feed a climate of fearfulness, to foster an us-them mentality that divides rather than unites."

The Everett C. Parker Lecture is named for the founder of the United Church of Christ Office of Communication, now led by the Rev. Dr. J. Bennett Guess, who welcomed guests to the event. As always, the lecture was attended by numerous leaders in communications in the church, industry and government, including Federal Communications Commissioner Michael J. Copps.

Edith A. Guffey, Associate General Minister of the UCC, hosted the gathering.

Parker, who has rebounded from a recent illness, appeared hale in the front row of the gathering. Earlier he told friends he has attended all 27 of the lectures in his honor.

Kinnamon, a long-time ecumenical educator, writer and administrator, noted that communications technology "is not my natural habitat," but he saw obvious connections between communication and ecumenism.

"Both the ecumenical church and the serious public media seek to promote a healthy community marked by free, vital communication," he said. "Such community, however, seems increasingly remote in our era -- and I think we have common cause in trying to identify and address those things which undermine it."

Using an example of imperfect communication between cultures, Kinnamon cited the exchange during the Seventh Assembly of the World Council of Churches in Canberra, Australia, in 1991 between Orthodox Patriarch Parthenios of Alexandria and Professor Chung Hyun Kyung, a Korean theologian who now teaches at Union Theological Seminary in New York City.

The Patriarch's presentation was grounded in the Apostolic tradition of the early church, while Chung's message took the form of a dance and the evocation of spirits of exploited women, "the spirit of earth, air and water raped, tortured and exploited by human greed," and the spirit of soldiers civilians and "sea creatures"  dying in the Persian Gulf War.

The two presentations split the Assembly, and Chung declared that theologies from the new world cannot be put in old wine skins.

"They were talking past one another because they lacked ever a shared understanding of what counts as evidence when making an argument," Kinnamon said. "Without this, true community is difficult to imagine."

In the media world, he suggested, it's also difficult to form rational arguments, and there are too many voices arguing.

"The recent death of Walter Cronkite surely reminded us all, as if we needed reminding, that there is no news anchor or reporter who today is regarded as America's 'most trusted' voice on contemporary events, no one who can form a natural sense of community and shared experience, as Cronkite did at the time of President Kennedy's assassination or the landing on the moon," Kinnamon said.

But true community does not require universal agreement, he said.

"Community can certainly be made up of those who disagree. In fact, if you assume (as I and most ecumenists do) that unity is a gift, then it cannot be synonymous with human agreement. But can community be fostered if those in it don't even agree on the criteria for communicating?"

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