Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Annual Council: A First Timer’s Impressions

By Joyce H. Williams, Epiphany, Norfolk

In early February, I join my fellow Episcopalians at the 123 Annual Council of the Southern Diocese in Williamsburg, Virginia.  For me, it was my first time.  Not so for my fellow traveling companions; all three had been several times before.  What an advantage this was, they were able to guide me in navigating my way through the conference. 

But for me, everything was new.  The setting was certainly inviting and conducive to warm and friendly networking; it was at the Williamsburg Lodge.  It was fun and educational to browse the exhibits—everything from jewelry to religious tracts.   However, when I entered the general room, I felt a special sense of belonging to this community; maybe it was the friendly round table setting; maybe it was the opening prayers; maybe it was singing hymns; whatever it was, there was a peace and comfort that passed over me.  Of course there where the traditional business agenda items to be dealt with:  the election of officers, committee reports, the discussion and passing of the budget, and the informative presentations on stewardship. The talk, talk, talk was occasionally interrupted by brief and lively videos that highlighted outreach work done in some of the parishes in the diocese. 

But the highlight of the Council was the keynote speaker, Diana Butler Bass.  The noted Christian scholar talked about the new spirituality in Christianity.  Since 1960 and what she calls the Great Awakening, there has become a new sense of harmony between God and nature.  A God that is less authoritarian.  A relationship between God and nature that is more supportive, more nurturing, and more empathetic. These ideas are elaborated more thoroughly in her published works, the most familiar of which is Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening (Harper One, 2012). This transformation means that traditional Christian churches must grapple with these changes.  A not so easy accommodation that she spoke to at length.  In conclusion she said that there is a shift from a vertical understanding of God to one as now part of us—not from above us.  A connection that she sees in the importance of the neighborhood and the human priesthood. 

I thought the speaker and her thoughts were just the right tone for a Christian conference—something to bring us together and give us food for thought  as we muster our courage and faith for the challenges that await us in our home parishes.  I am thankful that I got the opportunity to attend; and on a lighter note, I would heartily recommend the squash bisque served at lunch--it was appropriately “heavenly."