If you’ve never been to a Diocesan Council or convention before, you may not realize the breadth of what it means to be Episcopalian. This past weekend, I, along with St. Nicholas delegates Peggy Martin and Michelle Moody, attended the 104th Annual Council of the Diocese of Atlanta. This is my third council in this diocese, but I have always been a lover of the gathering of the diocese even in my former Diocese of Georgia.

For those of you who don’t know, Diocesan Council is the gathering of all the “tribes” in one place to do the “business” of the larger church on the diocesan level. A “diocese,” of course, is a regional body of Episcopal churches. St. Nicholas is a part of the Diocese of Atlanta. The Council is convened by the bishop, the Right Reverend J. Neil Alexander, and representatives, or delegates, from each congregation attend along with their clergy.

This year, Council took place at the Cathedral of St. Philip in Atlanta again. As you walk into the atrium of the Cathedral, you are immediately met with hundreds of displays of the many ministries throughout our diocese. This year, i took special note to check out the displays of Cursillo, which is a spiritual retreat weekend for adults, and the Commission on Spirituality, which had lots of information on Spiritual Directors and other retreat opportunities. If you are interested in any of these, let me know, and I’ll pass on the information I collected.

Council itself runs like a large business meeting, but with lots of prayers spread all around. The first order of business is to vote on people for various positions of committees. We elected new members of the Standing Committee, aka the Bishop’s advisory committee. This year, we also elected deputies to our General Convention, which is our church-wide gathering of leaders from all over the United States and beyond. The General Convention is our primary leadership in the Episcopal Church, who set policies and set vision for the future of our common life together. We send 4 clergy and 4 lay people as deputies, along with alternates, and our own bishops to represent us. The Rev. Doug Hahn, who is the rector of St. Thomas in Columbus, was elected as an alternate, and will be attending the Convention in July of 2012 in Indianapolis. We also elected members of the board of our camp and conference center, Camp Mikell, members of the board of Appleton Family Ministries in Macon, a trustee to the University of the South (Sewanee), and members of the Ecclesiastical Trial Court.

In between voting, we heard reports from various committees and ministries throughout our diocese, including our own CVEM, Emmaus House, Church of the Common Ground, and others. We also honored Mrs. Lueta Bailey, who was one of the first female deputies to General Convention and pioneer of women’s rights in the Episcopal Church.

The Bishop then gave an inspiring address, which he does every year. I encourage you to take the time to read it.

After lunch, we gathered in various committees to review the various forms of legislation that was being put forth. These committees meet in break-out space and vote to recommend or not recommend the passing of resolutions and canons (laws). The important thing to remember is that canons are binding to our common life. Resolutions are not. If a resolution was passed saying that all Episcopalians should have the Episcopal shield tattooed on their big toes, you would see the mind of the Council, but you wouldn’t be required to tattoo the shield on your big toe.

Here were some of the legislative acts that were discussed and voted on:

1. There was a canon change to how Ecclesiastical Discipline happens. First of all, this was done at General Convention first, so our diocese is just getting our diocesan canons in line with our church-wide canons. This change allows for a more pastoral approach to dealing with investigations of wrongdoing by leaders in the church. This canon change passed.

2. There was a canon change on including all campus ministries, including those who are financially supported by the diocese and those not, to have representation at Diocesan Council. This canon change passed.

3. There was a resolution to create new Health Insurance Coverage policies. This resolution met with great discussion. In 2013, the entire Episcopal Church will have an insurance program that will be mandatory for all employees, lay and clergy, who work 1500 hours or more per year. Our diocesan policies will need to be aligned to reflect this change. The Bishop appointed a task force to see how this will affect our congregations. As it stands now, a parish does not have to go with the church insurance policy if there is a cheaper policy out there. But it is unclear right now how this will affect every congregation, because every congregation is so different and has different insurance needs for their employees. I did not vote in favor of this resolution because I was not convinced the proper research was done by the task force to see how it would affect smaller churches like ours. I preferred they wait a year, get the proper information collected, and then revisit this resolution. However, the majority won and this resolution passed. I expect we will have representatives help us determine what this will mean for my insurance.

4. There was a resolution to extend the task force which is looking at how to eradicate sex trafficking. Atlanta is a major worldwide hub for sexual exploitation of girls and boys. This task force is looking at ways to work with ministries in Atlanta who are trying to stop this awful stuff. This resolution passed.

5. There was a resolution to affirm the tithe as the standard of financial giving. Hint, hint, those of you who haven’t pledged. This resolution passed.

6. There was a resolution to further our education on diversity and anti-racism and that a task force be appointed to evaluate the current training and develop the program. This resolution passed.

7. Finally, there was a resolution to research parental leave policies in the diocese. As a young priest with kids, I signed off on this resolution to be presented at Council. The hope is to look at other diocese’s policies on maternity and paternity leave and see what kinds of policies our diocese needs to have.

Council also went over the 2011 budget of the diocese and approved it.

On Friday evening, we worshipped in the Cathedral, which is always a joy. We heard Dr. Bonnie Anderson, who is the president of the House of Deputies of General Convention, preach on environmental stewardship, which was our theme of the Council. After worship, Peggy, Michelle, and I went out for a nice meal, which is customary for us to do while we’re at Council.

So there you have it. You can see just based on all we did what kinds of things we talked about and what kinds of things we as a diocese think is important. Peggy, Michelle, and I had a fantastic time. I’m grateful for their service and for being great companions.

If you have any questions about Diocesan Council or how our larger church works, feel free to drop me a line!

Overall, I love Council because it reminds me that we’re not alone as Episcopalians. It may seem that way sometimes, but we are a part of something much larger than just our own parish. That’s comforting to know. I’m proud of our parish, our diocese, and our Episcopal Church. God does such wonderful and amazing things through all of us, and to God be the glory!

Jeff+