This year, I decided to go to not one, but two clergy conferences. The first, at Camp Mikell for the priests of the Diocese of Atlanta, is an expectation of the Bishop of all his priests. The second, at Honey Creek in the Diocese of Georgia, was a chance to visit friends and participate in a totally different conference. Both of these conference were great opportunities to have some time of reflection and renewal, as well as reconnecting with my brother and sister clergy from all over the state of Georgia. I also learned a great deal, as is common when you do continuing education. Despite both conferences being geared to Episcopal clergy in Georgia, they had very different programs.
At Camp Mikell, we were joined by the Rev. Patrick Malloy, who is the chair of a task force of the General Convention to explore the formation of rites for same-sex blessings. Our next General Convention is this coming summer so this is going to be a big topic of conversation. Malloy took us through the development of the rite, but couldn’t show us the finished product. What was most interesting was how the conversation allowed all of us to explore the concept of marriage as a whole. How does our current liturgy for marriage line up with our theology of marriage ? Are the ways we prepare couples for marriage adequate? Should clergy be considered “agents of the state” at all? What does “blessing a civil union” mean? All of these were questions we explored.
The conversation made me realize that we at St. Nicholas should probably have a forum or two to discuss these issues before General Convention. No matter where you stand on the issue of same-sex unions, I believe it’s important to lay the issues out and hear from everyone. I made the comment at the conference that while this discussion is important for us as clergy to have, we have to remember that we live in Georgia, and in many areas of our state, the fact that we are even having the conversation is against what many Christians believe. If such a rite of same sex-blessings passes at General Convention and it hits the national news, we need to be prepared to answer those in our community who may have questions.
In addition to this conversation, I got to spend some quality time with some dear friends in the diocese. I even went hiking one afternoon with a few of my friends. You could have called us the “Hiking Priests!” We walked to the beautiful waterfall at Camp Mikell, and had some deep conversations.
Perhaps the highlight of the week was sitting around during the social time at night with fellow clergy and Bishop Alexander, laughing and telling stories. Those are the most important times for me as a priest at clergy conference to connect with our bishop in such a fun way. As excited as I am to be searching for our next bishop, I certainly will miss Bishop Alexander.
I was home for a few days after that conference, just in time for the fabulous Lobsterfest we all shared. Then, the next Sunday afternoon, I made the long trip down to southeast Georgia to Honey Creek for their clergy conference. I had some continuing education days and money left this year, and when I saw the topic of the conference “Preaching to Younger Generations,” I was intrigued. Plus, one of my best friends, Lonnie Lacy, who is the rector of St. Anne’s in Tifton, and I had been wanting to plan another camping trip. We thought we would combine clergy conference and camping, and then spend a few extra days camping after the conference’s end.
The speakers at this conference were Tony Jones and Bill Brosend. Jones is a leader of the “emergent church,” a new church movement that is developing throughout our country. Brosend is a preaching professor at Sewanee. I had seen Jones before and knew he was controversial. He is very critical of the “mainline” denominations, so I knew he would spark some interesting conversation amongst Episcopal clergy. Jones spoke mainly about the role of “preaching” in the emergent church, that looks more like a Bible study than your typical preaching. The emergent church is less hierarchical than other denominations, valuing the voices of all the members of the church. So their sermons are usually facilitated by someone, but is more conversational, where anyone can state their views. Jones took us through how they do this at his church, Solomon’s Porch, in Minnesota. Much of his presentation was rooted in how they do things at Solomon’s Porch, which wasn’t really all that helpful for many of us. Jones’ style is very confrontational, and he can come off disrespectful. This was apparent when he shut down some highly respected priests who challenged him.
Brosend didn’t really speak about preaching to younger congregations, but just gave us rules of thumb about good preaching. We got an opportunity to share our worst sermon moments and what we learned, as well as sharing stories of the best sermons we’ve heard. It was good to have some reminders about the craft of preaching, but overall, I was disappointed that the subject of the conference really wasn’t touched on at all.
Lonnie and I and a few other priests camped out on the grounds of Honey Creek, overlooking the beautiful creek and marshlands. The weather was superb for camping. One afternoon, I was packing food for our trip after the conference when I accidentally left a loaf of bread outside on my tarp. When I came back after dinner, the bread was gone, and I saw a raccoon munching on the remains. This only summoned a whole bunch of raccoons who thought they might get more treats later. Our campground, and especially my tent, was flanked by a bunch of hungry critters for a while.
After the conference, Lonnie and I packed up and headed over to St. Mary’s to catch the ferry for Cumberland Island. If you’ve never been to Cumberland, it should be on your to-do lists, especially if you enjoy camping. I will advise that you go in the fall, as the weather is not as hot, and the bugs are not as bad. Since I had never been there before, I wasn’t sure how much to pack. Some people had told me that if I didn’t get a campsite at the main camp, I’d have to hike 3 miles to another one. Because of this, I packed really lightly. However, there were carts there to haul your gear, so I could have taken much more with us. My back was cursing me for not packing my camping cot!
The scenery was like some surreal dream. Our site was amongst tall palmetto bushes and ancient Spanish oaks which seemed to look like upside down trees with the roots extending from the ground toward the sky. One tree’s branches even curved back into the ground and up and out again. I felt like I was on another planet.
While there, Lonnie and I simply enjoyed the silence and peace of the island. We didn’t do the exploring that many tourists do. We sat in our hammocks, read, talked, laughed, and just had a great time. I didn’t even see any wild horses, although I did see the evidence of their presence! One of the most glorious moments was when we went out to the beach just before a big storm. As we stood there, a huge rainbow emerged over the sky. It was really breathtaking!
I am so grateful to have the opportunity to use my continuing education days and budget to renew myself, to reconnect to God and my friends, and to learn more. Thank you all for the opportunity to spend the time away. The best part about being gone, though, is coming home, so I’m glad to be back with Molly, the kids, and all of you.