For me, Virginia will always be a place of affirmation. Waves of grassy hills, crowds of towering hardwoods, and the clean blue sky affirm God’s renewing creation. And that’s just the view from one window. When I say “window,” I mean the 20-foot-tall wall of glass behind the altar in The Bishop’s Chapel at The Virginia Diocesan Center at Roslyn in Richmond. That expanse of pale blue dissected by a teal horizon with gradually swelling tree lines in varying shades of green was the backdrop for services at the 2019 Preaching Excellence Program Conference sponsored by the Episcopal Preaching Foundation. Fifty hand-picked seminarians and postulants from Yale to Sewanee, from Ontario to Hawaii gathered there this May 27-31. I came from the Iona Collaborative of the Diocese of Mississippi. Looking up from my prayer book in that lovely chapel, that’s what I saw. What I heard was no less affirming.
If you ever have the opportunity to worship with a group of seminarians and ordained clergy, take it. They sing robustly, on key, and spontaneously break into parts. Prayers and responses are joyful and earnest—like a shot of spiritual adrenalin. Worship leaders were equally compelling. Throughout the week, gifted bishops, deans, and priests from New Jersey to Atlanta set the preaching bar high. The keynote speaker was none other than The Rt. Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori, former Presiding Bishop and first woman elected as Primate of the Episcopal Church. Some include seeing Cher perform on their bucket list. Me, I’ll take the Right Reverend Jefferts Schori over Cher any day. But, then, I’m that kind of nerd.
By “nerd,” I mean a single-minded person proficient in a particular field, like a theological student who loves to preach. Imagine finding yourself in the company of fifty studious, optimistic, theatrical, creative, intelligent, spiritually deep, kind individuals passionately discussing the gospel, the psalms, the Hebrew Scriptures, big fat biscuits, social issues, grilled asparagus, the church, barbeque, sweet tea; the cafeteria was a happy cacophony of tinkling silverware, laughter, and passionate conversation. Accustomed to intensely rigorous academic work or juggling careers, family, pastoral, and clerical duties, we were free from deadlines and mandatory reading and relished in entertaining and informative lectures, playful and challenging workshops, and nurturing and insightful coaching.
A typical day included breakfast, morning prayer, a lecture, small preaching groups, lunch, another lecture, a workshop, evening prayer, dinner, and a final lecture. Faculty and lecturers included The Rt. Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori, award-winning writer on religion, culture and politics Jonathan Merritt, Sr. Miriam Elizabeth OSH, The Rev. Gary Jones of Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Richmond, The Rev. Dr. Brent Norris of St. Mary’s in Asheville, North Carolina, The Rev. Dr. Carolyn J. Sharp, professor of homiletics at Yale Divinity School, The Rev. J. Neil Alexander, dean of the school of theology at Sewanee, The Rt. Rev. William H. Stokes, Bishop of the Diocese of New Jersey, The Rev. Dr. Stephen Smith of St. Patrick’s Church in Dublin, Ohio, The Rev. Nikki Panton Mathis of St. Gregory the Great Episcopal Church in Athens, Georgia, and The Rev. Dr. Angela F. Shepherd of St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church in Atlanta.
We were asked to choose two workshops from subjects that include using poetry and poetic language, speaking on difficult topics of conscience to people of power, parish ministries, preaching on the fly, and preaching to different generations—a difficult choice, indeed. I chose poetry and preaching on the fly, two extremes. The poetry workshop was a meditative study of Emily Dickinson’s poem, “Tell all the Truth but Tell it Slant.” As calming and contemplative as the poetry workshop was, preaching on the fly was the polar opposite—both empowering and frightening. We were instructed to pick a reading from randomly assigned dates in the lectionary, read and write for ten minutes, then preach for three minutes. I did it, but holy moly—what a challenge!
All of the lectures were not only entertaining and informative but great examples of excellence in public speaking, ranging in subjects from “How Preaching has Changed Over Time” (Jefferts Schori) to a popular panel discussion, “The Worst Sermon I Ever Preached and What I Learned From It,” during which several faculty members shared gut-wrenchingly embarrassing and hilarious personal stories of the worst homiletic gaffes and blunders of their careers. If we take nothing else from this conference, we can all say, “well, at least I’ve never done that!”
The most nurturing moments, for me, were in our small preaching groups. We were placed in groups of six with an instructor. I was the only person in my student group over 30 (by 30 years I might add) and the only one whose theological learning is taking place in local diocesan formation rather than at an elite residential school. Each of us preached to the group and were given critiques by our fellow students and our instructor. I went first, thinking I had nothing to lose. But what a loving and informative experience it was! I learned, not only about how to improve my preaching, but how to listen—how to listen to criticism and how to listen well to a sermon.
When I received the invitation to attend this preaching conference, my initial reaction was, “who me?”—not unlike my reaction to my late-in-life call to the Diaconate. My journey to ordination and the sacred work beyond as a deacon is a challenge that I continually meet in faith and the work always affirms my call. The Preaching Excellence Conference was also a challenge met in faith. It has affirmed, in me, that I am called to do the sacred work of preaching, and that God has given me all that I need to meet that challenge. I did wish for just one more thing while there, though: more time to explore God’s beautiful Virginia.
– Written by Courtney Taylor, Iona Collaborative and PEP Student