by John Chilton
Throughout the history of The Episcopal Church its Constitution and Canons have named the annual meeting of a diocese a convention. The Diocese of Virginia used that terminology until 1862 when it acceded to the constitution of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the Confederate States of America and adopted its terminology, Annual Councils. Editor of the Southern Churchman and member of the diocesan Standing Committee, the Rev. D. Francis Sprigg, reported the change in nomenclature was not well received, writing it was “very unnecessary as we think.”
Its reason for being removed, the PECCSA in 1865 reformed itself as a voluntary association, the Protestant Episcopal Church of Associated Dioceses in the United States. At its next Council in 1866 Virginia became the last Confederate States diocese to renew its ecclesial relations with the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America. The reunion debate was heated even though the option of being a lone diocese raised serious concerns over apostolic succession and the principle that Anglican provinces could not be subnational.
During debate of the reunion measure a partiality for the PECCSA terminology “council” was expressed. More significantly, retention of the term was promoted to sell reunion. The Church Journal, paraphrasing the Rev. Dr. C. W. Andrews, reported
Very possibly some declaration of settlement might be advisable, or for retention of the word Council, - the word Convention was one they all wished to get rid of. If this concession should be asked by the opponents of this measure, he hoped the Council would grant it. By supporting one another and conceding a little to one another, unanimity might yet be reached.
When the vote for reunion was taken the tally was Clergy aye 57, Clergy nay 9, Laity aye 36, Laity nay 11.
The same 1866 Council debated the status of African Americans in the church and adopted the following:
Resolved That whenever the colored members of the Church in any parish desire to form a new and separate congregation, such action shall have the sanction of this Diocese. They may elect their own Vestry, Wardens, and Ministers. They shall be considered as under the care of this Council, and their interests as represented in it by the Standing Committee on Colored Congregations.
The decision on whether to retain the terminology council carried over to the 1867 Annual Council. As reported by the Southern Churchman,
Mr. Tazewell Taylor, chairman of the committee, to which was referred what changes were rendered necessary in the Constitution and Canons of the Diocese, by reuniting with the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States proposed only the following:
That the word “Confederate” be stricken out and “United” be inserted in lieu thereof. He said there had been some conversation in the committee in regard to changing “Council” to “Convention;” but as it was not obligatory, and as the word “Convention” was a disagreeable one, and as he thought the General Convention would alter their title to Council, or something equivalent, the committee preferred to retain “Council,” and as it was the liturgical and ecclesiastical nomenclature, he hoped Virginia would have the honor of retaining the use of the word Council.
The report’s recommendations were approved making Virginia the first diocese of PECUSA to use the terminology. Virginia reunited on its own terms.
At the General Convention of 1868, Nebraska applied for admission as a diocese. Like Virginia, and by this time Minnesota, Nebraska used the term council. A debate spanning days ensued in the House of Deputies over whether any word but council was constitutional, with Virginia given as a positive unchallenged exception. Ultimately, the constitutional question died when the House of Bishops voted to admit Nebraska.
At the 1871 General Convention, the Committee on Canons reported “no action is expedient” regarding “such changes into the Constitution and Canons of this Church as may provide for the representation of minorities.” It also reported it “would be inexpedient” to change “the name of this body from Convention to that of Council.” Both reports were accepted by the convention.
Originally, Diocese of Virginia included the territories of the present dioceses of West Virginia, Southern Virginia and Southwestern Virginia. Upon creation as a separate diocese, each inherited the terminology “Annual Council” from the Diocese of Virginia. In 1956, West Virginia made changes to its Constitution and Canons: Annual Council was renamed Annual Convention, and the condition “of the Anglo-Saxon race” was struck from the conditions for election to Annual Convention. In 1949 Virginia had removed the de facto bar to African Americans in its Council, striking all references to “Colored Convocation” from its Constitution and Canons.
Today, the Dioceses of Virginia, Southern Virginia, and Southwestern Virginia still retain the name Council for their annual meetings. Altogether eight domestic dioceses of The Episcopal Church use terminology of Annual Council. In the 20th century, twenty dioceses switched from Council to Convention.
The Race and Reconciliation Committee of the Diocese of Virginia has submitted a resolution to Annual Council to study restoring the name Annual Convention.
Acknowledgement. Most of the details in this article are the result of the research of Julia E. Randle, Archivist of the Diocese of Virginia. All errors of fact and interpretation remain my own.
An abbreviated version of this article appeared in the Winter 2014 issue of the Virginia Episcopalian.
John B. Chilton is currently an economics lecturer at Virginia Commonwealth University. He is a member of the Committee on Race and Reconciliation in the Diocese of Virginia. A child of the diocese, he taught economics at the University of Western Ontario, the University of South Carolina and the American University of Sharjah before returning to his home state.