What’s in a name?

For the past two days, I’ve been a lay delegate to the 220th Annual Council of the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia.  I’ve sat and walked, listened and spoke, wrangled and voted, reconnected with friends and made new connections.  All in all, it’s been a good experience with plentiful food for thought which I will dispense to my congregational peers later this morning.  While there is a bigger picture to my Council experience this year, there is also a small point of light that found me in the midst of the proceedings.  As I reflect on this small point of light, I realize that the lesson I have learned over the past 48 hours is to have observed the power of change by observing how much is in a name.

You see, Virginia is one of the few remaining “Annual Councils” of the Episcopal Church.  In this 220th session, we followed up on last year’s resolution to have studied the name of our Council and examine its historical legacy.  At this year’s Council, we voted (overwhelmingly, but not unanimously) to change the name of our annual meeting to “Annual Convention.”  This resolution will need to be revisited next year in order for the full text of language change to take effect.  Change is incremental.  But it is also filled with opportunity.

You may be thinking, “who cares.”  Trust me, there were ample numbers of people who I heard express that sentiment, either within my earshot or to me directly.  Repeatedly, they would say: what’s in a name, after all?

You can read the report of the task force formed to study the historic origins of the naming of Virginia’s annual meeting if you would like to take in the nature of the debate and the role of history and politics as it has played out in a founding colony, that became one of the original independent states, and later seceded to be the capital of the confederacy.   Virginia now has a reputation as a “purple” state, where elections on the local, state and national scene are filled with changes along political party lines.  Virginia has it all within our citizens, and it’s quite easy to faction along party lines.  Even the structure of our “commonwealth” leaves very little room for collective, unified voice and action.

So, I think it’s actually rather miraculous that a group of people across the political continuum (even within one religious institution) voted with enough strength to change the name of an annual meeting.  The small point of light I observed wasn’t in the politics, though.  It was in shared consciousness.

Some of what was heard during debate on the floor, as well as in side-bar conversations in the hallway, was that history was unclear about the direct relationship between the naming of the meeting and the establishment of the Confederate States of America.  I’m a scholar, so I realize there is truth in that assertion.  But, I also found opportunities to remind people that history tends to be written by those in power; Virginia’s oral history traditions of a formerly enslaved people often do not carry the same weight as the written and published history of its institutions.  Even what we presume is “fact” is filled with perception.  The history that we are writing in our proposed actions at this meeting has to do with reconciliation: the coming together of disparate groups with historical power differentials to re-establish relationship.  The new relationship must have opportunities to give voice to historical hurt, to promote healing, and to move together in a way that fosters growth.  Like any relationship of our lives, we cannot do that if the relationship carries hurtful baggage.  Even if we have been working side by side, there is power in a name that divides, rather than unites us. To reconcile, we have to recognize history while embracing a common present which we can all claim.  We have to recognize that differing perceptions comprise a common history.  Making a deliberate change, even a seemingly small one, can bring all of us into a common space where we can hear, and be heard, and move forward together in a spirit of mutual respect.

Reconciliation opens the door to grace and growth.  It begins with single acts that off-set the status quo.  Re-naming is not re-writing.  It is an act of reconciliation.  And that is the power of a word.

I didn’t need to speak yesterday, as the points articulated in this debate were expressed eloquently by others.  On the note papers scattered at my table were two quotes I had brought with me, in case I felt compelled to make a point.  One, from John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice:  “Justice is the first virtue of social institutions, as truth is of systems of thought.”  I realize that in my life, justice is an action step.  I have the mental capacity and fortitude to hear debates of theory and philosophy that contribute to systems of thought.  But, what matters to me is what happens in the living out of those theories for practical reality.  Justice requires us to embrace change, not because change reflects an ultimate truth.  But, simply, because it is our actions that can silence, repress, or harm others. Our actions can contribute to a perception of truth that is unjust.  Sometimes justice is holding the door open for both the more powerful and the less powerful voices to step through, together.

That’s what’s in a name.

I also carried my favorite quote, of course, from Paulo Friere’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed:  “Liberation is a praxis.”  Friere reminds us…reminds me…that what changes the world is not talk about changing the world.  It’s actual praxis…practicing, implementing, doing, revisiting, re-evaluating, continuing to act.  Change happens incrementally most of the time, although sometimes even quickly and with a flourish.  However change happens, it happens because we engage it.  Friere’s writings remind us that engaging change must occur not just with those who have the power, but also with those who do not.

I witnessed a moment yesterday, an exchange between two people.  One had historic power and one did not.  The person without historic power had stood to tell her story in support of the motion to change the name of the annual meeting, and revealed in her narrative the perceived power of the status quo to dis-empower her and others from full participation.  The person who had power…planning to vote to keep the name as it was…said, “You changed my mind. You spoke, I heard, and it changed me.” I thought to myself: perceptions have shifted.  Instead of debating, we are choosing to walk together through a different door.

What’s in a name?  The power to change.  In the single moment I witnessed, at least three people were changed: the two speaking, and the observer.  Liberation became praxis.

Maybe each of them will share their change with others.  I will write this blog, and hopefully people will read it and the power of reconciliation will continue to spread.  Each of us can make a choice for change.  There is power in change.  There is power in a name.  Changing a name: this is not a small action.  It’s a moment filled with the capacity for change and reconciliation.

Reconciliation: that is in a name.

About harasprice

Professor of Social Work and Priest in The Episcopal Church, parent, teacher, learner, writer, advocate, and grateful traveller along this journey through life
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