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A Congress that Dared the Unthinkable

Report on the First New Age Congress (Florence, 1978) (Part #1)

Printed in Transnational Associations, 1978, 5, pp. 266-270  [PDF version]
See also Emergence of Integrative Processes in a Self-reflective Assembly (Florence, 1978)
and Introductory statement reproduced from the congress programme

Strange happenings
Harmonies of dramatic process
Here-and-now focus
The 'Court' Jester and 'Foolishness'

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This is a report on an extraordinary international event which took place in Florence (19-28 February 1978) under the name 'New Age Congress'. The Congress was unusual in so many ways that any conventional report can only contribute to the pattern of reflections around the event rather than producing a neatly ordered overview. Consider the 'confusion' surrounding the following points which are normally very clear for any conventional gathering:

Organizers: The 'organising committee' changed its nature, function and composition every week or so, from its origin in 1977 right up to and through the opening of the congress. It absorbed new individuals, who moved to Florence at various times prior to the event, in order to contribute in one way or another. This process, and the associated conflicts, was a traumatic experience for all concerned - but an experience recognised and accepted (with much difficulty) as necessary to the refinement of the vision of the nature of the congress. In most cases those attracted together in this way had neither met before nor been members of the same association and yet they all shared aspects of a deeply felt sense of commitment to a common but undefined purpose. It was accepted that each such individual had something unique to contribute to the organising process.

Theme / Purpose ; The theme was only put into written form and distributed 7 weeks before the Congress and even then it was expressed in the most general terms:

    'We are coming together in Florence in February to explore, experience and celebrate human transformation. In that beautiful setting where flourished the first renaissance of modern times, the opportunity is being presented to facilitate and confirm the birth of a New Renaissance.

    You are invited to participate as a co-equal, co-creative delegate in the colloquia and workshops, to experience the many presentations and associated events of this World Congress, which should prove to be an historic and unifying event.

    The expansive work of all of the participants will be to consider the dimensions of the New Age, of the New Renaissance and of alternative futures. Participants will daily question, learn, congress and celebrate using the general principles of growth found in the processes and structures of Nature.

    Let us see with ever greater clarity that our planet is undergoing radical change out of which arises an impulse of creative synthesis. An all inclusive unitive power floods the feelings, thoughts, and motivations of attuned people everywhere, igniting a common vision of renewed organic earth. A new consciousness and the energy of a new dispensation for humankind is now emergent. The signs are everywhere. The pace of transition depends directly upon us. Wherever we are, there is that thing which it is appropriate for us to do, to hasten a new and better day'.

It is typical of the event, and of the attitudes of those involved, that the final introductory text used in the printed programme consisted of paragraphs extracted from a circular letter mailed independently by a person who had briefly visited the organising group in Florence -- after the above text had been distributed.

Finance: At no time did the Congress have a well-defined budget. The main source of income was composed of gifts ranging from $ 4,000 to $58 from 17 individuals, and loans ranging from $ 2,500 to $ 500 from 8 individuals. An early budget estimate was $ 400,000, and the Congress was finally held on a budget of $ 40,000. New sources emerged just before disaster could have struck. Typically the down-payment for the meeting hall could only be paid one week before the Congress opened. The other main sources of income were registration fees (at $40 per participant, plus gifts) and film rights. The Congress ended with $24,000 debts which had to be cleared by the same process of individual commitment. Many of those most committed placed themselves personally in debt to make the Congress happen.

Publicity: Circular mailings were first distributed only 2 months before the event. Publicity was severely restricted by shortage of funds for printing and postage, by lack of adequate mailing lists and by the well-known problems of the Italian postal system. Much was however accomplished by word-of-mouth and personal contact - despite the wider reverberations of the conflicts between those participating in the organising process.

Participants: At no period prior to the event itself was it at all clear how many people would be attracted to the Congress. Very early hopes were for 1,500, although it was believed by some that the event would be worthwhile even if only 60 people participated. The actual number was 300, of which over half were present for the full 10-day period. Oddly enough, although the majority of participants spoke English, the nationalities of participants were never a matter of interest. About 40% of the participants were of North American origin, although many were resident in Europe. Others were from most Western European countries and Yugoslavia with a significant number from the UK and Italy. The kinds of person participating are discussed below.

Results: The organizing committee deliberately abstained from any attempt to define the results, if any, which would emerge from the congress process. Considerable effort was however put into the production of a documentary film (by professionals acting in a private capacity) based on the Congress and its environment with the expectation of distributing it through TV networks around the world. The degree to which the film could or would reflect the actual Congress was hotly debated with the consensus being that if would serve a useful purpose without completely conveying what really occurred or what was most meaningful to individual participants at the event. The film itself only came about because of a considerable personal financial commitment on the part of those directly involved, notably the actress Diane Cilento.

It so happened that the finances precluded recording speeches (except occasionally as part of film-making). There was no desire to push for recommendations declarations or resolutions. A book was planned by one of the organizers, Gus Jaccaci, containing contributions of some key resource people present but this does not attempt to reflect the heart of the congress process. No rapporteur was appointed or desired. A number of individuals present, including journalists, planned to report on the Congress in the light of their own experience and note-taking. This is one such report. It is as partial and subjective as the other attempts to reflect what occurred.

such report. It is as partial and subjective as the other attempts to reflect what occurred.

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