By Kirk Petersen
At least three people who attended a four-day Executive Council meeting in Puerto Rico have tested positive for COVID, casting a spotlight on concerns about the much-larger eight-day General Convention scheduled for early July.
The Rev. Gay Clark Jennings, 71, president of the House of Deputies and vice chair of the Executive Council, reported on her Facebook page April 26 that she had tested positive and was having mild symptoms. “I don’t feel terrible, but I don’t feel great,” she told TLC.
Council member Julia Ayala Harris, 41, of Oklahoma said she has taken three COVID tests, only one of which was positive, but the at-home test kits warn about the possibility of false negatives. “I have flu-like symptoms” and am quarantining, she said. The identity of the third person has not been disclosed.
There are 40 members of Executive Council, a handful of whom were participating virtually. Including staff, visitors, and news media, total attendance was about 60. Secretary of General Convention Michael Barlowe said he had heard from about 30 of the people there (including me) who have tested negative.
General Convention is expected to bring 5,000 or more people to the Baltimore Convention Center for eight days of legislative sessions, July 7-14, with some additional activities before and after.
The Rev. Patty Downing, council member from the Diocese of Delaware, voiced her concern about General Convention at the council meeting. “What is the mission-critical issue of the Gospel of Jesus Christ that will occur at the 80th General Convention that is worth the risk? We have proven at this meeting and our previous forums that there are other options,” she said.
Virtual participation at General Convention, however, is not permissible under the canons and constitution of the church, “which I’m 99 percent sure after this General Convention will be looked at more carefully,” Barlowe told the council.
Current policy, as adopted in December 2021, requires proof of vaccination or a medical exemption for all persons attending General Convention, and mandates that masks be worn in all public spaces and meetings, regardless of vaccination status. That was also the protocol at the Executive Council meeting, and compliance was generally good, although Presiding Bishop Michael B. Curry did need to issue a couple of reminders from the podium.
Barlowe and Jennings both explained to the council that working groups have been developing contingency plans for the past few months, and more detailed information will be shared with the broader church “relatively soon,” Barlowe said. [Update: Information was issued in the late afternoon on April 27.]
“We need to tell people what we are doing to mitigate risk so that people can make their individual choices about what level of risk they are willing to take,” Jennings told the council. “There are deputies who are making decisions on a personal basis to not attend because of their own personal health status. Some dioceses are running out of alternates, so there’s some scurrying going on.”
She said she was not worried about having a quorum to conduct business unless there is a major outbreak. A quorum in the House of Deputies is at least one lay and one clerical deputy from at least half of the dioceses, and a quorum in the House of Bishops is a majority of all bishops.
“We believe that we can produce a General Convention that is as safe as possible under these circumstances. Lots of conventions have been held in the last year, and we’ve benefitted from a lot of other peoples’ experiences,” Barlowe told TLC after the outbreak became public. “The convention center has state-of-the-art filtration and electrostatic treatment of the air, and all the stuff that is now normal for events of this size.”
No council member has advocated postponing General Convention. “I think it’s prudent to let the presiding officers and the joint standing committee do their work, in consultation with health experts, in consultation with industry standards,” Downing told TLC. She said she has tested negative.
“With that guidance of public health experts, I trust the decisions the presiding officers would make,” Harris said.
And as council member Russ Randle said during the council discussion, “There’s no guarantee that it’s going to be any less risky two years from now than it is in July.”