COVID May Prompt Major General Convention Changes

There will be no packed committee hearing rooms in Baltimore | Photo of 2018 hearing by Asher Imtiaz

By Kirk Petersen

In a whirlwind of consultations prompted by COVID outbreaks at recent meetings, church leadership is actively considering significant changes for the 80th General Convention, currently planned for July 7-14 in Baltimore.

The Executive Council — the governing body of the Episcopal Church between General Conventions — will hold an unusual special session on Wednesday, May 11, to discuss alternatives. The meeting will begin at 9 a.m. Eastern time, and can be monitored on the General Convention YouTube channel.

In an email to deputies and alternates, President of the House of Deputies Gay Clark Jennings said she has been advised by a public health expert that with rigorous prevention measures, “we could expect to hold our COVID transmission rate at about 10 percent of people attending General Convention.”

Jennings was one of at least eight attendees who tested positive after last month’s Executive Council meeting in Puerto Rico, April 20-23. That’s more than 10 percent of the roughly 60 council members and others who attended, despite requirements at the meeting for masking and proof of vaccination.

The measures being discussed for General Convention, Jennings wrote, include:

  • our planned vaccine and mask requirements
  • daily rapid testing of all attendees
  • a ban on food on the floor of the House
  • social distance
  • a ban on singing, even when masked.

These are the measures recommended by Dr. Rodney Coldren, who led the U.S. Army’s COVID response in Europe until his recent retirement as a colonel, and who has a master’s in public health from Johns Hopkins in addition to his medical degree from Albany Medical College. “He acknowledges that the best medical advice would be to postpone the convention, but understands that medical considerations are not the only ones at hand,” Jennings wrote. Coldren’s services are funded by part of a $50,000 budget supplement for House of Deputies health consulting, approved at the Executive Council meeting.

Additional options to be discussed at the upcoming meeting include postponing the convention until 2024; shortening the meeting to just a few days, with only bishops and deputies in attendance; amending the rules to permit a hybrid or online General Convention; and continuing as planned, with the expectation that more than 5,000 people would attend. Past General Conventions have attracted as many as 10,000 people, including participants, staff, exhibitors, media, volunteers, and visitors.

The May 11 meeting was scheduled under Title I.4.5 of the canons of the church, which provides that a meeting “shall be convened… on the written request of any five members of Council.” Such a request was made after a May 5 online meeting of the Executive Committee of the Executive Council (ECEC), a nine-member leadership team of the 40-member council.

“I think postponement is the way to go,” said the Rev. Mally Lloyd, a member of the ECEC who requested a meeting. Lloyd was elected from the Diocese of Massachusetts, and like all the council members who discussed the matter with TLC, she emphasized that she was speaking only for herself. She thinks the already-postponed General Convention has crucial business to conduct, but noted, “if it’s a convention of 5,000, that means 500 would test positive” if Coldren’s projection is realized.

She warned that church leaders might need to arrange to support multiple members quarantined in Baltimore hotel rooms. As bad as that would be for someone suffering from COVID, “now imagine that you don’t speak English, and you don’t have good health insurance.”

Council member Russ Randle, Diocese of Virginia, favors holding a shortened convention with “pretty stiff protocols” and front-loading the most important issues, including the budget, election of the next president of the House of Deputies, and certain legislation.  “This is like a mission trip,” he said, based on his experience on such trips to Sudan and South Sudan. He explained that everyone present will be there voluntarily, some risk will be involved, and people with serious health concerns can and should opt out.

He said there have been conventions during the pandemic in war-torn provinces elsewhere in the Anglican Communion, and “the hazards they run to get to their conventions are pretty harrowing.” Randle also said he was one of the eight people who tested positive and got sick after the Puerto Rico meeting, and returned to work for the first time on May 9.

Julia Ayala Harris of the Diocese of Oklahoma said she got sick after Puerto Rico, but has recovered and had multiple negative tests. She said she had not formed an opinion on what to do about General Convention, but felt it was important to have the discussion in a transparent way. “I think it will unfold before us on Wednesday,” she said. Jane Cisluycis of the Diocese of Northern Michigan agreed, saying “I hope I’ll have a clear idea of what should happen” after the May 11 meeting.

Harris was one of nearly 100 deputies who attended a Deputies of Color meeting in Baltimore while discussions about General Convention started swirling in earnest. She said she perceived “a strong desire to go ahead” with convention, taking precautions. Deputies of Color had postponed a planned meeting in March to provide pre-convention training and networking opportunities — and cut short the rescheduled meeting after a participant got sick with COVID.

Jennings declined to comment while actively consulting with various groups of deputies. Her spokeswoman, Rebecca Wilson, said she is still recovering from COVID and continues to experience fatigue.

In addition to the outbreak at Executive Council, an even larger outbreak occurred at a clergy conference in the Diocese of Pennsylvania. Episcopal News Service reported that at least 41 clergy members — out of about 150 — tested positive after a three-day, in-person meeting in late April. Bishop Daniel Gutiérrez said he had spoken with each affected clergy member, none of whom had severe symptoms or required hospitalization.

Episcopal Communicators, an independent organization of writers and communications directors, met in Savanah May 3-5, and insisted that attendees show documentation of a negative COVID test within 72 hours of the start of the conference, in addition to requiring vaccinations and masks. Conference members were told that two members were unable to attend after they tested positive — one of whom had already arrived at the hotel. Natalee Hill, who chairs the group, said another member had reported a positive test after returning home. She was not aware of any reports of serious illness, although she noted that the conference ended only a few days earlier.

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