(This story has been updated.)
By Kirk Petersen
Church leadership has committed to significantly compressing plans for General Convention in July, but closed the door on the idea of postponing it altogether, during an extraordinary online Executive Council meeting May 11.
In the opening minutes of the meeting, Presiding Bishop Michael B. Curry declared “we are committed to holding the General Convention in Baltimore this summer,” but “that does not mean business as usual.” The discussion became a high priority after at least eight people attending an Executive Council meeting in Puerto Rico in late April later tested positive for COVID.
Details will emerge from the work of a planning group, but a clear consensus emerged that General Convention will be shortened, limited to essential business, and conducted with stringent safety protocols. Throughout the 90-minute meeting of what is essentially the board of directors of the church, not a single voice was raised in opposition to any particular safety measure
The Rev. Gay Clark Jennings, president of the House of Deputies, noted that it is “deeply sobering” to consider that in a large meeting, “some people, perhaps many people, will become sick” because they attend General Convention.
“There will be cases,” agreed Dr. Rodney Coldren, an epidemiologist and physician who has been hired as a consultant. He said it’s impossible to predict how many – “you have to throw a dart at a target on the wall” – but thought attendees should be told 10 to 12 percent as a reasonable estimate for decision-making purposes. “It allows people to calculate their own individual risk tolerance. He noted that 10 to 12 percent was the range of infection from the Puerto Rico meeting, where there were lapses in mask-wearing. With improved compliance and additional measures, “I certainly hope it would be much less than that.”
Sally Johnson, chancellor (legal advisor) to the president of the House of Deputies, explained that under the canons of the church, any changes to the timing or length of General Convention would have to be approved by the Joint Standing Committee on Planning and Arrangements; by the presiding officers (Curry and Jennings); and by the Executive Council itself.
Each of those groups essentially wields a veto power over changes to timing and length, she said. This appears to mean that Curry’s declaration that he and Jennings will not postpone the convention is a firm decision, unless they change their minds.
Jennings said that in an online survey of deputies and alternate deputies, fewer than half of respondents want to go forward with General Convention as planned, “more than 70 percent are willing to go forward in person in some way,” and only 15 percent want to postpone it. She said “a commanding percentage” favored measures such as forbidding eating on the convention floor and requiring daily rapid testing for all attendees. A smaller percentage favored a proposed ban on singing — “Deputies would rather sing than eat,” Jennings joked” — but said she strongly favors a singing ban.
Coldren confirmed that singing is a considerable risk factor — a fact that TLC highlighted very early in the pandemic.
General Convention currently is scheduled for July 7-14. Jennings offered a theoretical possibility of shortening the meeting to four or five days.
The Planning and Arrangements committee began an online meeting half an hour after the conclusion of the Executive Council to begin discussing details. There are a daunting number of decisions to be made: How will mask mandates be enforced? Will there be additional hotel capacity to provide quarantine rooms if necessary? Will vendors be permitted? (Previous conventions have featured large exhibit halls with dozens of organizations sponsoring booths.) How will the increased costs be paid for?
Curry summarized the Executive Council discussion for the committee, emphasizing that the convention will be held “to attend only to matters essential to the governance and good order of the church. We must do following the most rigorous protocols for health and public safety, as recommended by medical experts, and this means that the convention of necessity will need to be shorter in duration and smaller in size.”
“It’s hard to accept, but we’re not yet ready to have that great big family reunion that we’ve all been looking for,” Jennings said. The parliamentarians of the House of Bishops and the House of Deputies have been asked to convene a small working group “who will recommend to us the best way to hold a smaller, shorter convention at which we can do the work of governing the church. And we’re asking them to work really quickly.”
“We will get back to you as quickly as possible,” Barlowe said. The committee adjourned without setting a target date for a decision.
Curry said the General Convention must elect new officers for a variety of positions, including a successor for Jennings, who is term limited and will end her service at the closing gavel of the convention. The convention must also adopt a budget. Jennings said that some legislation cannot wait until the 81st General Convention in 2024, such as a proposal to reunite the dioceses of Texas and North Texas, and commitments to racial justice issues related to historical Episcopal complicity in the forced assimilation of Indigenous people.
The committee formally adopted a set of Guiding Principles to provide a moral and theological basis for making decisions, which read in part: “Because we follow Jesus in caring for the most vulnerable, the marginalized, and the under-served and under-resourced within our church and beyond, we will first consider the impact of the 80th General Convention on the physical and mental health, well-being and morale of its workers, staff, volunteers, officers, deputies, bishops, visitors and vendors.” The complete set of guidelines are at the bottom of this article.
The 11th-hour changes to the schedule will be enormously more expensive and disruptive than the November 2020 decision to postpone General Convention, which was made more than seven months before the convention was set to begin. Hundreds of bishops, deputies, staff, exhibitors, volunteers, media representatives, and others have booked airline tickets and hotel rooms. Those arrangements will have to be changed — but changes cannot yet be made, because the new schedule is not yet set.
The Rev. Michael Barlowe, secretary of the General Convention, told the council that the church did not need to forfeit any of its deposit money the first time around, because the Baltimore Convention Center and others agreed to apply the funds to the postponed convention. “But because we are no longer in an environment where the government is suggesting, or the CDC is suggesting, that meetings don’t take place,” the church will have less leverage in negotiations, he said.
“This certainly is going to have a huge financial impact, because we are within all the contractual periods of time already, the 60-day changes,” Barlowe said, speaking 53 days before the scheduled opening gavel. “And we’ve also made contractual obligations about the number of hotel rooms and so forth.” The church had a budget surplus of $6.5 million as of the end of 2021, due largely to decreased travel during the pandemic.
Dioceses generally pay to send their own delegations to General Convention, so some of the cost of changes will be distributed broadly throughout the church.
“It’s going to be hard for the Diocese of Maryland, but we understand,” said Bishop of Maryland Eugene Sutton, whose diocese includes Baltimore, and who serves on the Planning and Arrangements committee. “So many people — now, hundreds of people — have been involved in this, including volunteers who’ve already made plans to be here. You all understand that.” The diocese faces “about $25,000 already in commitments that we’ve made to local vendors, and that’s going to be really hard for us to absorb. We may ask for some help on that,” he said.
The council had an extended discussion about the possibility of moving General Convention online. Johnson and Mary Kostel, chancellor to the presiding bishop, told the council at its April meeting that the canons would not allow an online convention. They gave the matter renewed attention after the COVID outbreak.
“Reasonable people may disagree about what the canons allow — and that in itself presents challenges,” Kostel said in the online meeting.
“I don’t think it’s quite as simple as convening to suspend the rules, and then continuing [online],” Johnson said. “That would take considerable analysis of what the rules are now.” She added, “that’s not anything that’s contemplated in our current documents, and therefore it’s something that in our tradition would take some study, some discernment, and then all the appropriate drafting throughout the Constitutions and Canons and the Rules of Order. That’s something that could be directed to be undertaken for the next two years so that if it’s the will of the body of the church to do that, maybe pieces can be put in place so that some of that could happen in 2024. But this would be potentially a major — some would say theological discernment change — and needs thought.”
Council member Patty Downing from the Diocese of Delaware — who called for a reexamination of COVID plans at the April meeting, before anyone was sick — said it will be important to enforce safety rules. “When we met as an Executive Council, we had a mask policy that we were stringent at attending to — and then not at all,” she said.
“We obviously don’t want to get drastic in terms of expelling people, but if you come as a deputy, you’re agreeing to the policy,” Jennings said, describing it as a “covenant.”
Coldren, a retired colonel who led the U.S. Army’s COVID response in Europe earlier in the pandemic, said “in my experience, if you do things correctly, it will look like you’ve overreacted.” He added, “you may well come into criticism, if you do it right, for overreacting — when in fact it was your reaction that made it look that way.”
A previous version of this article misstated the results of the survey of deputies, and gave an incorrect title for Sally Johnson. The article has been corrected.