By Kirk Petersen
After a single meeting, the ad hoc group appointed to consider pandemic-related changes has wasted no time in cutting the already-delayed 80th General Convention to a bare minimum.
There are many decisions still to be made, and nothing is official until the Executive Council meets June 5. But the presiding officers of both legislative bodies have approved a framework that includes:
- The dates of the Baltimore convention will be July 8-11, shortened from July 7-14;
- Attendance limited to “bishops, deputies, essential staff and volunteers, and a limited media presence.” No visitors, aside from “extraordinary circumstances”;
- No exhibit hall;
- No events or receptions (or at least, that’s the request — the church can’t unilaterally forbid events outside the convention center by church-affiliated groups);
- “We will ask each diocese to consider sending just one clergy alternate deputy and one lay alternate deputy, and to consider asking inactive bishops and other alternate deputies to stay home.”
The announcement was made late on May 17 by the the Rt. Rev. Michael B. Curry, presiding bishop and chair of the House of Bishops, and the Rev. Gay Clark Jennings, president of the House of Deputies.
The decisions may not technically be final, but “we have every confidence that our colleagues in leadership will receive them well,” the presiding officers said. When the Executive Council met online May 11, there was no pushback whatsoever to any of the possible precautionary changes discussed.
Bishop Sean Rowe, parliamentarian of the House of Bishops and co-chair of the Presiding Officers’ General Convention Design Group, spoke briefly with TLC near the end of a long and emotional day. Rowe is bishop provisional of the Diocese of Western New York, headquartered in Buffalo, and the community is reeling just days after a mass shooting at a grocery store.
“I’m going from the heart-wrenching and tragic to this,” he said, referring to the General Convention deliberations. “It puts a different perspective on things.”
Rowe acknowledged that the proposed changes are drastic. The presiding officers asked for “a shorter, smaller, safer convention, and we’re asking the church to live into that vision for the sake of the whole community,” he said.
“We recognize the scope of our authority, and we’re making the ask,” he said, referring to discouraging events and receptions. “We’re mandating where possible, and in other places we’re asking, and we’re hoping people will cooperate and this will be received in the spirit in which it is offered.”
“It’s heartbreaking on a number of levels, for the city of Baltimore and the Diocese of Maryland, who have been so generous throughout this process,” he said. But “this is the direction we need to go.”
Based on the revised dates, the church will have to renegotiate contracts for things such as food and beverages. “It’s going to be a significant expense to the church – not only for the issues with the contracts, but also COVID protocols while we’re there,” such as testing.
Asked whether exhibitors will have their fees refunded, Rowe said “we’re going to do our best to make it right… to treat exhibitors fairly, and we’re certainly going to refund all money possible.” Some planned exhibit booths are large and elaborate, and such exhibitors will have already spent significant funds in addition to the exhibit fee.
The design group will meet again the week of May 23 to make recommendations on specific COVID precautions, worship services, and medical support for infected people. Recommendations on the legislative process will follow the week of May 30. The number of resolutions considered will have to be winnowed down to those that are essential — a term that different people may interpret differently.
“Like many of you, we continue to grieve our inability to gather as a whole church this summer,” the presiding officers said in their announcement. “But even since last week, when we first made the decision to reduce the scale of the meeting, COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations in the United States have continued to rise steeply. Although we regret that need to make this decision, we are confident that we have chosen the right path.”
Correction: The church initially announced slightly different dates for the shortened convention. This article has been updated with the correct dates.