2022 in Review: The Episcopal Church

Bishop Paula Clark; parochial report results; Fr. Charlie Holt; Julia Ayala Harris ; background: 80th General Convention | TLC montage

The year in review for the Anglican Communion will be published tomorrow.

By Kirk Petersen

As 2022 began, it seemed likely that the 80th General Convention would supplant the pandemic as the dominant focus of TLC’s coverage of the Episcopal Church. But the pandemic reasserted itself, and fundamentally transformed GC80.

The triennial meeting of the church’s governing body, originally scheduled for July 2021 in Baltimore, was on track for the same venue a year later. The first warning sign came in January, when a meeting of the Executive Council was abruptly moved from Cleveland to Zoom because of the surging omicron variant.

The Rev. Patty Downing raises concerns about General Convention at the April Executive Council meeting | Photos by Kirk Petersen

The council subsequently went forward with its scheduled April meeting in San Juan, Puerto Rico. (Canceling Cleveland in January is an easier call than canceling Puerto Rico in April.) In the final plenary session, the Rev. Patty Downing, council member from the Diocese of Delaware, rose to question the wisdom of bringing 5,000 people to an eight-day convention that doubles as a huge family reunion.

“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?” she asked.

Her question proved prescient when eight of the roughly 60 people in attendance reported testing positive for COVID – including the Rev. Gay Clark Jennings, the 71-year-old president of the House of Deputies (PHoD). Suddenly it became clear that drastic changes were inevitable.

Less than two months before the opening gavel, the length of GC80 was slashed in half, from eight days to four. The huge exhibit hall for vendors was canceled, along with nearly all non-legislative gatherings. Financial penalties for renegotiating contracts make it more complicated and more expensive to shorten a huge event than to postpone it entirely, and the net cost to the church was estimated at $1.1 million.

Masks and daily COVID tests were mandatory for all attendees. Despite these measures, 34 people in attendance are known to have tested positive for COVID. A consulting epidemiologist said that without the precautions, he would have expected more than twice that number of infections.

Gay Jennings gives her final remarks as president of the House of Deputies

The most important agenda item at General Convention was electing a successor to Jennings as PHoD, the second-highest ranking officer of the church. Jennings was term-limited, and her expected nine-year tenure had stretched an additional year because of the pandemic.

Jennings served most of that time without compensation, as had every one of her two dozen predecessors. GC79 in 2018 overcame decades of opposition from the House of Bishops and approved compensation for the more-than-fulltime job. In an extended interview with TLC shortly before General Convention, Jennings said that vote marked the most important governance change during her tenure – but not because her own income went from zero to more than $200,000.

“Now that it’s compensated, the door is open,” she said. “Now it’s not just retired or people with independent means who can serve. The current slate, there’s deputies of color, it’s male-female, there’s a span of ages, it’s just terrific.”

Five deputies declared their candidacy in the spring, after confidentially participating in background checks to become eligible. The campaign that ensued bore no resemblance to secular politics.

Julia Ayala Harris of the Diocese of Oklahoma was the first to formally announce her candidacy in March, and she had the field to herself for more than two months, when the Rev. Devon Anderson of the Diocese of Minnesota tossed her hat in the ring. Anderson set the relentlessly positive tone for the campaign when TLC impishly asked if she wanted to talk any trash about Ayala Harris.

“No! Never! I love Julia,” Anderson said. “She’s a really good person, she’s really smart, she has mad skills, and I would never say anything bad about her, in private or in public.”

OK, to put it another way, why does Anderson think she would be better for the job than Harris?

“I don’t know if it’s better, just different,” she said. “It’s who’s called. To me, it’s about Jesus … it shouldn’t look like a United States Senate campaign.”

And it did not. The two candidate forums generated absolutely no conflict, and little disagreement on issues. The full slate of candidates included two women (one Hispanic, one white) and three men (one each Black, white, and Asian-American).

Newly elected: Rachel Taber-Hamilton and Julia Ayala Harris

Ayala Harris, 41, staked out a strong lead on the first ballot at General Convention, and emerged victorious on the third. She is the first Hispanic PHoD, the second person of color, the youngest in recent memory, and undoubtedly the first to give away her possessions at the age of 25 to move to South Sudan with her husband, where they spent three years working with religious agencies.

She was also probably the first to be elected while wearing braces on her teeth, a fact that caused her to smile with her lips closed for all her campaign materials. “They come off in 10 days,” she said with a laugh, when TLC asked to take a photo of the braces.

The following day, the Rev. Rachel Taber-Hamilton of the Diocese of Olympia was elected vice president of the House of Deputies. This means that the two senior officers of the house are a Hispanic lay woman and a female Indigenous priest. On the other side of the bicameral legislature, the head of the House of Bishops is of course a Black man, the Most Rev. Michael B. Curry, whose term as presiding bishop will end at the 2024 General Convention in Louisville, Kentucky.

In the House of Bishops, the most prominent issue was the eternal debate over revising the Book of Common Prayer. Spoiler alert: They didn’t. But the bishops did have extended thoughtful conversations, free of the acrimony that sometimes accompanied debate in 2018. Then as now, the subtext is an effort to include same-sex marriage rites in the BCP, instead of simply approving their use on a perpetual “trial basis.” Discussions will continue.

The Close at GTS, West 21st Street, Manhattan | Inset: VTS

The convention approved without opposition a resolution eliminating the last formal ties between General Convention and the financially struggling General Theological Seminary in New York. This paved the way for GTS to become essentially a subsidiary of Virginia Theological Seminary, the largest and most affluent Episcopal seminary. After an agreement ratified in late November, VTS now operates both seminaries. GTS will continue to offer master of divinity degrees through a “high quality, low residency” program, but seminarians will no longer live on the Manhattan campus. GTS had considered closing the school and selling its assets if an agreement could not be reached.

The General Convention ushered in a new class of Executive Council members, some of whom later helped lead the most aggressive challenge in memory to a decision made by the presiding officers. In an online December meeting the council declined, at least temporarily, to confirm the hiring of a new chief operating officer, who was not publicly identified but was known to the council members. A succession of new and continuing council members raised questions about what they perceived as insufficient concern for diversity in the appointment – an appointment made jointly by the Black presiding bishop and the Hispanic president of the House of Deputies.

The General Convention Office released the church’s annual parochial report results for 2021, showing a decline in average Sunday attendance of 35 percent – a staggering number that comes encrusted with caveats. ASA comparisons will not become meaningful again as long as the pandemic is warping the statistics, and until the church figures out how to account for online attendance, which would have offset some of the 35 percent drop. Plate and pledge offerings actually rose 3 percent in 2021, and reported membership declined by 3.3 percent, in line with prior years.

The year brought reminders that sometimes Episcopalians behave badly:

  • Two officials of the Diocese of Haiti were arrested on arms-trafficking charges.
  • The long-time leader of the Clergy Assurance Fund was accused of misappropriating more than $1.4 million intended for the widows and orphans of Pennsylvania clergy.
  • The priest who formerly ran St. Francis Ministries was indicted, along with a co-defendant, for allegedly stealing $4.7 million from the Kansas-based foster care and social services agency.

New bishops were elected in the dioceses of Idaho, Southwest Florida, Connecticut, Louisiana, Utah, Virginia, Ohio, and New York.

The Diocese of Florida held two bishop elections and chose the same candidate each time, but the outcome remains unresolved. After the Rev. Charlie Holt was chosen on the third ballot at the diocesan convention in May, procedural protests were raised by deputies and clergy opposed to Holt’s conservative stance on same-sex marriage. An ecclesiastical court found merit in one objection in particular, and said the convention should have been adjourned without action for lack of a quorum.

A second electing convention was convened in November, and the diocese, recognizing the level of scrutiny that the proceeding would face, retained professional auditors and a parliamentarian to oversee the second vote. This time Holt was narrowly elected on the first ballot. A new round of objections was filed and responded to, and the matter awaits referral to a second court of review.

Paula Clark was elected to be the 13th Bishop of Chicago all the way back in December 2020, but she suffered a stroke two weeks before her scheduled April 2021 consecration. Despite some lingering disability, her joyous consecration was held in September 2022.

The church said a final farewell to some good and faithful servants. In chronological order, they include:

  • The Rev. Robert Wright, long-time GTS professor and noted ecumenist;
  • William H. Folwell, the retired second Bishop of Central Florida;
  • The Rev. Louis Weil, prominent liturgical theologian who served at three seminaries;
  • Edward H. MacBurney, the seventh Bishop of Quincy, who in 2008 led a majority of the diocese out of the Episcopal Church over doctrinal issues;
  • Madeleine K. Albright, whose death in March came five months after that of another Episcopalian former Secretary of State who was born in 1937: Colin Powell.
  • David Booth Beers, who served as chancellor, or chief legal advisor, to four presiding bishops, and who for more than a decade led the church’s litigation strategy in property disputes with departing churches and dioceses;
  • Edwin M. Leidel Jr., the retired first Bishop of Eastern Michigan;
  • Peter James Lee, the retired 12th Bishop of Virginia, who “failed at retirement” by serving in half a dozen high-profile interim positions;
  • William Franklin Carr, Sr., a retired assistant bishop in the Diocese of Upper South Carolina;
  • Priscilla Jean Wright, the last living woman to have served as a deaconess – a title in use before women were allowed to be ordained as deacons;
  • George Nelson Hunt III, the retired 11th Bishop of Rhode Island;
  • Mary Adelia Rosamond McLeod, the retired ninth Bishop of Vermont and the first woman to lead a diocese; and
  • John H. Rodgers, Jr., an evangelical theologian and seminary dean whose unauthorized 2000 consecration as a bishop in Singapore sparked the Anglican Realignment movement.

May they rest in peace among the souls of all the departed.

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