After Whirlwind Process, Convention Design Group’s Plans Secure Approval

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Episcopal Church leaders today approved plans for a shortened, streamlined General Convention with significant COVID-19 mitigation protocols. The convention will take place July 8-11 in Baltimore, where deputies and bishops will follow a tight legislative schedule that has the House of Bishops and House of Deputies in legislative session morning, afternoon and evening for periods of two to three hours.

There were no surprises in the meetings of the Joint Standing Committee on Planning and Arrangements or of the Executive Council, which both approved resolutions submitted by Presiding Bishop Michael Curry and the Rev. Gay Clark Jennings, president of the House of Deputies. The plans that were approved track closely with the details offered in three letters Curry and Jennings had previously sent to the church outlining the recommendations of the design group they assembled to make emergency arrangements for the convention after COVID-related concerns came to a head at an Executive Council meeting in San Juan, Puerto Rico in late April. [Read the letters of May 17, May 26 and June 1.]

At that meeting, the council approved funds for  the House of Deputies to hire a public health officer, and also held a session, which was at times emotional, at which members expressed their concerns about COVID protocols for the General Convention. After the meeting, some 12 to 15 percent of attendees reported testing positive for Covid, heightening concerns that the convention might become a nexus for spreading the pandemic.

Executive Council met in a special session called by five of its members on May 11 to discuss these concerns. At that meeting, Curry and Jennings proposed the shorter, smaller convention and proposed appointing a design group to develop plans for the gathering on a tight timetable.  The COVID mitigation recommendations of House of Deputies public health officer, Dr. Rodney Coldren, were largely accepted by the convention design group and recommended by Curry and Jennings.

Coldren led the U. S. Army’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic in Europe and Africa.

Under a resolution approved by the joint standing committee, there will be no exhibit hall, no Official Youth Presence and no gathering of Episcopal Church Women at the convention. Church-affiliated organizations are asked not to hold events and receptions during the convention.

Each diocese is asked to bring only one alternate deputy to Baltimore, and inactive bishops have been asked to consider staying home.

In addition to the existing vaccine requirement for General Convention, participants and attendees will be required to wear N95, KN95, KF94 or medical procedure masks at all times indoors, in the convention center, and common areas of hotels.

Attendees must also “self-administer rapid tests for COVID-19 before leaving home to travel to Baltimore; upon checking in to hotel rooms at General Convention; and each morning of the four-day convention,” according to the third of three resolutions passed by the joint standing committee.

Those registered for convention will be provided with five tests when they pick up their badges: one to use upon checking into their hotel rooms, and the others to use each morning. Masks will be provided to those who need them.

Bryan Krislock, co-chair of the design group and parliamentarian in the House of Deputies, told members of the joint standing committee that the committee took a data-driven approach to its work. The dates for the convention were chosen to minimize the church’s financial losses based on contracts with convention hotels, and in the hopes that meeting over a weekend might allow lay deputies to recapture vacation days that would have been lost if the convention met exclusively on workdays, he told the standing committee at a meeting held on Zoom at 11 a. m. EDT.

The length of the convention was set at four days based on Coldren’s guidance regarding the infection cycle of the coronavirus mutation that is driving the spike in infections in the current phase of the pandemic, Krislock said.

The design group has also recommended that the two houses of convention not hold joint in-person sessions to minimize opportunities for the virus to spread from one potentially infected gathering to another. Under this protocol, worship, scheduled for 8:30 a. m. on every legislative day, and the presentation of the church’s budget by Joint Standing Committee on Program, Budget and Finance, cannot be conducted in the usual fashion. The design group is working with the General Convention Office to make the necessary adjustments.

In revising the church’s legislative process for a shorter convention, Krislock said the design group had established June 6 as a resolution deadline so legislative committees could work through all resolutions online and arrive in Baltimore with no need to meet in person. Committee officers will work with the Dispatch of Business committees in both houses to prioritize their resolutions, and the dispatch committees will build legislative schedules. The design co-chairs, Krislock and Bishop Sean Rowe, parliamentarian of the House of Bishops, had previously outlined this process in a meeting with committee officers.

The design group is proposing that resolutions not considered at the 80th General Convention automatically be submitted for consideration at the 81st General Convention in Louisville in 2024. This would be the first time the church permitted a referral from one convention to another. Krislock said the group had proposed this innovation both to honor the work of people who had submitted and advocated resolutions that did not make the legislative schedule, and to save committees from deciding whether to rush resolutions to the floor to make certain they received a hearing.

At the behest of Byron Rushing, vice president of the House of Deputies and Bishop Eugene Sutton of the Diocese of Maryland, church leaders pledged to explore ways to minimize the financial effect of a shortened convention with fewer attendees on hospitality workers in Baltimore.

After the joint standing committee approved the three resolutions before it unanimously, the Executive Council met via Zoom a 1 p. m. to vote on the single resolution over which it had authority.

Much of the meeting focused on the financial impact of a shorter convention attended by fewer people. The church will lose roughly $1.1 million according to Michael Barlowe, General Convention executive officer and N. Kurt Barnes, treasurer and chief financial officer. The figure includes both losses in income from exhibitors, fees for failing to occupy a contractually sufficient number of hotel rooms and the $90,000 to $100,00 cost of rapid COVID tests, a vaccine verification app, and masks for those who need them. These losses are offset to some extent by the absence of the Official Youth Presence, savings due to having fewer churchwide employees on site for a shorter time, and other savings due to non-attendance.

In response to question from council member Patty Downing, Rowe said the design group was still working on how best to accommodate deputies or bishops who became sick toward the end of the convention and have to remain in quarantine in a convention hotel. Jennings wrote to deputies regarding her house’s nascent effort to support deputies who fell ill at convention on April 28.

In response to a question from council member Sarah Stonesifer Boylan, Curry said that presiding officers had taken the unusual step of releasing the dates the design group’s proposed dates for the shortened convention to the wider church before discussing them with Executive Council because they felt the need to give some guidance to deputies and bishops who would need to change their travel arrangements. “The reality was we were caught in a vise,” he said.

The new dates were approved by a margin of 97 percent to 3 percent, which indicates one member of council voted against the resolution.