At Least We Don’t Have Yellow Fever: Why the 80th General Convention is so Special

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Welcome to a General Convention like no other.

The 80th convention of the Episcopal Church has acquired numerous superlatives, many of them due to the need to protect ourselves from COVID-19. This is the shortest convention, at four working days, in modern times and, at an expected 1,200 attendees, probably one of the smallest. More deputies resigned in advance than at any previous convention. At no other convention have attendees had to wear protective gear, in the form of N95-grade masks, and self-test daily.

The rules have changed regularly. Mandatory box lunches were off, on and off again. Child care, by contrast, was on, off, and on again. The COVID protocols were tightened significantly in May, barely two months before the start of the event. For the first time, the legislative-committee process was conducted almost entirely online, though the convention itself will not include online participation.

Carole Maddux, a clergy deputy from the Diocese of Atlanta attending her first convention, said being able to do her committee participation online was “a pleasant surprise.” And because she is bivocational,  the shortened convention allowed her to attend while using fewer vacation days.

The 80th convention is not the first to be postponed, as this one was, from 2021. The seventh convention, scheduled for 1798 in Philadelphia, had to be put off for nine months – because of a yellow-fever epidemic. Back then, the meeting probably didn’t have an exhibit hall, youth participation or a lot of inactive bishops; this one won’t either.

Douglas Oles, a deputy from the Diocese of Olympia attending his fifth convention, wasn’t happy with the COVID restrictions. “In most of our lives things have opened up but these convention rules are six months ago,” he said. “It used to be a chance to see people and mingle.”

Still, deputies and bishops will worship (though not together) and gather to do the essential business of the Episcopal Church. They will vote on a budget, elect a new leader of the House of Deputies, stay up too late, work too hard, make new friends and cherish old ones. They will take pride in taking part in the world’s biggest legislative body and freely admit they are ashamed their church has so much more to accomplish to overcome its roots in white supremacy (and vote on moving to rectify that).

The process of registering more than 1,000 people has gone smoothly and the iPads with the virtual binder are working just fine. No pigeons are expected this year and the hall is more comfortable, at least so far, than was the one in Austin in 2018, where sweatshirts were Episcopal de rigueur.

Jane Hsiu-Chih Ou, a deputy from Taiwan, traveled for two days to get to Baltimore and pronounced herself impressed. “It’s a great opportunity to meet everyone,” she told Deputy News. “I feel it is so organized.”

In the midst of all the changes, some things remained the same. The convention began with a morning Eucharist with Presiding Bishop Michael Curry preaching—although the sermon was recorded on Thursday, and the recording was played today in both houses.

Olive Swinski, a deputy from the Diocese of Rhode Island attending her first convention, said she was nervous, but would have been so even without all the confusion and rule changes. “It is daunting no matter what,” she said. “We’ll just do our best.”