From fears that important issues will be ignored to fears that rebooked air tickets will cost too much, concerns about the pared-down General Convention are widespread among deputies, even as they appreciate the safer environment.
Presiding Bishop Michael Curry and the Rev. Gay Clark Jennings, president of the House of Deputies, on May 17 endorsed a reduced schedule and list of attendees to better protect participants against the COVID-19 virus. While the recommendations need to be endorsed by the Joint Standing Committee on Planning and Arrangements and the church’s Executive Council, it seems clear convention will be shorter, smaller and concentrated on the basics of church governance, such as passing a budget.
“I am very concerned that important issues will not be discussed,” said first-time deputy Olive Swinski, from the Diocese of Rhode Island. “Enacting good policy requires time, compromise, and flexibility — all things that I believe will be restricted with a shortened convention. COVID has taught us that the world does not stop, and the Episcopal Church is restricting its ability to respond to a changing world.” She added that the planned COVID safety requirements “help me feel safe and confident.”
The Presiding Officers’ General Convention Design Group on Friday called a meeting for Wednesday with the chairs, vice chairs and secretaries of the legislative committees of the House of Bishops and the House of Deputies to discuss the legislative process. Both Curry and Jennings will attend, according to the design group’s email.
The convention will be held in Baltimore from July 8-11, with registration, already available online, opening on July 7, according to Curry’s and Jennings’s recommendations. That means both the arrival and departure dates will differ from the convention’s original schedule, in which legislative hearings were to begin on July 5, and the final legislative session was to be held on July 14.
Plans, including air reservations, will have to be changed, possibly at considerable cost.
“We are going to hold our deputies harmless, and that’s money we can’t get back,” said the Right Reverend Mark Edington, Bishop in Charge of the Convocation of Episcopal Churches in Europe. Deputies from the convocation will arrive from Munich, Paris, Geneva, Brussels and Rome. Besides, he said in jest, “What are we going to do with all this hand-out swag we bought?” There will be no exhibit hall or booths.
For first-time deputies, a shortened convention could mean missed opportunities to share and learn.
“From all I’ve heard about General Conventions past, there is a lot of community building that goes on and a lot of bridge building between far-flung branches of the Episcopal Church. I think losing so many of those community-building opportunities is a blow for the church, and I’m sad to miss out on them,” said Matt Roney, a first-time lay deputy from the Episcopal Diocese of Western Michigan. Still, he said, he was “very, very excited to be engaged in this work.”
The Rev. Kate Harmon Siberine, Missioner of the Episcopal Mission of Franklin and Rector of Grace Church East in Concord, New Hampshire, said she had regretfully decided, after consultation with her doctors, that it was not safe for her to attend. She is in her fourth month of fighting long COVID.
“I hope the appointed planning team will create opportunities for those who are not able to travel safely to participate remotely,” she said. “Convention has long been inaccessible to those who are unable to take the time off work, are solo caretakers for children or parents, and now, in the age of Covid, for us who are immunocompromised. I pray this will be a call to action for more equitable access both for Baltimore and all future conventions.”
Several of those interviewed said it was unfortunate that a way could not be found to hold a hybrid convention, with a portion online, as many dioceses have been doing for their own conventions since the start of the pandemic. Mary Kostel, chancellor to the presiding bishop, told Executive Council at its recent meeting that “reasonable minds could disagree” about whether the canons currently permit an online meeting, and that “clarifying” the issue would be helpful.
Others said the crucial thing was to ensure that the important business got done. This includes electing a new president and vice president for the House of Deputies.
“I’m not sure we can expect it to be the way we’ve been used to. It has always been a big church reunion or picnic,” said Warren Wong, a lay deputy for the Diocese of California, who is a member of Executive Council and president of Province 8. “We have to treat this much more like a business meeting and get important stuff done like constitution and canons, elections etc., so we are better situated for two years down the road. We have to compromise.”
–With reporting by Katie Forsyth, Hailey McKeefry, Kelly Sundberg Seaman and Dave Seifert