At its final meeting before this summer’s General Convention, the Episcopal Church’s Executive Council allocated up to $50,000 to allow House of Deputies President Gay Clark Jennings to contract with a public health expert to advise her and the house leadership “on protocol and procedures” for General Convention.
If needed, the funds also may be used to purchase resources such as masks or testing supplies. (See complete language below.)
The need to take extreme care in public health matters at the convention was underscored in the immediate aftermath of the council meeting in San Juan, Puerto Rico, when Jennings and four other members of council disclosed that they had tested positive for the COVID-19 virus or were experiencing symptoms.
“I give thanks for the masks, vaccines and antiviral treatments that are saving so many lives at this stage in the pandemic, and I urge everyone who is eligible to get vaccinated and boosted so we can all stay safe,” said Jennings in a Facebook post. She described her symptoms as “mild,” and said her husband, the Rev. Albert Jennings, had tested negative.
Executive Council approved the resolution for additional funding on April 23, the day after holding an extended, unscheduled plenary discussion about concerns related to holding the convention during a pandemic.
Deputy Patty Downing, an Executive Council member from the Diocese of Delaware, opened the conversation with a point of personal privilege in which she said, “Bishop Curry in his address to Executive Council used the phrase ‘mind the gap’ and charged us to recommit ourselves to the work of confronting privilege and caring for the most vulnerable. I think that a ‘gap’ exists between many parts of our church as relates to the risks associated with Covid. For example, [Deputy] Cornelia [Eaton] mentioned that the church in Navajoland is not permitted to gather in groups larger than 25. Yet we are asking their leadership to gather with a group of 5,000-plus for nine days.
“If the health and welfare of our members, including the most vulnerable, is one of our top priorities,” she added, “how is holding a meeting where there may be an outbreak, in keeping with that priority? How is it caring for the marginalized?”
The Council’s Joint Standing Committee on Finance first considered Jennings’s request for the funds on April 20; in that meeting, Jennings cited questions and concerns that deputies have expressed to her. “Not all deputies have health insurance or access to financial resources if they become sick or have to quarantine in Baltimore after the close of General Convention,” she said. “In addition, our Rules of Order also allow nursing parents to bring their young children on the floor of the House of Deputies. We need advice about how to handle these issues in our house.”
Alternate Deputy Diane Pollard, a council member from the Diocese of New York, supported Jennings’ request. “This is smart— we need to do this,” she said. “People in my deputation are asking — are we going? We need to make this as safe as possible for people and we need to spend whatever it costs to do it.”
In the same meeting, Deputy Eaton urged her colleagues on the council to be aware of the anxiety caused by new variants of the COVID-19 virus, and to be mindful of the potential for future spikes in the rate of infections. “I read in my tribal newspaper that cases go up after holidays, and we have to consider that, because we’re flying on July 4,” she said.
During the plenary discussion, Jennings described the work of a scenario planning group she and the Presiding Bishop first brought together nearly two years ago.
“In early 2022, that group resumed work and developed a set of guiding principles about how we will make decisions,” she explained. “I hope the guidelines will be shared with the whole church as soon as the Joint Standing Committee on Planning and Arrangements meets.” That committee, which last met on April 6, is chaired by General Convention Executive Officer Michael Barlowe.
Barlowe noted that steps have been taken to allow for physical distancing in all General Convention meeting rooms as well as in the House of Deputies. Additionally, overall General Convention attendance is being limited to approximately 5,000. Attendance at worship services, including a revival scheduled for July 9, also will be capped.
“We have to be adaptable,” he said. “The health and well-being of people coming to General Convention is paramount.”
Several Executive Council members stressed the need for more communication about what’s being planned, including a request for a virtual briefing in the next few weeks.
“We really, really appreciate … all the information we just received,” Deputy Polly Getz, a member of the council from the Diocese of San Diego, said during the plenary, but said it should not have taken Downing’s heartfelt presentation to shake the information loose. “[T]he Executive Council, in my humble opinion, needs to be ahead of the curve, being a participant in an appropriate way, rather than being the group that is told the decision that is made by someone else.”
Jennings agreed that it was “essential that leaders are informed and briefed frequently.”
“I am grateful to Executive Council for approving the budget adjustment I requested so that I can hire public health advice for the House of Deputies,” she said after the meeting concluded. “Leaders of both houses of General Convention have been working on planning for various COVID-related scenarios, and I know those conversations have been accelerated by the Executive Council’s discussions. The Presiding Bishop and I are grateful to everyone who is working on assessing the situation, and we will be counting on the General Convention Office to provide us with an update when we next consult with the Joint Standing Committee on Planning and Arrangements on May 11.”
Text of resolution approved by Executive Council for Covid-related resources:
Resolved, that Executive Council allocate up to $50,000 in additional funding to the 2022 budget for the President of the House of Deputies to contract with a public health expert to advise her and the House of Deputies on protocol and procedures for the 80th General Convention. And be it further
Resolved, that if resources such as masks or testing supplies, are recommended or required, and the General Convention Office cannot provide them, these funds may be used for such resources.
The public health concerns for the House of Deputies are many and varied due to the number of people present in one space over a prolonged time. Deputies have varied access to health insurance, vacation time, and financial resources should they become ill or have to quarantine in Baltimore for a period that extends beyond the close of General Convention. President Jennings has asked for funding to consult with a public health expert to explore and monitor the Covid-related health concerns peculiar to the House of Deputies and to advise her on best practices.