SALT LAKE CITY, June 22—The 78th General Convention of the Episcopal Church technically begins on Thursday, but deputies, bishops, exhibitors and other interested parties are already pouring into the hotels surrounding the Salt Palace Convention Center, where convention will be in session until July 3.
While the convention is a legislative gathering—and the legislative agenda at this convention is a crowded one—it is also a spiritual and social event. Episcopalians will worship together each day and meet at both long-planned receptions and dinners and impromptu gatherings at coffee shops, in the exhibit hall and in hotel lobbies. During 12 days here, they will take part in conversations, some casual, some convened by networks that help to sustain and enliven the church, on how Episcopalians should respond to the issues that confront them during a time of declining interest in organized religion in much of the United States.
Nor is General Convention the only Episcopal game in town for the next two weeks. Episcopal Church Women holds its 48th triennial gathering June 25-July 2, while young adults who are discerning a call to ministry will meet June 24-June 29 and ministers who work with young adults on and off college campuses will gather June 29-July 3.
“I am looking forward to the whole thing,” says Twilla Two Bulls, a deputy and postulant for Holy Orders in the Diocese of South Dakota. “This is my first time, and I’ve heard about it a lot from my family.” Two Bulls’ father, Robert is a retired priest in South Dakota and her brother Robert W., is a priest in Minnesota. “I have a lot of friends who are priests and they talk a lot about it year round.”
The Rev. Sierra Wilkinson Reyes, deputy from the Diocese of Georgia, remembers her first General Convention. “I was a member of the Official Youth Presence in 2003,” she says. “One memory that is forever etched on my heart is the community Eucharist. Growing up in a small church, it was the first time I worshiped with hundreds of other people. To hear our faith spoken, sung & proclaimed in the voices of the multitude was deeply moving to me. It embodied what I imagined the Body of Christ was all about.”
This convention will be the first at which members of the church’s House of Deputies and House of Bishops conduct their business primarily on screens, rather than on paper. Each bishop, deputy and first alternate deputy will be issued an iPad into which has been loaded a “virtual binder” that contains most of the material that had filled a physical binder at previous General Conventions.
Within the virtual binders, deputies and bishops will find hundreds of resolutions, including those that would allow clergy to marry same-sex couples using a rite much like the one in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, replace the current bicameral General Convention with a unicameral body, and reduce the 19 percent assessment that convention requests from each dioceses to 18 percent in 2016, 16.5 percent in 2017, and 15 percent in 2018.
The convention will also consider competing proposals to redefine the roles of the presiding bishop and the Executive Council in ways that could significantly alter the current distribution of power within the church. Some of those resolutions were written by the Task Force for Reimagining the Episcopal Church, which was formed by a resolution passed at the 2012 General Convention, some by the Standing Committee on Structure, and some by a group of deputies who call their group Episcopal Resurrection. One of that group’s proposals would create the position of executive director, accountable to the Executive Council, to manage the day-to-day operations of the church and to supervise the church-wide staff.
“For me, the most important issues have to do with reimagining the Episcopal Church, finalizing our work on marriage, and caring for creation,” says the Very Rev. Ben Shambaugh, a deputy from the Diocese of Maine. “The most crucial report is the State of the Church which shows decline. It is my hope that those three will help us turn it around.”
The Rev. Richard Helmer, a deputy from the Diocese of California, agrees that the issues of marriage and how the church governs itself may be the defining issues before the convention.
“For marriage, I hope we recognize the significant theological work that has been done and authorize the liturgies and rites that allow us to honor what is sacred in the lives of all our members,” he says. “Our contexts for ministry have changed dramatically on the question of same-sex marriage, even in the past three years. Will we be courageous enough to address this reality with the call of the Gospel and our baptismal covenant?”
Helmer also wants to see a commitment to evangelism embodied in the church’s budget. “I hope we will make serious resource commitments to church planting and growth, and giving our dioceses and local congregations the flexibility to collaborate and share resources for expanding mission,” he says.
Two Bulls, a member of the legislative committee on Social Justice and United States Policy, says the question of how the Episcopal Church can play a role in bringing piece of Israel, the West Bank and Gaza has been the most challenging question the committee has considered.
On June 27, the House of Bishops will gather at the Cathedral Church of St. Mark to elect the church’s next presiding bishop from a slate that comprises Bishops Thomas Breidenthal of Southern Ohio, Michael Curry of North Carolina, Ian Douglas of Connecticut and Dabney Smith of Southwest Florida. After the election, the House of Deputies will vote on whether to confirm the election.
The new presiding bishop will inherit the work of the convention that begins this week.
“The “big” issues that face convention have been the same issues for the past 15 years,” says Wilkinson Reyes. “To me, the question is how this General Convention will choose to add to the conversation that is occurring and will continue long after convention adjourns,”
“My hope is not based on the issues becoming resolved because I do not think that is possible. My hope is that in all our decisions-making on the posture our church will take for the next three years, we remember the words of Micah, and do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God.”
Jim Naughton of Canticle Communications is a layperson in the Diocese of Ohio and part of the House of Deputies Communications team. He was previously a reporter at the New York Times and the Washington Post, and was the founding editor of Episcopal Cafe.