Presiding Officers Urge a Shorter, Smaller Convention Focused on “Essential Business”

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Presiding Bishop Michael Curry and the Rev. Gay Clark Jennings, president of the House of Deputies, told Executive Council and the Joint Standing Committee on Planning and Arrangements today that the church should continue with plans to hold its 80th General Convention in Baltimore in July, but that the gathering should be smaller in size, shorter in duration and focused exclusively on essential business.

A committee chaired by Bishop Sean Rowe, parliamentarian of the House of Bishops, and Bryan Krislock, parliamentarian of the House of Deputies, has been appointed to work out details that include the exact length of convention—Jennings suggested the gathering might last about four days—which of the more than 200 resolutions currently filed for consideration by the convention will be deemed “essential,” and how that determination will be made.

During the planning and arrangements meeting, which began shortly after the Executive Council meeting ended, Curry suggested holding elections, passing a budget, and considering resolutions that affect how the church functions would be deemed essential. He said it was possible that resolutions of sufficient “social and ethical” importance and urgency might also be considered.

Jennings said legislation required to facilitate the reunification of the Dioceses of Texas and North Texas—should those dioceses move in that direction—would need to be considered, as would recommendations by the Presiding Officers’ Working Group on Truth-Telling, Reckoning and Healing.

To date, roughly 215 resolutions have been filed. While it is not uncommon for a flurry of resolutions to be filed as convention approaches, the current total is far below the 500-600 resolutions typically considered at a convention.

The committee must also advise the presiding officers on whether the church should host events such as the Episcopal Church Women’s Triennial 2022, and whether the convention will be open to exhibitors, vendors and visitors.

In addition to Curry and Jennings the group, to be called the Presiding Officers’ General Convention Design Group, includes Bishop Eugene Sutton of the Diocese of Maryland; Bishop Wendell Gibbs and Deputy Ryan Kusumoto, the chairs of the dispatch of business committees of their respective houses; Kent Anker, the church’s chief legal officer, Mary Kostel and Deputy Sally Johnson, chancellors to Curry and Jennings respectively; Michael Glass, vice chancellor to the House of Deputies, the Rev. Mark Stevenson and Rebecca Wilson, key staff members to Curry and Jennings; Michael Barlowe, executive officer of the General Convention and Fiona Nieman, deputy for convention and meeting planning in the General Convention Office.

The shape of the convention began to emerge in a livestreamed meeting of the church’s Executive Council which began at 9 a.m. EDT, and continued with the Joint Planning and Arrangements meeting at 11 a. m. EDT. In his opening remarks to the council, Curry said he and Jennings were not calling for the postponement of the convention as some deputies and bishops had urged.

“There are essential matters for the governance and good order of the church which must be transacted,” he said. “But obviously with the ongoing variations of the COVID pandemic, we are committed to gathering in the safest and healthiest way possible.”

Meeting safely would require “observing rigorous protocols and procedures for health, safety, and pastoral care,” he said, as well as restricting a shortened convention to “matters essential for the governance and good order of the church.”

Jennings described the interplay between the presiding officers, Executive Council and Joint Planning and Arrangements canonical procedures necessary to change the dates and shorten the duration of the convention and outlined the pivotal role of the design group in quickly recommending the necessary adjustments.

“We are asking this group to work quickly, providing us with a plan that we can ask Planning and Arrangements to recommend,” she told the council. “We will then return to you to seek your advice and counsel before making our final decisions.

“I believe with all of my heart that we must gather this summer to hold elections for new leaders—especially a new president of the House of Deputies—and to address some of the key issues raised during this triennium by interim bodies and Executive Council,” she said. “And yet, it is deeply sobering to contemplate holding an event at which we know some people—perhaps many people—will become sick.”

She cited the results of a recent survey her office conducted to get a sense of the sentiments of deputies and alternates regarding the convention. “While fewer than half of deputies want to go forward with General Convention as planned, more than 70 percent are willing to go forward in person in some way,” she said. “Only 15 percent of deputies want to postpone convention.

“A commanding number of deputies want to see us add daily rapid testing, a ban on eating on the floor of the house, and social distance protocols to our existing mask and vaccine requirements,” Jennings said. “And many deputies have volunteered to help make this pandemic convention successful—from doctors and nurses who will help advise deputies who become ill, to pastoral care volunteers, to those who will help donate to a mutual aid effort.”

The council also heard from Dr. Rodney Coldren, with whom Jennings has been consulting. Coldren, a medical doctor who also holds a master’s in public health, recently retired after 30 years in the U.S. Army. He led the Army’s public health response to the COVID-19 outbreak in Europe and Africa before retiring from active duty in June 2021. (Notes from two of those consultations were provided to members of council and the joint standing committee and are now online.)

Coldren emphasized the importance of daily testing, restricting eating on the floors of the legislative houses, and refraining from singing at convention to minimize the spread of the COVID-19 virus. He had previously advised Jennings on achieving what he termed a “90 percent solution” in which strict public health protocols result in an infection rate of 10 percent among those who attend the convention. The hotel bars at convention would be the areas of biggest risk, he told her.

Curry, Jennings and Barlowe said it was too early to answer many of the questions raised by council members regarding how resolutions would be prioritized, although Jennings said that the Dispatch of Business Committees were already at work on this issue.

Questions from council members regarding what changes in the church’s canons or in the house’s rules of order would be necessary to hold a convention either partially or fully online received no direct answer. Nor did a question from council member and alternate deputy Holli Powell Sturm on whether the convention could meet just long enough to make the necessary rule changes to proceed online.

Kostel said “reasonable minds could disagree” about whether the canons currently permit an online meeting, and that “clarifying” the issue would be helpful. She suggested this would require legislation, possibly proposed by the Standing Committee on Structure, Governance, Constitution and Canons.

Johnson said such legislation “would take considerable analysis of what the rules are now, and it is something about which there are big implications to say we would gather not in person and what that would mean for who we have chosen to be for our history.”

Curry said he favors exploring online options for church governance. “The technical reality is that between now and July 4, we don’t have the time and space to pull that off in an effective way. That’s why we are hedging on online options.”

After Executive Council adjourned, Curry, Jennings, Barlowe and council members with an appointment to the Joint Standing Committee on Planning and Arrangements joined a meeting of that group chaired by Bishop Diane Bruce, provisional bishop of the Diocese of West Missouri, whom Barlowe, who chairs the committee, had asked to preside.

“Obviously, this is going to be very hard for Baltimore and it is going to be hard for the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland,” said Bishop Eugene Sutton. “But we understand.” He asked that a representative of the diocese be appointed to the design group, and was later named to that panel himself.

The committee approved a set of “Guiding Principles for Contingency Planning Due to COVID-19,” which had been prepared in February, but not presented to the committee until its meeting today.

The first of these reads: “Because we follow Jesus in caring for the most vulnerable, the marginalized, and the under-served and under-resourced within our church and beyond, we will first consider the impact of the 80th General Convention on the physical and mental health, well-being and morale of its workers, staff, volunteers, officers, deputies, bishops, visitors and vendors.”

The back-to-back meetings capped an intense period that began when Jennings, concerned about the need for public health protocols in addition to those already in place, asked Executive Council, at its meeting in San Juan, Puerto Rico, for up to $50,000 to hire a public health expert to advise her on public health matters related to General Convention. The House of Deputies is roughly six times larger than the House of Bishops, not counting numerous alternate deputies, and therefore faces more difficult public health challenges.

The request was eventually passed unanimously, but not before an emotional public session on April 22 when Deputy Patty Downing of the Diocese of Delaware and other members expressed their concerns about holding the convention at all.

“If the health and welfare of our members, including the most vulnerable, is one of our top priorities,” Downing said, “how is holding a meeting where there may be an outbreak, in keeping with that priority? How is it caring for the marginalized?”

Within days of the meeting, eight people who had attended the meeting reported testing positive for the COVID-19 virus, including Jennings.

In an April 27th statement, Health and Safety at the 80th General Convention, Barlowe reiterated safety protocols already in place and offered “some suggestions toward a safer convention” that included dioceses planning ahead of time how they would care for members of their deputations who became ill. “The best personal plans are those of a small community who know one another, supported by the larger General Convention resources,” he wrote.

In a letter to deputies and alternates the following day, Jennings struck a different tone.

“We are currently putting a strong support system in place to allow us to respond to whatever challenges you might face,” she wrote. “We want to make sure that you will have access to good, on-site advice should you or someone you know become sick, and that you will receive excellent pastoral support. We are also investigating ways for deputies to provide mutual aid to one another so members of the house who need support paying for tests, masks, COVID-related travel delays and other COVID protocols will be able to have what they need. I cannot emphasize strongly enough that I do not want any deputy who becomes sick at General Convention to feel as though they will have to manage their situation by themselves.”

In the wake of these letters, several church leaders who are active on social media began to ask whether the convention should be postponed, or if it were held, what sort of safety precautions should be in place.

During the Executive Council meeting in San Juan, the four joint standing committees of Executive Council—Deputy Jane Cisluycis, Deputy Julia Ayala Harris, the Rev. Mally Lloyd and Bishop Dabney Smith—and council members Deputy Russ Randle and Deputy Rose Sconiers, employed the seldom-used Title I.4.5 of the church’s canons to call for meeting of the council in two weeks to discuss public health concerns surrounding the convention.

In preparation for the meeting, Jennings sent deputies and alternates a survey, the results of which she discussed during today’s meetings.

In a letter that accompanied the survey, Jennings said she had “serious reservations about holding an event at which people are nearly guaranteed to get sick,” but was also “very reluctant to delay elections for new leaders and debate on key resolutions for two more years.”

She also said she was “hesitant to embrace an online or hybrid solution that would have to include a rush to amend our Rules of Order in ways that could be used to limit the role of the House of Deputies at future General Conventions and minimize the role of laypeople and clergy in the governance of the church. In short, I see no good solutions, and so I am looking for an acceptable one.”