The Offline Convention: Why We Have to Be Here

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Churches do it. Dioceses do it. Legislative committees do it.

So, deputies want to know, why can’t this year’s General Convention offer online participation?

As the 80th Convention in Baltimore approaches, interviews with deputies show a gulf between their swift pivot to online worship and meetings when COVID struck in 2020 and what some see as a slow response by churchwide leadership to incorporate new ways of gathering.

Christ Episcopal Church in Bowling Green, Kentucky, crafted an online worship plan the day after the state’s governor asked congregations to cancel public worship on March 11, 2020, said Deputy Steve Pankey, rector of the church and a member of Executive Council. The first online service was celebrated the following Sunday.

Since then, “the leadership of Christ Church has spent considerable mental energy thinking through contingencies of all kinds, from Sunday worship to vacation bible school to annual meetings and Sunday School. When it comes to the General Convention, however, it feels like the only plan was to go ahead as usual,” he said in an email.

The lack of an option for online participation was one factor pushing 27 percent of deputies to resign ahead of convention. Other reasons included health concerns, the revised dates for convention, and changing life circumstances, such as moving. Most of the deputies have been replaced by alternate deputies elected by their dioceses.

“I was really hoping that a hybrid option would have been possible, and I would have participated that way, but once it became clear that a hybrid option was not going to be on the table, I made the decision to resign” for health considerations, Kathryn Nishibayashi, a former lay deputy from the Diocese of Los Angeles, told Deputy News in an earlier article.

Holding an online convention was considered as early as the spring of 2020, said Sally Johnson, chancellor to House of Deputies President Gay Clark Jennings. But once the decision to postpone the event for a year to 2022 was announced in the fall of 2020, planning for an in-person convention went ahead. A “hybrid” convention, with some participants online and others in person, was never seriously on the table, she and others said.

The most important factor, Johnson said, is that the constitution and canons of the Episcopal Church don’t include language that could be read as allowing for an online General Convention. Churches held their annual meetings online. Dioceses held conventions and even elected bishops online. The General Convention legislative process unfolded on Zoom with more than 2,000 participants. But the convention itself is subject to different rules.

“A reading of our governing documents doesn’t show even a hint that it would be possible,” she said. It’s not that they were written before online meetings existed. It’s that convention is rooted in ‘time, place and site,’” Johnson said. “We can change that with a lot of discussion, but how does that change us?”

Sarah Lawton, a lay deputy from California, said in a Facebook post that holding diocesan meetings or legislative committee hearings online showed the possible limitations of doing business that way: “Having attended several diocesan conventions online during the pandemic, and knowing how it works with hybrid church, I wonder about the differences in focus and attention between people attending in person and people not attending in person and how that would affect conversation and debate.”

With about 880 deputies and 150 bishops, the convention’s large size also is a factor. Convention planners studied denominations that added an online option to their meetings, such as the Presbyterian Church USA, now holding a hybrid meeting from June 18 to July 9 in Louisville, Kentucky. In general, none was similar enough to the Episcopal Church to serve as a model. They were smaller, had a  more top-down structure, or were considering fewer resolutions.

By early 2022, cases of the omicron variant were rising in the U.S. and safety concerns about convention were being expressed, including at the Executive Council meeting in Puerto Rico in April. There were “good and thoughtful” discussions about the canonical aspects of a hybrid convention, said Mary Kostel, chancellor to Presiding Bishop Michael Curry. “It’s certainly true that there are different ways to read the canons.”

But at that time, adding a hybrid option to convention would have been logistically out of the question, said the Rev. Canon Michael Barlowe, executive officer of the General Convention.

“We could have gone fully online in extremis at that late date,” he said. “But to pull off a hybrid meeting would have been impossible.” Even obtaining enough cameras would have been difficult, he said, as would have lining up enough interpreters, operating across global time zones and ensuring that every online participant had access to broadband.

He expressed hope that at future conventions more flexible options could be discussed and considered: “Everyone is exhausted by what we’ve had to go through but as leaders of the church we need to step back and say, this is not our final answer.”

Several deputies agreed, and were optimistic that the short convention this year would demonstrate that the time frame can work, thus permitting more people who could not take two weeks of vacation to “attend,” whether in person or online.

“COVID has taught us not only that we must at times adapt to changing circumstances, but also that such flexibility can bring new blessings and opportunities. So perhaps we can — and should — find ways to effectively incorporate online or virtual participation more fully in our churchwide gatherings,” said Deputy Gary Meade, a clergy deputy from the Diocese of West Tennessee.

Added Crystal Plummer, a lay deputy and deputation chair who is director of networking on the bishop’s staff of the Diocese of Chicago: “Sending 10-11 people to a destination for a week … is an old model of operating. People’s lives are quite different and not everybody can take off 10 days. The church needs to make convention within reach of more kinds of people.”