[Episcopal News Service] At a special virtual meeting of The Episcopal Church’s Executive Council on April 29, church leaders discussed some of the possible changes in store as the church prepares to “re-tool” in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The brief, previously unscheduled meeting of Executive Council – called for by Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, House of Deputies President the Rev. Gay Clark Jennings and Council Secretary the Rev. Michael Barlowe – was held on Zoom in advance of the council’s regular June meeting, which was scheduled to take place in San Juan, Puerto Rico, but will now be held online.
During his remarks, Curry praised the church for its swift and creative response to restrictions on in-person worship, as bishops and other church leaders navigated unprecedented legal, medical and theological dilemmas. Questions emerged about the logistics of the Eucharist – including canonical concerns about the availability of both the bread and wine and hypothetical scenarios like remote consecration – that required quick and thoughtful responses, and ministries like food pantries adapted their practices to the new reality on the fly.
“It wasn’t perfect and it wasn’t always pretty, but doggone it, this church kept the feast,” Curry said, echoing the message of encouragement he shared in his Word to the Church released the previous day.
Officers of Executive Council, which is tasked with enacting the policies adopted by General Convention and meets at least three times per year, shared updates and discussed topics that the various committees would need to take into consideration before the June meeting. Among the possible changes discussed was a reorientation of the church’s operating budget to provide more support to dioceses. While council was assured that the church has enough funds to continue operating, the ongoing financial implications of the pandemic have forced the church to reevaluate how funds will be spent in the coming year.
“We need to assess how we can transform our grant programs to support more fully the new realities that dioceses and congregations are facing and consider how we can provide relief to the dioceses that may soon be unable to pay their full assessments,” Jennings said in her remarks.
Diocesan assessments (The Episcopal Church’s largest income source) are still coming in, said Treasurer and Chief Financial Officer Kurt Barnes. The Rev. Mally Lloyd, chair of the Joint Standing Committee on Finance, said dioceses have been assured that they will have some flexibility in paying their assessments, as they are able, but only two dioceses have so far requested relief. And the Diocese of Dallas, which had previously held off on paying its full assessment, has decided that it will do so for 2020 and future years.
Other budgetary concerns discussed during the meeting included the need to examine grant applications in light of the pandemic. While previously approved grants are still being disbursed, Lloyd said it will be important to ensure that going forward they are not funding unsafe practices like large group gatherings or going to organizations that may have folded.
Jennings and other members of council talked at length about the need for the church to address the systemic racism that has been illuminated and magnified by the pandemic, including much higher death rates from COVID-19 for African Americans against a pre-existing backdrop of widespread racial disparities in access to health care.
And just as COVID-19 has exposed the race- and class-based fault lines in Americans’ physical health, the same has been true for financial health, Jennings told council. One of council’s priorities, she said, will be to ensure that it is not only the wealthy churches that survive the pandemic.
“In order to emerge from this pandemic with a church that matters, I believe we have to keep the injustices and the systemic racism that the coronavirus has laid bare in a new way at the center of our conversation about who we will become,” Jennings said.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that The Episcopal Church had received $3 million from the Payroll Protection Program. The church has applied for those funds but has not yet received a decision.
– Egan Millard is an assistant editor and reporter for Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.