[Episcopal News Service] When the 80th General Convention was delayed a year because of the pandemic, it provided extra time for legislative committees to review the resolutions they eventually will recommend for passage by the full House of Bishops and House of Deputies. Rather than wait for next July to meet in person in Baltimore, Maryland, those committees are preparing now to begin their work online.
“It’s uncharted territory for us,” said Bishop Sean Rowe, who serves as the House of Bishops parliamentarian. That is especially true for committee hearings on submitted resolutions. For the first time, some hearings will be held online, starting in February 2022. “I think it’s going to allow for more participation, a wider participation,” Rowe, bishop of Northwestern Pennsylvania and Western New York, told Episcopal News Service.
The Episcopal Church’s General Convention Office began posting Blue Book reports online in April, giving committees more than a year to review them because of General Convention’s postponement. In 2018, the numerous Blue Book reports, which summarize the work of the church’s interim bodies, were released in February, a typical timeframe that gives committees a narrower window for review before General Convention in July.
This year, committees officially can begin meeting on Nov. 1 following a schedule and process facilitated by the General Convention Office. As a result, the in-person legislative session at the 80th General Convention will be shortened from 10 to eight days, July 7-14, helping the church achieve its goal of reducing the triennial gathering’s duration.
“A lot of the work of General Convention happens in the committees, and that committee work is starting well before we actually get to General Convention,” Ryan Kusumoto, a deputy from the Diocese of Hawaii, said in an interview with ENS. “That’s a really big change for all of us.”
Kusumoto serves as chair of the Dispatch of Business Committee, which oversees the orderly flow of resolutions from committees to the full House of Bishops and House of Deputies for debates and votes. About 500 to 600 resolutions typically are considered at General Convention, Kusumoto noted, and many of those resolutions will be “discussed, debated, perfected prior to our arrival in Baltimore,” possibly alleviating legislative bottlenecks at the end of the in-person gathering.
He and other committee officers attended a training on Zoom last week. Another online training on Oct. 20 is open to all bishops and deputies assigned to legislative committees.
“We’re about to embark on an adaptive experiment to see how we can use technology to make some of our governance work more cost-effective and more accessible to the wider church,” the Rev. Gay Clark Jennings, president of the House of Deputies, said in opening remarks at the officers’ training on Sept. 28. “We need to pace ourselves,” she said, as the church continues to navigate the challenges posed by COVID-19.
General Convention is a hub for legislative activity, networking and fellowship. As the church’s primary, bicameral governing body, it splits its authority between the House of Bishops and House of Deputies. Among its responsibilities is approval of a three-year churchwide budget, as well as hundreds of additional resolutions covering everything from liturgical revisions to the church’s positions on public policy issues, from food insecurity to paid family leave to comprehensive immigration reform.
More than 120 bishops and 483 deputies have been assigned to legislative committees for the 80th General Convention. The committees’ initial meetings next month will focus on introductions and organizational planning. Committees may begin reviewing resolutions as they prioritize their work and develop plans of action, such as forming subcommittees to examine more complex subjects.
The General Convention Office then will work with committees to schedule online hearings on Zoom from Feb. 17 to May 21. Committees also can continue to hold meetings during that time.
“I really applaud the General Convention Office for their tenacity and their perseverance trying to figure out how they could create a longer runway to General Convention,” the Rev. Devon Anderson, who chairs the House of Deputies Committee on Churchwide Leadership, told ENS.
Anderson serves as rector of Trinity Episcopal Church in Excelsior, Minnesota, and is a member of The Episcopal Church Executive Council. In 2018, she chaired the House of Deputies Committee on Social Justice and U.S. Policy, which held some preliminary meetings online before gathering in person in Austin, Texas.
The difference this year, she said, is that committees have more time to review and research the reports they receive, and online hearings will break down barriers for churchwide input.
Hearings are always open to the public, but when held in person at General Convention, “the public is really limited to people who can find their way to that room,” Anderson said. At an online hearing, “anyone can participate,” she said. “It’s a way to widen that circle.”
Not every resolution will get an online hearing, and there still will be plenty of committee work to be done in Baltimore, Anderson said. She emphasized the “relational” value of meeting face to face at General Convention, “discerning together about who we are as a church and who we want to be and who is God and Jesus calling us to be.”
– David Paulsen is an editor and reporter for Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at email@example.com.