[Episcopal News Service] The Episcopal Church has long debated the proper length of General Convention, balancing bishops’ and deputies’ availability and the cost of hotel stays with the need to schedule enough days for effective churchwide governance, legislative activity, networking and fellowship.
As the church’s governing body, General Convention has historically convened in a different city every three years with activities spanning up to two weeks. That model, however, was upended last July when the 80th General Convention was held four years after the previous meeting – not three – because the pandemic had forced a one-year postponement, and only four legislative days were scheduled. The business of that General Convention was mostly limited to core governance functions under constraints imposed by church leaders in response to continued concerns about the spread of COVID-19 at the in-person meeting in Baltimore, Maryland.
“It did what it needed to do, but it did not really meet the goals of what the church wants when it meets at General Convention,” the Rev. Michael Barlowe, secretary of General Convention and head of the church’s General Convention Office, said in a Jan. 18 interview with Episcopal News Service. “Everyone agreed that it wasn’t enough time to do what we needed to.”
Before the pandemic, meetings of General Convention typically included 10 legislative days in late June or early July, preceded by additional days for committee work. After conducting a shorter, streamlined meeting in Baltimore, the church is looking ahead to 2024, when bishops and deputies expect to be able to gather more fully for the 81st General Convention in Louisville, Kentucky. Gathering more fully, however, will not mean a return to what historically has been a full-length convention.
Church leaders decided in December that six days, June 23-28, 2024, will be allotted for legislative sessions in Louisville.
While further planning details have yet to be released, some Episcopal groups have raised concerns that this second shortened General Convention could change the nature of the gathering going forward and hinder the church’s ability to have open and productive discussions on a range of important issues.
“Our future success in reclaiming our convention’s ability to recognize and honor the full diversity of our church will depend on the decisions of the next few months,” a coalition of seven progressive Episcopal groups said in a December letter to the church. The groups called on church leaders “to design a convention that is life-giving, and to remember that the Spirit needs time to do life-giving work. May our leadership hear the voices of the many calling for a less frantic schedule.”
The groups, which collectively call themselves the Consultation, identified several successes of the 80th General Convention in Baltimore while sounding a cautionary note about the unfortunate compromises that were required to stage a safe, shortened meeting, such as minimal time for floor presentations, reduced debate, no in-person hearings, lack of formal interaction between the House of Bishops and House of Deputies and the emphasis on governance functions over “the fullness of life together.”
Technological tools allowed committees to meet online for the first time in 2022, “but that meant that we didn’t have the kinds of [in-person] conversations there that are integral to the functioning of convention,” Sarah Lawton, a longtime deputy from the Diocese of California, told ENS. She serves as convener of the Consultation on behalf of TransEpiscopal. Other member groups in the Consultation include the Union of Black Episcopalians and the Episcopal Peace Fellowship.
“Our concern would be that we not assume that what happened [in Baltimore] is something that should be replicated,” Lawton said, especially at the 81st General Convention, when bishops and deputies will need to devote a portion of their time to electing and confirming a new presiding bishop.
The church has no plans to replicate its experience in Baltimore, but the pandemic will have a lingering impact on the Louisville gathering. The 81st General Convention comes just two years after the previous meeting, leaving interim bodies a shorter period to complete their reports and propose resolutions, Barlowe told ENS, which may yield less legislative business than is typical at General Convention. Online committee meetings are likely to be part of the process again, relieving some of the burden of meeting in person. Specific plans will be announced later this year, he added.
“We started out with some confidence that we could create a shorter time footprint for this coming General Convention,” Barlowe said. He chairs the church’s Joint Standing Committee on Planning and Arrangements, which includes Presiding Bishop Michael Curry and House of Deputies President Julia Ayala Harris as members. The committee concluded at its December meeting that six legislative days would provide sufficient time to allow “a much more informed pace” than in 2022, Barlowe said.
That decision does not set a precedent for General Convention meetings going forward, but the General Convention Office is approaching Louisville as a kind of experiment, “to determine whether six legislative days might be a sweet spot” for conducting such a meeting effectively, he said.
How long is General Convention supposed to last? The Episcopal Church’s Constitution and Canons give no definitive answer. They establish General Convention’s role as a bicameral governing body, with a House of Bishops and House of Deputies, and they offer general guidelines for planning the gatherings. As for decisions about timing and location, those are left largely to the planning and arrangements committee.
The committee and the General Convention Office, which implements the church’s meeting plans, follow guidelines established in 1988 by the 69th General Convention. The guidelines range from expected attendance, meeting room needs, exhibit space, hotel bookings and considerations for choosing the host city.
It also says this about scheduling General Convention: “Eleven days between June 15 and October 15.”
Episcopal leaders have debated how closely to follow that guideline for at least the last 23 years, with differing camps arguing for longer conventions or much shorter conventions. In 2000, a resolution proposed setting the length “not to exceed six legislative days.” Instead, General Convention asked the Standing Commission on the Structure of the Church “to consider ways in which to establish greater efficiency, ensure diversity of representation … make full use of all available technology and shorten the duration of Convention.”
The commission concluded that church leaders needed to study further “the competing needs of ‘gathering the family’ and shortening the length of convention to make it more accessible to people who are unable to commit themselves to two weeks away from their families and their business lives.” A task force was formed and one of its proposals in 2006 was to harness technology to achieve the goal of “accomplishing the work of General Convention in eight days.”
In 2012, the Commission on Structure issued a forceful defense of 10-day meetings, saying in its report that a shortened gathering would be “deleterious to the health and unity of this part of the body of Christ and to the Church’s governance structure.”
Indianapolis Bishop Jennifer Baskerville-Burrows was a priest at the time serving on the Commission on the Structure of the Church. In a written statement to ENS she recalls people on both sides of the issue arguing “the same merits of justice and good governance to make their case.”
On a personal note, she became a mom during that triennium and experienced the challenge of juggling family responsibilities with church responsibilities. “From my perspective, having a shorter convention would make it possible for younger people — both those who had caregiving responsibilities and those who had not built up enough time in their jobs to give vacation days to General Convention — to participate.”
Baskerville-Burrows added that she supports the current plans for a six-day General Convention in 2024.
General Convention would be even shorter if the church had adopted the sweeping package of reforms proposed in 2015 by the Task Force for Reimagining The Episcopal Church, commonly known as TREC. Curry and Ayala Harris both served on TREC before becoming the church’s presiding officers. Within its wide-ranging report to the 78th General Convention, TREC included a brief mention of the meeting’s length: “Our vision and hope is that 2021 and subsequent General Conventions would include no more than five legislative days.”
The same year, the Commission on Structure again argued against shortened gatherings, and it opposed efforts to scale back General Convention’s central governance function in favor of “a general missionary convocation with networking and sharing around mission and ministries.”
“A historical review of the significant work of General Convention during the past few decades to lift up the ministry of all the baptized, and to help make The Episcopal Church a leader of inclusive and transformational ministries, supports the proposition that the legislative processes of General Convention are guided by the Holy Spirit and advance church-wide mission,” the commission said in its report.
It proposed a resolution to the 78th General Convention that would have set the next meeting at “not fewer than 10 days.” Instead, bishops and deputies passed an amended resolution calling for a gathering of “not more than 10 legislative days” and asked the commission to study ways of reducing the length of future conventions.
No such reduction had been planned for the 80th General Convention when church leaders initially announced the dates, spanning 10 legislative days. Then the pandemic hit in March 2020.
By June 2020, it was increasingly clear that public health concerns would alter the meeting in Baltimore. “We have concluded with regret that we must plan as if our traditional 10-day gathering of 10,000 people or more will not be possible in 2021,” Curry said in a joint statement with the Rev. Gay Clark Jennings, then the House of Deputies president.
Five months later, they announced that the 80th General Convention would be postponed to 2022, initially saying it would be an eight-day meeting.
“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,” Jennings said in a September 2021 message to deputies serving as legislative officers.
One of the most consequential changes to the 80th convention was online committee meetings. Some committees began holding Zoom sessions as early as October 2021, to organize themselves and consider any resolutions that had been submitted. They began holding online hearings in February 2022, allowing anyone with an internet-connected device to observe or testify – no need to travel to General Convention and testify in person. Overall, about 2,500 people attended the meetings and hearings of two dozen legislative committees.
“I think it’s a gift we had this opportunity forced upon us. It brought the age-old question of how long does General Convention need to be to a reality,” Louisa McKellaston, a deputy from the Diocese of Chicago, told ENS. “I think there are just as many things that worked well as worked not so well at a shorter convention.”
McKellaston, in addition to serving as vice chair of the House of Deputies’ Committee on the State of the Church, was chair of the deputies’ Governance & Structure Committee. For the most part, her committee was able to schedule its meetings at times that were convenient to its members, and she was encouraged by the strong public participation in the committee’s hearings.
Though, when the presiding officers made the decision in May 2022 to shorten the in-person gathering from eight to four days, it forced her committee and others to scramble to complete their work so they wouldn’t have to hold committee meetings or hearings in Baltimore. Even so, she is confident that the process will be improved for the 81st General Convention in Louisville.
“I’m looking forward to the six-day approach, because I think it allows us to get our essential business done and have time to breathe and have more time to listen to each other,” she said.
Lawton, the California deputy and Consultation convener, acknowledged that no one is calling for a return to a General Convention that spans two weeks, and over four days in Baltimore last year, “there were good things that happened at this convention, under clearly adverse circumstances.”
The committees’ online advance work, though, only spread out the time commitment for bishops and deputies across several months, sometimes taking a toll on committee members, Lawton said. She also sees a need for extended in-person meetings because in the past they have offered the “opportunity to move forward” on issues like LGBTQ+ equality.
“We’re a leader as a Christian church on trans issues because we’ve had some of these debates and discussions over time. … That would not happen if we didn’t have that fulsome debate,” she said. “There is something to be said to being in the room.”
– David Paulsen is an editor and reporter for Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.