Executive Council previews ‘legendary Louisville’ hospitality as 81st General Convention approaches

By David Paulsen
Posted Jan 29, 2024
Kentucky International Convention Center

The 81st General Convention will convene June 23-28 at the Kentucky International Convention Center in downtown Louisville, a facility that completed a major expansion and renovation in 2018. Photo: David Paulsen/Episcopal News Service

[Episcopal News Service – Louisville, Kentucky] Executive Council was running ahead of schedule on Jan. 28 when the Rev. Michael Barlowe, its secretary, rose to address The Episcopal Church governing body’s members. They had just voted to advance a 2025-27 churchwide budget plan totaling $143 million, and with a day left before the meeting’s adjournment, members likely would have some free time.

Barlowe, who also serves as executive officer of General Convention, encouraged the members to sightsee around Louisville, because apart from their scheduled agenda, Executive Council’s Jan. 26-29 meeting here offered a preview of the state’s largest city. Best known for its bourbon and the Kentucky Derby, Louisville will host an estimated 6,000 to 8,000 Episcopalians when the 81st General Convention convenes downtown at the Kentucky International Convention Center from June 23-28.

“It’s an extraordinary city. It’s going to be an extraordinarily blessed convention,” Barlowe said.

The General Convention Office, which Barlowe leads, works with the triennial convention’s host cities to ensure that meeting and hotel facilities are ready to accommodate the weeklong swell of Episcopal bishops, deputies, staff and visitors. Planning for this convention has been ongoing since Louisville was announced as the host city in February 2020. “It’s going to be a huge, loud joyous wonderful proclamation of God’s love,” Barlowe said.

General Convention typically meets every three years and is a hub for legislative activity, networking and fellowship. As a bicameral governing body, it splits its authority between the House of Bishops and House of Deputies. Some of its core duties include adoption of the triennial budget plan, as recommended by Executive Council, and the election of members to various church bodies. Bishops and deputies also consider hundreds of resolutions covering everything from liturgical revisions to the church’s positions on public policy issues.

Some of those resolutions can be found in the Blue Book report that Executive Council approved on Jan. 27. Additional Blue Book reports are due from other interim bodies in the coming weeks, as legislative committees prepare to convene online meetings in advance of the in-person gathering in Louisville.

Much focus at the 81st General Convention will be on electing the next presiding bishop to a nine-year term that starts Nov. 1, while also celebrating the final months in office of the church’s beloved outgoing presiding bishop, the Most Rev. Michael Curry. The Diocese of Kentucky also is eager to showcase its congregations and ministries and its increased emphasis on racial reconciliation, particularly since the 2020 killing of Breonna Taylor and that year’s widespread racial justice protests.

Kentucky Bishop Terry White highlighted some of the diocese’s social justice work Jan. 27 in a welcoming speech to Executive Council. “This church’s presence for convention and for the various meetings taking place really boosts us all, to know that we are supported, to know that you see this as an important place to be,” White told Executive Council members. They had gathered for dinner in an intimate 25th-floor ballroom of the Galt House overlooking downtown Louisville and the Ohio River.

Bishop Terry White

Kentucky Bishop Terry White welcomes Executive Council on Jan. 27 in remarks over dinner at the Galt House in downtown Louisville. Photo: David Paulsen/Episcopal News Service

Executive Council, with 38 voting members from all nine of the church’s provinces, is the church’s governing body between meetings of general convention. The Galt House has been its home base for the past four days. The historic hotel and conference center advertises itself as an icon of “legendary Louisville” hospitality, though church leaders noted that the city’s hospitality is hardly limited to one establishment.

The General Convention Office has reserved more than 2,000 rooms at the Galt House and six other downtown hotels in late June to accommodate bishops, deputies, staff members and other leaders from the church’s 109 dioceses who will be in Louisville for some or all of the six legislative days of this General Convention and two addition days of pre-convention events.

Other lodging was reserved at the Omni Hotel, Hyatt Regency, Marriott Downtown, Courtyard by Marriott, SpringHill Suites and Fairfield Inn & Suites. Each hotel is withing a few blocks of the others and centered around the Kentucky International Convention Center, where the House of Bishops and House of Deputies will convene in June.

The glass-walled convention center completed a $207 million renovation and expansion in 2018, and it features a roof-top support structure that eliminates the need for beams in the center of the convention hall. During this weekend’s Executive Council’s, it was hosting a photographers convention.

The General Convention Office also has booked the nearby KFC Yum! Center, the arena where University of Louisville basketball games are played, as the site for a pre-convention revival on June 22. Details of the revival still are in the works, but it is expected to combine elements of the public revival that was a centerpiece of the 79th General Convention in 2018 in Austin, Texas, and the 2023 It’s All About Love festival in Baltimore, Maryland.

KFC Yum! Center

The KFC Yum! Center in downtown Louisville will be the site of a revival on June 22 that will kick off the 81st General Convention. Photo: David Paulsen/Episcopal News Service

The election of a new presiding bishop will occur June 26 at Christ Church Cathedral in downtown Louisville – a 200-year-old church across from the Omni Hotel, located in what White, in his Jan. 28 sermon there, jokingly referred to as “the holy part of Louisville.”

The House of Bishops will meet in closed session at the cathedral to choose one of their own from a slate of nominees being developed by the church’s nominating committee, made up of a mix of clergy and lay leaders. The bishops’ pick will be conveyed to the House of Deputies, which will be asked to vote to affirm the election.

Christ Church Cathedral

Election of a new presiding bishop will take place June 26 at Christ Church Cathedral in Louisville, Kentucky. Photo: David Paulsen/Episcopal News Service

One reason Louisville was selected by the Joint Standing Committee on Planning and Arrangements is its central United States location within a reasonable drive of several dioceses, which planners hope will boost turnout. This will be a sharp contrast to the more limited gathering in 2022 in Baltimore, Maryland, for the 80th General Convention, which was shortened to four days and conducted under public health restrictions out of concern for the spread of COVID-19.

The six legislative days scheduled in Louisville still are fewer than the typical eight or more at past General Conventions. Even so, planners expect the gathering in Louisville to help generate $20 million to $25 million for the local economy.

Louisville’s draw as a tourist destination arguably starts with its two iconic products: whiskey and horse racing. “You are familiar, of course, with the distilled beverage of my people?” White said in his Jan. 27 remarks to Executive Council, eliciting laughs from the room.

Promotion of that beverage is everywhere in downtown Louisville. “Downtown Is Spirited,” one lamppost sign says, displaying an amber-filled glass casually garnished. A sculpture of rings representing an oversized bourbon barrel frames the Galt House on Fourth Street, marking the beginning of the city’s Bourbon District, also known as the “Birthplace of Bourbonism.” A block east on Main Street is Louisville’s Whiskey Row, or “the Wall Street of Whiskey.”

The bastion of Kentucky horse racing, Churchill Downs, is four miles south of downtown, and though no races were scheduled during Executive Council’s meeting here, the Kentucky Derby will celebrate 150 years on May 4. Evidence of Louisville’s racing culture is as plentiful in downtown as its bourbon references, with horses and jockeys depicted there in myriad murals and statues.

Another pride of Louisville is the hometown legend Muhammad Ali. The boxer, known to the world as “The Greatest,” died in 2016 and is buried east of downtown Louisville in the Cave Hill Cemetery. The Muhammad Ali Center, a block west of the Galt House, presents itself as “much more than a museum” to the boxer, honoring his legacy by “creating change, pursuing justice, and inspiring greatness.”

Ali and horse murals

Murals in downtown Louisville celebrate legendary boxer Muhammad Ali, a Louisville native, and the city’s most famous sport, horse racing. Photo: David Paulsen/Episcopal News Service

And just north of Muhammad Ali Boulevard, Fourth Street becomes a block-long pedestrian mall, Fourth Street Live!, with attractions that include performance space, a bowling alley and a restaurant branded with Food Network star Guy Fieri.

Any visitor to the city is bound to get caught up in the debate over the correct way to pronounce Louisville. A typically safe choice is to swallow the middle syllable, rendering it as “Loo-vull,” though the Louisville Visitor Center assures passersby that other options are available. On its wall, facing the southwest entrance to the convention center, the display text gives equal weight to “Louavul,” “Luhvul,” “Loueville,” “Looaville” and “Loueyvile.”

Kurt Barnes, the church’s chief financial officer, in giving his opening report to Executive Council on Jan. 26, made a point to side with “Loueyville.”

“I’ve heard it pronounced a few other ways,” Barnes said, “but as good Episcopalians, we welcome all pronunciations.”

Executive Council prays

Members of Executive Council, the church’s governing body between meetings of General Convention, gather in a circle for prayer Jan. 26 during their four-day meeting at the Galt House in Louisville, Kentucky. Photo: David Paulsen/Episcopal News Service

In other business at this meeting of Executive Council, the members voted Jan. 29 to authorize Jane Cisluycis, the church’s acting chief operating officer, to negotiate with the DeKoven Center in Racine, Wisconsin, to potentially relocate The Episcopal Church Archives there from the space Archives currently rents in Austin, Texas.

The Diocese of Kentucky, which includes the western half of the state, has made racial reconciliation and anti-racism work a priority at least since 2016, White said, and those efforts gained urgency after the March 2020 killing of Breonna Taylor, a Black EMT, who was shot to death in her home by police executing a “no knock” warrant.

Taylor’s death, along with the killings of other unarmed Black victims, Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia and George Floyd in Minnesota, fueled a nationwide reckoning that year with the legacy of racism that still can be found embedded in American institutions, including its churches.

In June 2020, Executive Council passed a resolution condemning the killings and approved $150,000 each for the dioceses of Minnesota and Kentucky “support their continuing work of dismantling the systemic racism we have created in this country and still permeates our church and society.” Additional grants of $75,000 each were later approved for the dioceses of Georgia and Atlanta.

Kentucky, though declaring itself a neutral state at the start of the Civil War, had benefited greatly from the slave trade, White noted, and the diocese, too, has had to confront its past complicity with slavery and other forms of racial oppression. As one example, the dean of Christ Church Cathedral during the Civil War, the Very Rev. James Craik, wrote a “horrendous tract” justifying slavery, White said, and the cathedral and the diocese have since publicly repudiated Craik’s words.

Craik also served as president of the House of Deputies from 1862 to 1877. White said he hopes 81st General Convention will join local Episcopalians in a churchwide repudiation of the racism embodied by Craik.

At the same time, White and others in the diocese look forward to playing the roles of gracious hosts showing pride in the local culture. In his remarks to Executive Council, he joked about another iconic Kentucky product – the “chicken of my people,” poultry of the Kentucky-fried variety.

“In our diocese, we use incense of 11 herbs and spices,” White said, again to laughs. “And we have a lot of fun.”

– David Paulsen is a senior reporter and editor for Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at dpaulsen@episcopalchurch.org.