Episcopalians preparing for 79th General Convention in Austin can expect ‘a real Texas welcome’

By David Paulsen
Posted Jul 2, 2018
Convention Center

The 79th General Convention will be held at the Austin Convention Center from July 5 to 13, with registration and orientation already underway.

[Episcopal News Service] Is Austin, Texas, ready to welcome thousands of Episcopalians for the two weeks of church business and socializing known as General Convention? Episcopalians from around the church certainly are ready for Austin.

“It is my hope and prayer that this General Convention will truly embody and model what it means to follow the way, the teachings and in the spirit of Jesus of Nazareth,” Presiding Bishop Michael Curry said in a written statement to Episcopal News Service. “That means taking seriously being a part of the Jesus Movement, not only in the church but in the world.

“My prayer is that our GC will truly be a witness to the way of love that Jesus taught us.”

[perfectpullquote align=”right” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Full ENS coverage of the 79th meeting of General Convention is available here.[/perfectpullquote]

The 79th General Convention officially gets underway July 5 at the Austin Convention Center, though registration, orientation and pre-convention activities start July 1. According to the House of Deputies, this is the first time since 1970, when women were first permitted to be seated as deputies, that the deputies will be majority female, and this General Convention boasts the youngest and most diverse group of legislative committee officers ever.

“As Christians, we know that scripture tells us over and over again not to be afraid, and we know that we are called to make a faithful and courageous response when the people of God are hurting and vulnerable,” the Rev. Gay Clark Jennings, president of the House of Deputies, said in a statement to ENS. “And so, while we are at General Convention, we need to be faithful in considering the many creative and hope-filled proposals related to the three priorities established by the last General Convention: racial justice and reconciliation, evangelism and church planting, and environmental stewardship and care of creation.

“As we do so, we will be called upon to make challenging decisions about how to fund our hopes for vastly increased mission and ministry and how to follow where God is leading us.”

Planners of the Episcopal Church’s largest churchwide gathering, held every three years, already are on the ground in the Texas capital, putting the final pieces in place for a successful convention.

“There’s a new energy in general in our church, and I think most everybody knows that. And General Convention is no exception,” the Rev. Michael Barlowe, General Convention’s executive officer, said in an interview with ENS. “We have a lot of serious matters that we’re going to look at, but they’re being done in an atmosphere of hopefulness and a real conviction that God is going to be with us.”

Estimating attendance can be difficult until General Convention gets underway, but Barlowe said around 10,000 people are expected to participate in all or part of the convention.

Unlike at some past General Conventions, no single issue is expected to boil over into controversy during the nine days that the House of Bishops and House of Deputies are in session, though bishops and deputies are looking forward to thoughtful discernment and spirited discussion on a long list of resolutions, addressing topics ranging from Israel-Palestine to spending more money on church planting, as well as whether to revise the prayer book and how to settle the question of same-sex marriage access.

This General Convention also has several new focal points, including TEConversations, three joint sessions that will feature panel discussions on evangelism, racial reconciliation and care of creation.

“General Convention is one of our most important churchwide convenings. It felt important to invite the whole church into this deep and diverse engagement around ministries we share in the Jesus Movement,” the Rev. Stephanie Spellers, the presiding bishop’s canon for evangelism, reconciliation and creation care, said in an email.

Additional events have been scheduled to highlight the church’s outreach on the issues of sexual harassment, gun violence and immigration. And General Convention organizers are expecting the biggest turnout of convention at a revival service planned for July 7, which will be similar to the series of revivals that Curry has led in various Episcopal dioceses since February 2016.

For Episcopalians who are making their way to Austin for General Convention and for those planning to follow along from home, here’s a summary of what to expect.

How to prepare and to follow along

The best place for any General Convention participant or observer to start is the convention’s own website, generalconvention.org, which is loaded with orientation materials, schedules and legislative information, as well as video introductions from Curry, Jennings and Barlowe.

You’ll also find the Blue Book Reports generated by the various advisory bodies that were formed in response to past General Convention resolutions.

General Convention has a mobile app again this year with a robust collection of digital tools to help navigate everything from the convention hall to the legislative agenda. The app can be downloaded onto a smartphone or accessed on a web browser at eventmobi.com/79gc.

Once legislative sessions get underway, Episcopalians anywhere in the world can watch live video streams of the hearings and discussions through General Convention’s Media Hub.

“We’re trying to make this much more open to everybody, whether they’re in Austin or not,” Barlowe said.

Schedule and agenda

Registration will begin at 9 a.m. July 3, and the exhibit hall opens that day at noon. Barlowe said General Convention sold out all available exhibit space, so look for a wide variety of interactive exhibits, presentations and featured ministries, such as a ministry from the Diocese of California that makes communion bread from what are known as ancient grains.

Legislative hearings get underway July 3, and Curry and Jennings are scheduled to address General Convention later that day. Legislative sessions will be held beginning at 8 a.m. July 5 and will continue through the final day, July 13.

Diocese of Newark deputies, from left, the Rev. Joseph Harmon and the Rev. John Mennell show off the loaner iPads assigned to all deputies and bishops for the Salt Lake City meeting of General Convention in 2015. They contain a “Virtual Binder,” which electronically replaces most of convention’s until then-traditional paper systems. Photo: Nina Nicholson/Diocese of Newark

This is the second time General Convention has gone paperless by giving bishops and deputies tablets and pointing them to the Virtual Binder, where information on all assigned resolutions appears. The Virtual Binder is also a great tool for those following General Convention remotely to find out what is on the agenda of each of the nearly two dozen committees.

ENS also has produced preview stories on a variety of issues expected to come before General Convention, and you can review those stories and updated coverage here. ENS’s summary guide to the issues can be found here.

The convention center

Formally known as the Neal Kocurek Memorial Austin Convention Center, the facility in downtown Austin has just over 880,000 square feet, including five exhibit halls with a combined 247,052 square feet of column-free space. That is the sort of space General Convention requires, given that the gathering requires room for more than 1,000 to worship, a hall big enough for more than 800 deputies, one for the smaller House of Bishops, an exhibit hall, and all the offices that will house the convention support staff.

The 79th meeting of the General Convention officially begins July 5 and runs until July 13 at the Austin Convention Center. Photo: Austin Convention Center

The convention center is completely powered by renewable energy, primarily from two solar arrays, the most visible of which is a vertical array above the Trinity Street entrance.

House of Bishops’ meeting space is on level four. House of Deputies will meet on the first floor, next to the exhibit hall. One of the more mundane features of the convention space – its restrooms – became an unexpected flashpoint during the planning of General Convention because of legislation proposed by Texas lawmakers.

The bill would have required people to use public restrooms labeled with the gender shown on their government-issued identification. Such a measure threw into question plans for gender-neutral bathrooms at this General Convention, similar to those offered three years earlier at General Convention in Salt Lake City. Curry and Jennings issued a statement suggesting the Episcopal Church might change the convention location to a different state if the bill passed, depriving Austin of a much-sought-after economic boost.

But Texas’ so-called bathroom bill failed in August, and General Convention stayed put.

Introducing TEConversations

In 2015, General Convention established evangelism, racial reconciliation and care of creation as the three priorities for the subsequent triennium, and Curry has championed those priorities in his first three years as presiding bishop, including by hiring Spellers to oversee efforts on all three fronts.

The three 90-minute TEConversations organized by Spellers’ team will offer prominent showcases for such efforts while seeking to deepen the discussion on the core theological issues.

“The TEConversations are a way to open up a different kind of learning and engagement at General Convention,” Spellers said in an email. “We wanted to hear fascinating and unique perspectives on evangelism, reconciliation and creation care; mix the talks with art and song and film; and then open up an intentional space for small group sharing and conversation.

“The great hope is that it extends into the exhibit space and into churches far beyond who livestream and host their own small groups.”

The racial reconciliation discussion is 10:30 a.m. July 6 and will feature Arno Michaelis, an author and former skinhead; Catherine Meeks, chair of the Diocese of Atlanta’s Anti-Racism Commission; and the Rev. Nancy Frausto, a “Dreamer” from the Diocese of Los Angeles who was brought to the United States from Mexico as a child.

The discussion of evangelism will be at 2:30 p.m. July 7, and the panel will feature the Rev. Lauren Winner, a priest and author; Iowa Bishop Alan Scarfe, who led revivals at every congregation in his diocese last year; and the Rev. Daniel Velez-Rivera, a church planter in the Diocese of Virginia.

Care of creation will be the topic at 10:30 a.m. July 10. Panelists will be the Most Rev. Thabo Makgoba, archbishop of Cape Town; the Rev. Stephanie Johnson, co-chair of the Stewardship of Creation Advisory Council, and Bernadette Demientieff, leader of a Native Alaskan group defending the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

New worship times and a Saturday revival

One big change at this General Convention is the worship times. In the past, Eucharist was celebrated each morning, which segmented the legislative schedule and sometimes led to truncated late-morning sessions. At this convention, worship each day will take place in the evening.

The two exceptions are the opening Eucharist at 9:30 a.m. July 5 and the Sunday worship on July 8, when attendees are encouraged to attend services in local parishes in Austin or the simple Eucharist that will be offered at the convention center at 10:30 a.m.

There will be nothing simple, however, about worship on July 7. That Saturday evening service, a revival-style worship featuring preaching by Curry, is expected to be the largest event of General Convention. It is open to the public, and turnout may get a boost from Curry’s increased profile after his royal wedding sermon in May.

“There’s never been anything like it,” Barlowe said of the revival. “For one thing, it’s going to be at a separate venue” – the Palmer Events Center across the Colorado River from the convention center.

Worship is scheduled from 5:30 to 7 p.m. and will be followed by a barbecue organized by the Diocese of Texas, which has been a gracious hometown host, Barlowe said.

“The clergy and lay leaders have gone the extra mile,” Barlowe said. “They’re going to give us a real Texas welcome.”

Parallel events during convention

Plenty of activities, in addition to legislative business, will be taking place in and around the convention center while the Episcopal Church gathers in Austin. One prominent example is the Episcopal Church Women’s Triennial, which is more than 100 years old. It will be July 5 to 11.

Barlowe also noted the Official Youth Presence, which is a group of 16 teens, two from each province, who have seat and voice in the House of Deputies and visit the House of Bishops. They often testify at committee hearings. The Young Adult Festival will be underway, as will General Convention’s program for children, including educational activities.

The bishops and deputies also have scheduled high-profile events on specific issues, starting with the House of Bishops’ listening session for Episcopalians to share stories of sexual harassment, abuse and exploitation at 5:15 p.m. July 4. The session, “Pastoral Response to #MeToo,” will include a selection of reflections submitted in advance.

Bishops United Against Gun Violence has scheduled a public witness event at Brush Square Park at 9:30 a.m. July 8. Speakers will include Philip and April Schentrup, Episcopalians from Florida whose daughter, Carmen, was one of the 17 students and educators killed by a gunman Feb. 14 at Parkland’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. Abigail Zimmerman, a ninth-grader and Episcopalian from Texas, also will speak. She co-led a school walkout in March in response to the Parkland, Florida, massacre.

And the House of Deputies announced last week that church leaders were organizing a visit to an immigration detention facility to highlight the recent controversy over the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” immigration policy toward migrant families crossing the border illegally with children. A prayer service is planned for about noon July 8 outside the T. Don Hutto Residential Detention Center. The privately owned prison is operated for U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, in Taylor, Texas, about a 40-minute drive northeast of Austin.

Curry and Jennings, who plan to attend the prayer service, arranged to delay the Sunday legislative calendar by an hour to accommodate bishops and deputies who also want to participate.

– David Paulsen is an editor and reporter for the Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at dpaulsen@episcopalchurch.org. The Rev. Mary Frances Schjonberg, senior editor and reporter, contributed to this story.