80th General Convention postponed to July 2022 as pandemic disrupts planning of triennial gathering

By David Paulsen
Posted Nov 20, 2020

Presiding Bishop Michael Curry opens the 79th General Convention’s first TEConversation July 6, 2018, this one on racial reconciliation. Photo: Mary Frances Schjonberg/Episcopal News Service

[Episcopal News Service] Amid the continued uncertainty of an unrelenting coronavirus pandemic, the church’s presiding officers announced Nov. 20 that they had decided, with Executive Council’s unanimous backing, to postpone the 80th General Convention from July 2021 to July 2022, a move intended to ensure the large churchwide legislative gathering can be held in person in Baltimore, Maryland, as originally planned.

“Like you, we have spent the last several months riding waves of pandemic news,” Presiding Bishop Michael Curry and the Rev. Gay Clark Jennings, president of the House of Deputies, said in a letter to bishops and deputies. Even with vaccines expected to be approved as soon as next month, “it is unlikely that even highly effective vaccines and robust federal intervention would permit us to gather as many as 10,000 people safely by next summer, as we had originally planned.”

Instead, the 80th General Convention has been rescheduled for July 7-14, 2022, with additional preparatory meetings to be held in Baltimore in the days before the convention. That timing means General Convention will conclude just two weeks before the start of the Lambeth Conference of Anglican bishops, which was rescheduled for July 27-Aug. 8, 2022, in Canterbury, England.

READ: Presiding officers’ letter to bishops and deputies on 80th General Convention

General Convention is The Episcopal Church’s largest gathering of each triennium, a hub for nearly two weeks of legislative activity, networking and fellowship. As the church’s primary, bicameral governing body, General Convention splits its authority between the House of Bishops and House of Deputies. Among its responsibilities is approval of a three-year churchwide budget plan, as well as hundreds of additional resolutions covering everything from liturgical revisions to the church’s stances on a long list of public policy issues, such as food insecurity and comprehensive immigration reform.

Every three years, General Convention is a big boon to the host city’s economy, generating an estimated impact of $23-25 million through hotel stays, meals, entertainment and ancillary tourism spending. That was a top consideration, the presiding officers said earlier this year, as they were deliberating whether to postpone the 80th General Convention or try moving it online.

“The Diocese of Maryland is as enthusiastic about hosting the 80th General Convention in 2022 as we had been for 2021,” the Rev. Scott Slater, Maryland’s canon to the ordinary, said in a written statement for this story. The diocese, Slater added, is “grateful for an additional year to plan and prepare to welcome bishops, deputies and guests to Baltimore.”

Curry and Jennings said in their announcement that postponing the in-person convention was possible “without significant contractual penalties.” Planning for General Convention starts at least seven years in advance, with review and selection of the host city finalists, making last-minute changes unrealistic. The churchwide budget includes $750,000 for holding each General Convention.

Episcopal News Service was not allowed access to Executive Council’s discussion of the postponement. Its Nov. 20 online meeting was held in executive session, or closed to the public. Church officials cited contractual and financial discussions as the reason for the executive session.

As outlined in a June 5 letter to the church, the presiding officers had formed a task force to review options for the 80th General Convention. That task force was to present its report to the Joint Standing Committee on Planning and Arrangements. That committee met online Nov. 18, but it, too, was in executive session and not accessible to reporters.

Postponing or moving a General Convention is rare but not unprecedented. A yellow fever outbreak in 1798 forced the postponement of the Sixth General Convention to June 1799 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

In 1918, that year’s devastating influenza pandemic peaked in the fall and eventually would kill an estimated 675,000 Americans and millions more worldwide. The flu, though becoming less virulent, was still circulating in 1919 but did not derail the 46th General Convention, which gathered that October in Detroit, Michigan.

In 1955, church leaders canceled plans to meet in Houston, Texas, because local authorities wouldn’t ensure desegregated facilities. The convention convened in Hawai’i instead.

The decision to delay the 80th General Convention by a year will require some interim measures, particularly regarding the church’s budget and leadership.

Executive Council, which serves as the church’s governing body between meetings of General Convention, normally would prepare a new triennial budget for review early next year. Instead, it will draft a one-year budget for 2022 that will be approved in October 2021. Then in January 2022, it will present a two-year budget proposal, for 2023-24, which will be considered by General Convention when it meets in person in Baltimore.

Curry and Jennings said in their Nov. 20 announcement that an online election will be held in 2021 to form membership of the Joint Nominating Committee for the Election of the Presiding Bishop. Curry’s tenure as the church’s 27th presiding bishop will end in 2024. Jennings is in her final term as House of Deputies president; however, that term doesn’t end until her successor is elected at the next meeting of General Convention.

Arrangements also are in the works to allow those serving in other elected and appointed positions to continue in those roles through 2021. The presiding officers’ letter didn’t elaborate on that process.

And “an online convocation of worship and prayer” will be scheduled for summer 2021 “to help us hear what the Spirit is saying to the church as we prepare to gather at General Convention,” Curry and Jennings said.

“Since March, Episcopalians across the church have responded to our pandemic-stricken communities with compassionate service and committed advocacy, bearing witness to our promise to seek and serve Christ in all persons,” they concluded. “In the coming months, our commitment to the Gospel will be even more essential to our communities and congregations.

“Especially in these difficult days, may we hold fast to loving one another as Jesus commanded and take heart in the promise of a joyful reunion in 2022.”

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