2027 General Convention to meet in Phoenix; $2 million approved for Indigenous boarding school research

By David Paulsen
Posted Jun 15, 2023
Vote on Phoenix

Executive Council votes to endorse Phoenix, Arizona, as the host city for the 82nd General Convention in 2027 during the last day of Executive Council’s meeting in Providence, Rhode Island. Photo: David Paulsen/Episcopal News Service

[Episcopal News Service – Providence, Rhode Island] The 82nd General Convention in 2027 will be held in Phoenix, Arizona, based on a plan endorsed June 15 by Executive Council. The church governing body, in the final day of its four-day meeting here, also approved an additional $2 million for research that is just getting underway into The Episcopal Church’s historic ties to Indigenous boarding schools.

The vote in favor of Phoenix was far from unanimous and generated significant controversy because San Juan, Puerto Rico, was passed over for a second straight time. Several Executive Council members said the U.S. territory in the Caribbean should have been given the opportunity to host The Episcopal Church’s largest churchwide gathering. Puerto Rico Bishop Rafael Morales, an Executive Council member, personally expressed disappointment on behalf of his diocese.

“The people of Puerto Rico that I represent feel some rejection about that,” Morales said. He explained that after San Juan was first passed over in favor of Louisville, Kentucky, as host city of the 81st General Convention in 2024, churchwide leaders had encouraged Puerto Rico to try again.

“On the island, we have everything that we’ll need” to host General Convention, Morales said. “The issue was the cost, because of the rooms, because of the hotels,” he said, and the cost of airfare to the island from the continental United States, where most Episcopal dioceses are located. “We were ready to receive the convention with all the facilities, with a good convention center, but money speaks.”

House of Deputies President Julia Ayala Harris, who chaired the June 12-15 meeting, agreed that the loss to Puerto Rico was “devastating and heartbreaking,” though she also spoke strongly in favor of Phoenix as a member of the Joint Standing Committee on Planning and Arrangements that made the recommendation. (Presiding Bishop Michael Curry also is a member of that committee and typically chairs Executive Council, but he remained home this week to receive medical care and monitoring for atrial fibrillation and internal bleeding.)

“It’s not only finances and money but other logistical rubber-that-meets-the-road [factors],” she said, such as hotel capacity for a weeklong gathering that can draw up to 10,000 people. Ayala Harris and other church leaders also concluded that meeting in Phoenix would highlight the Diocese of Arizona’s engagement with the state’s Native American tribes, the creation of a new Union of Black Episcopalians chapter and Arizona’s expanding borderland ministries.

General Convention, which splits its authority between the House of Bishops and House of Deputies, is both the church’s primary governing body and a large hub for networking and fellowship. It typically meets in a different city every three years and generates several million dollars in economic activity for its host city while shining a spotlight on the work of the host diocese.

Executive Council is the church’s governing body between meetings of General Convention. The 40 voting members of Executive Council are a mix of bishops, other clergy and lay leaders. Twenty are elected by General Convention to staggered six-year terms – or 10 new members every three years. The Episcopal Church’s nine provinces elect the other 18 to six-year terms, also staggered. Meetings typically are held three times a year. The next will be in October in Panama.

The Graduate

Executive Council, the church’s governing body between General Conventions, met June 12-15 at the Graduate in downtown Providence, Rhode Island. Photo: David Paulsen/Episcopal News Service

This week’s meeting was held in the Graduate, a 101-year-old hotel originally known as the Biltmore in downtown Providence. Plenary sessions convened in an ornate 17th-floor ballroom, where the southeast windows looked out toward the expansive Narragansett Bay.

“The ways of Rhode Island are complicated and wonderful,” Rhode Island Bishop Nicholas Knisely said June 14 as he and diocesan staff members addressed Executive Council. They welcomed members to the city while highlighting the diocese’s ministries, particularly those related to creation care and racial reconciliation.

In February, when Executive Council met in San Francisco, California, much of the discussion among members focused on the challenges of dismantling racism within The Episcopal Church, and tensions flared as some lamented that Executive Council itself was emblematic of an institution unwilling to change or change fast enough. The denomination remains predominantly white despite its increasingly diverse leadership, and Executive Council this term has more people of color than ever on its roster.

Zena Link, who served on Executive Council from 2015 to 2022 and now leads the Massachusetts-based Mission Institute, led a session at the February meeting on institutional racism, and she returned on June 13 to lead a follow-up session in Providence. Council members spent the second half of the day in small groups discussing ways in which the church’s governing bodies risk perpetuating racial bias and harm. Link encouraged members to consider steps Executive Council could take to be a mission-driven board that equally empowers all to participate and be heard.

Afterward, Joe McDaniel, a member from the Diocese of the Central Gulf Coast, told Episcopal News Service the sessions have been productive and offer a promising but long path forward.

“The work continues,” said McDaniel, a Pensacola, Florida, resident who is known across The Episcopal Church as an anti-racism trainer and leader of the Deputies of Color. “There’s an appreciation for the harm that has been done to marginalized groups, and there’s been a concerted effort to address that.”

Executive Council kicked off this meeting with a focus on spiritual abundance to counter the “scarcity mindset” that has become a familiar reaction to the denomination’s decline in membership and attendance. The church’s finances remain on solid ground for now, though the council’s Joint Budget Committee is developing a budget for the 2025-27 triennium in which existing income likely will not be enough to cover anticipated expenses without significant changes. An online listening session on income sources is scheduled for June 20.

At the same time, about $5.2 million in surplus from the 2019-21 budget remained for Executive Council to spend. The Finance Committee weighed several options before recommending a plan to give $2 million to a newly formed fact-finding commission on Indigenous boarding schools. The resolution, approved June 15 by the full Executive Council, also would set aside the rest of the surplus for “strategic adaptive realignment of our institutional structures” after a new presiding bishop is elected and installed in 2024.

If any of the surplus remains unspent at the end of 2027, it will be divided equally and returned to the 110 dioceses.

The roster of the Indigenous boarding school commission was announced in a House of Deputies newsletter in late May, along with the roster of a separate but related committee that will develop a long-term, churchwide response to that history.

Indigenous Episcopalians have urged action to address the inter-generational trauma that lingers long after the harm done by the federal boarding school system of the 19th and 20th centuries, which sought to take Native American children from their families and assimilate them into the dominant white culture. At least nine were thought to have Episcopal Church connections, though the dearth of churchwide records has made it difficult to fully account for the church’s role in the schools.

Before Executive Council voted in favor of the surplus spending plan, the Rev. Cornelia Eaton, canon to the ordinary of the Episcopal Church in Navajoland, spoke of the need for more robust funding of this work, after the 2023-24 budget set aside an initial $225,000.

“Boarding schools were created to eliminate language and culture, remove Native people from their lands,” she said. With intensive research, “we can now find the truth where we can begin this work toward healing and reconciliation.”

Other issues taken up by Executive Council ranged from a strict anti-LGBTQ+ law in Uganda to a new multicultural grant program. In the resolution on Uganda, Executive Council spoke of “the harm done to Ugandan LGBTQ+ people through this law and grieves the harm done by any church that supports the enacted law, which falls short of the way of love.”

The resolution also specifically calls on Archbishop Stephen Kaziimba of the Anglican Church in Uganda “to reconsider his endorsement of this law due to the global impact of such action, inviting conversations to establish stronger bonds of affection and better protection of all in both of our churches.”

Executive Council approved $75,000 for multicultural grants as a variation on the church’s ongoing church-planting program. These grants will support “embedded” worshiping communities, in which people from cultures and ethnicities that have been historically underrepresented in The Episcopal Church form worshiping communities within existing majority-white congregations.

Executive Council also adopted a resolution that advances efforts to enable the “exchangeability” of deacons between The Episcopal Church and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. By accepting a report on the issue, Executive Council paved the way for 81st General Convention to consider next year the inclusion of deacons in the two churches’ full communion relationship, which already allows Episcopal priests and Lutheran ministers to serve in either denomination’s congregations.

Barlowe in committee meeting

The Rev. Michael Barlowe, secretary of General Convention and chair of the Joint Standing Committee on Planning and Arrangements, speaks June 14 during a meeting of the Governance and Operations Committee. Photo: David Paulsen/Episcopal News Service

In an otherwise low-key meeting, the discussion of General Convention sites generated the most discussion in Executive Council’s closing plenary on June 15.

General Convention has only met outside of the continental U.S. once – in Hawaii, in 1955 – despite The Episcopal Church having a presence in countries and U.S. territories around the world. No General Convention has ever been held in one of the Spanish-speaking dioceses in the Caribbean and Central and South America, though San Juan has twice hosted meetings of Executive Council since 2017.

Phoenix last hosted General Convention in 1991, when some Episcopalians threatened to boycott the meeting because Arizona was at that time one of the only states without a holiday honoring the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Church leaders stuck with Phoenix and incorporated discussions of race into the meeting, and the resolutions passed by that General Convention continue to shape how the church engages with issues of injustice and systemic racism and confronts its own historic and modern-day complicity.

This week, after Morales first expressed his disappointment in a Governance and Operations Committee meeting, committee members drafted a companion resolution to the one endorsing Phoenix as the 2027 host city. The resolution, which passed without dissent on June 15, calls on church leaders to “prioritize sites that would advance the church’s mission of addressing and repairing harm caused by the church as a result of its history and complicity with racism and colonialism.”

Ayala Harris said the hope was that the resolution would prompt changes to the site-selection process in ways that would give a city like San Juan an edge in hosting the 83rd General Convention in 2030. The list of finalists for that year’s convention is due to be approved in June 2024 when bishops and deputies meet in Louisville.

The Rev. Gina Angulo Zamora, a member from the Diocese of Ecuador Litoral, spoke in favor of choosing “a multicultural diocese” like Puerto Rico, one where Episcopalians like her share the local language. She addressed Executive Council in Spanish, with an English interpreter.

Ecuador Litoral is part of the church’s Province IX, made up of Latin American dioceses, and for them, the cost of traveling to the continental United States typically is greater than traveling to a nearby country or territory, Angulo Zamora said. She urged other Episcopal leaders to remember that not all Episcopalians are Americans, and that the church “also has people that live in South America.”

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