Hundreds of bishops, deputies converge on Louisville as 81st General Convention gets underway

By David Paulsen
Posted Jun 21, 2024
Louisville skyline

Louisville, Kentucky, is the state’s largest city with about 250,000 residents and sits on the banks of the Ohio River. Photo: David Paulsen/Episcopal News Service

[Episcopal News Service – Louisville, Kentucky] The Episcopal Church’s home base for the next week will be at the corner of Fourth and Jefferson streets, where a steady stream of bishops and deputies has begun filing through the Kentucky International Convention Center as they check in for the 81st General Convention.

Downtown hotels are full. Restaurants are buzzing with conversations among bishops, clergy and lay leaders, their color-coded name badges hanging from their necks. The exhibit hall opened at noon June 21, and legislative committees are preparing to kick off their final hearings and deliberations in morning sessions June 22.

“It’s a blessing to be here,” Presiding Bishop Michael Curry said during a morning press conference on June 21 in a lower-level room reserved for media in the convention center. He was joined for the hour-long session by House of Deputies President Julia Ayala Harris and the Rev. Michael Barlowe, General Convention’s executive officer.

“Louisville is an extraordinary place. It has an extraordinary history,” Ayala Harris said. “It’s also such a fun town.”

Get full, updating ENS coverage of the 81st General Convention here.

Barlowe noted that the Christian mystic, monk and writer Thomas Merton had his spiritual awakening on a corner in downtown Louisville. The city also was the hometown of boxing great Muhammad Ali. And Barlowe emphasized the Diocese of Kentucky’s ministry of advocacy and healing after the March 2020 killing of Breonna Taylor, a Black woman fatally shot in her home by police.

“I am thrilled to be in the Diocese of Kentucky and in the city of Louisville to add to their witness,” Barlowe said.

From left, Presiding Bishop Michael Curry; the Rev. Michael Barlowe, General Convention’s executive officer, and House of Deputies President Julia Ayala Harris participate in a news conference June 21 before the start of the 81st General Convention in Louisville, Kentucky. Photo: Randall A. Gornowich

General Convention, typically held in a different host city every three years, is The Episcopal Church’s largest churchwide gathering and functions as a hub for fellowship, networking, social events and church governance. The bicameral convention serves as the church’s primary governing body, dividing its authority between the House of Deputies and House of Bishops.

Registered attendees include 167 bishops, two bishops-elect, 829 deputies and 239 alternate deputies, and total attendance in Louisville could approach 10,000, including staff, exhibitors, church-affiliated groups and other visitors.

At each meeting of General Convention, bishops and deputies adopt a budget, hold elections for seats on interim bodies and consider hundreds of resolutions on a range of topics, from new liturgies, canonical changes and governance structures to the church’s public policy stances on migration, the environment, Middle East peace and other issues. (Resolutions can be followed on the church’s Virtual Binder.)

Kentucky International Convention Center

The Kentucky International Convention Center in downtown Louisville 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. Photo: David Paulsen/Episcopal News Service

Another top item on the 81st General Convention’s agenda is to elect and confirm a bishop as the 28th presiding bishop, to succeed Curry when his term ends on Oct. 31. The election will occur June 26 in a closed session of the House of Bishops in the nearby Christ Church Cathedral, and then the House of Deputies will be asked to confirm the result.

A forum with the five candidates for presiding bishop will be held at 4 p.m. Eastern June 21 and will be livestreamed on the church’s Media Hub.

Curry, who became the church’s first Black presiding bishop when he was elected in 2015, has struggled with a series of health emergencies over the past year. He said his latest medical check-up was reassuringly positive after he underwent procedures to address an irregular heartbeat, internal bleeding and a cerebral hemorrhage, or brain bleed.

“I’m here and actually feeling good,” said Curry, who turned 71 in March. He again offered thanks to Episcopalians across the church “who prayed me through some very difficult times.”

The 81st General Convention’s legislative sessions are scheduled for June 23-28. That six-day duration is longer than the pandemic shortened four-day 80th General Convention in 2022 but still shorter than previous gatherings. The convention historically has convened for at least nine legislative days, and festivities could stretch to two weeks when including pre-convention events and committee meetings.

To enable a six-day convention, committees again were expected to conduct most of their hearings and deliberations online in advance of the in-person meeting, as they did in 2022. That process has enabled greater public access to committee meetings, though it also has raised concerns about low attendance and the impact of fewer opportunities for face-to-face interaction in Louisville.

Ayala Harris also formed a special committee in 2023 to propose changes to the House of Deputies Rules of Order that would allow the house to make more effective use of its time at this in-person gathering. Those proposals, which have generated a mixed response from deputies, will be voted on by the full house when it convenes its first legislative day on June 23.

Ayala Harris said this debate over the best way to conduct church governance predates the pandemic, though the pace of change accelerated as the church adopted new technologies to adapt to COVID-19 restrictions on gathering. The 81st General Convention will build on those past discussions.

“Really it’s not about the [number of] days and it’s not about the online meetings. It’s about the core of who we are as Episcopalians and how we go about doing our governance. And that is what we’re looking at right now,” she said during the press conference. “What does it mean to have an inclusive participatory democratic governing body in the now? How can we get more people involved in our governance? How can we include people who don’t speak English? How can we include people who are differently abled?”

Bishops and deputies at this convention are expected to consider Resolution D022, which would create a task force to further study the legislative process and inform future General Convention planning. Another resolution, D048, would push back on the recent shortening of General Convention, calling for future meetings to be held over at least 10 days.

Barlowe, as executive officer, leads the General Convention Office, which is responsible for negotiating contracts for venues and accommodations at each General Convention. He also chairs the Joint Standing Committee on Planning and Arrangements, the interim body that decided that the 81st General Convention would convene for six legislative days.

“I don’t think anyone on that committee thought that this was the final word,” said Barlowe, who is scheduled to retire in August. “We thought this was the best decision for the 81st General Convention.” He acknowledged some of the resolutions encouraging more debate, and added, “I think that one of the hopes of Planning and Arrangements was that General Convention would do exactly that.”

Curry and Ayala Harris are scheduled to deliver opening remarks before a joint session of the House of Bishops and House of Deputies at 2 p.m. Eastern June 22. It will be livestreamed on the church’s Media Hub.

Curry offered a brief preview of his remarks during the news conference, calling this “a profoundly diverse church” – not just racially and ethnically, but also based on geography, nationality, culture and politics. As he prepares to step down as presiding bishop, his message was one of hope for the church after witnessing how it responded to the pandemic with creativity and spirit.

“I saw a church emerge in the pandemic that I never thought I’d see. It emerged out of hardship, and it was not easy.” Curry said. “And that’s the church that will face the future, that’s where the spirit’s at work.”

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


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