Presiding officers’ opening convention speeches offer hope for future of The Episcopal Church

By David Paulsen
Posted Jun 22, 2024

Presiding Bishop Michael Curry receives applause from bishops and deputies during his opening remarks before a joint session June 22 at the 81st General Convention, with House of Deputies President Julia Ayala Harris behind him. Photo: Scott Gunn

[Episcopal News Service – Louisville, Kentucky] This wasn’t a true goodbye. Presiding Bishop Michael Curry doesn’t officially conclude his nine-year term until Oct. 31.

But with the 81st General Convention ready to convene June 23-28 for what will be the last churchwide meeting of Curry’s momentous tenure as the chief pastor and public face of The Episcopal Church, his opening remarks to a joint session of the House of Bishops and House of Deputies were framed partly as a fond farewell address.

“I do want to say to this entire body, to this church, it has been a great privilege,” Curry said. “It has been an honor. I thank God that I have been able to serve as presiding bishop of this church.”

The assembled crowd of hundreds of bishops and deputies from more than 100 dioceses rose to their feet to shower Curry with applause and cheers.

Curry’s remarks, along with those of House of Deputies President Julia Ayala Harris, also set the tone for a weeklong General Convention that will spend part of its time looking necessarily inward. In addition to electing and confirming Curry’s successor as presiding bishop and a churchwide budget for the 2025-27 triennium, much of the conversation so far in Louisville has focused on how The Episcopal Church will respond to membership decline and denominational contraction after weathering pandemic disruptions to congregational life.

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

House of Deputies president

House of Deputies President Julia Ayala Harris gives her opening remarks to the 81st General Convention on June 22 to a joint session of the House of Deputies and House of Bishops at the Kentucky International Convention Center in Louisville. Photo: Randall A. Gornowich

“We have navigated through unprecedented challenges as church,” Ayala Harris said in her opening remarks. In addition to COVID-19, she cited the national and global reckoning with systemic racism, continued fights for LGBTQ+ rights, political polarization and economic uncertainty. The church has engaged in its own racial truth-telling processes while researching its historical role in Indigenous boarding schools and considering reforms to its clergy disciplinary canons.

“I have seen firsthand the depths of your faith, the strength of your commitment and the power of our unity in Jesus,” she said. “We find ourselves at a crossroads. The road behind us is long and winding. The road ahead is foggy and uncertain, but one thing is clear: We cannot go back to where we were before. The world has changed and so have we. The only way forward is to keep walking together in love.”

General Convention, The Episcopal Church’s primary governing body, typically convenes every three years in a different host city and diocese. It divides its authority between the House of Bishops and House of Deputies, and according to early estimates at least 167 bishops, two bishops-elect, 829 deputies and 239 alternate deputies were registered to attend the 81st General Convention, hosted by the Diocese of Kentucky.

Although the two houses will hold six days of legislative sessions, preconvention events and committee meetings will extend the duration to longer than a week. Total attendance in Louisville could approach 10,000, including staff, exhibitors, church-affiliated groups and other visitors.

This also will be the last General Convention for the Rev. Michael Barlowe, who is scheduled to retire in August as executive officer. As Curry noted in his remarks, Barlowe wears many other hats in church leadership, including General Convention secretary, and veteran deputies will fondly anticipate his way of methodically introducing each order of business in that house.

After delivering a spirited “It’s showtime!” to kick off the June 22 joint session, Barlowe took a few moments to acknowledge his own pending farewell. “It has been a singular honor to serve you and The Episcopal Church, and I thank God and I thank you.”

As executive officer, Barlowe heads the General Convention Office, which is responsible for planning all aspects of the triennial gathering, which serves as a hub for fellowship, networking, church governance and discerning the church’s positions on a range of spiritual and public policy matters. The General Convention Office also facilitated the move to online committee meetings and hearings in response to the pandemic.

Committees were expected to complete most of their work in advance of meeting in person. Though most committees still met in person starting June 22 to take up some final resolutions, Ayala Harris underscored what she saw as the benefits of moving most of the committees’ work online. The committees, she said, held 47 meetings and 55 hearings on Zoom – opening church governance to anyone with a computer and an Internet across the United States and the world. Those meetings logged more than 2,500 attendees, she said.

Of those attendees, 519 registered to testify, while more than 2,000 registered as observers, according to the Episcopal Church’s Office of Public Affairs.

“Those are the people of our church speaking directly to the governance of our church in a way that has never been possible before,” she said.

Ayala Harris also touted what she called a “voluntary House of Deputies community covenant,” which 574 house members have signed so far, “committing ourselves to the values of respect, trust and mutual care that must guide our work together.”

“As we gather for this 81st General Convention, may we come with open and expectant hearts,” she said. “May we draw strength from the living waters of our faith, trusting that the same God that has brought us this far will surely lead us into our future church.”

Presiding bishop

Presiding Bishop Michael Curry addresses the 81st General Convention on June 22. His successor is scheduled to be elected and confirmed on June 26, and his nine-year term ends Oct. 31. Photo: Randall A. Gornowich

Curry is scheduled to deliver the sermon June 22 at church’s evening revival before an 8,000-capacity crowd at the KFC Yum! Center, a nearby arena overlooking the banks of the Ohio River. During his afternoon remarks to the joint session of General Convention, Curry said he would save the preaching for later – while also joking to his knowing audience of bishops and deputies that he had an applicable Bible lesson or two to share with them.

He primarily invoked the Gospel of John and Jesus’ final teachings to his disciples. “You will have tribulation, but be of good cheer,” he said, quoting John 16:33. For The Episcopal Church, the tribulation might be parochial reports showing decline in membership or church attendance, Curry said, but Episcopalians should not lose hope. Follow in Jesus’ footsteps, he said, and “we shall overcome.”

“I’m not worried about the future of The Episcopal Church. … It’s not going to be easy. It never has been easy,” Curry’s said, his voice rising. “This Episcopal Church is stronger, more durable and has a future that God has decreed. And I’m here to tell you, don’t you worry about this church. Don’t you weep and don’t you moan. Just roll up your sleeves and let’s get to work.”

His concluding line was delivered with his much-beloved oratorical fire, and the bishops and deputies, standing again, roared their approval and their appreciation.

– 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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