Responding to Presiding Bishop Michael Curry’s call to “Follow the Way of Jesus,” deputies and bishops at the 79th General Convention of the Episcopal Church, meeting July 5 – 13 in Austin, Texas, acted on a record number of resolutions on key issues such as immigration, prayer book revision, Israel-Palestine, and readmitting the Episcopal Church of Cuba as a diocese.
Convention also passed a $134 million budget that reflects for a further three years the presiding bishop’s priorities of evangelism, racial reconciliation and creation care. Meanwhile, the legislative processes were overseen by a resident roost of avian observers, one of which adopted a social media presence to bring a steady flow of light-feathered moments to convention amid the often-intense and passionate debates on key issues before the church.
Outside the legislative chambers, several events brought together bishops, deputies and visitors to mingle, socialize, pray, worship and advocate, with a public witness against gun violence and another outside an immigrant detention center challenging the actions of the U.S. government in its enforcement of immigration policies. A revival service at Austin’s Palmer Events Center on July 7 drew a crowd of more than 2,500 people who listened to Presiding Bishop Michael Curry’s rousing sermon about how “God is love and gives life.”
In his opening sermon on July 5, Curry challenged every Episcopalian to embrace the “Way of Love: Practices for a Jesus-centered life” as a way to help the church enter into a new era of spiritual growth. (For more information about the Way of Love framework, visit bit.ly/2CAFS3V.)
$134 million budget adopted
Convention adopted a 2019-2021 budget that reflects the presiding bishop’s priorities, which have been referred to as the “three pillars” of the Episcopal branch of the Jesus Movement:
- Nearly $10.4 million in racial reconciliation work.
- $5.2 million on evangelism. “There has been talk that the proposed budget cuts resources for church planting,” Joint Committee on Program, Budget and Finance (PB&F) chair, Deputy Barbara Miles said. “This is not true. The budget [in that category] remains steady at $3 million.”
- Some $1 million on care of creation.
It also continues to be built on what Maine Bishop Stephen Lane, vice chair of PB&F, told the joint session is “the foundation of our continuing ministries as a church and our commitments to others both within and beyond our church.” In addition, it includes the foundation of the church’s “ongoing commitment to conciliar governance, and the legal, financial and other services of the Church Center [the denominational offices in New York].”
Deputies and bishops had requested 39 task forces, standing commissions or other interim bodies and several new staff positions whose costs exceeded available revenue by more than $15 million.
Lane said it was clear to the committee that “our church has not yet lived into the culture of leaner and lower — that is, of reducing the bureaucracy of the church, as we decided in the last triennium in response to the Task Force for Reimagining the Episcopal Church [TREC] report, and in pushing ministry work closer to the ground, closer to the parishes, which are the heart of our institutional life.”
He added, “Many have grieved the loss of particular churchwide ministry offices and programs and have sought to re-establish them at this convention. PB&F has heard these pleas, and the budget reflects our efforts to respond,” while trying to control costs and ground spending around the three pillars.
PB&F had three principles guiding its work when considering those spending requests, according to Lane and Barbara Miles, deputy from Washington and vice chair of PB&F. The first was to expand staff only where major new work requires it. The second was to favor the creation of networks and time-limited task forces, rather than new, canonically required standing commissions. And third, the committee focused on keeping money in dioceses by preserving the assessment rate at 15 percent “to control total spending so that our commitment to ministry at the local level is maintained and expanded,” Lane said.
Diocesan assessments made mandatory
The budget is based on a number of income sources, beginning with diocesan contributions, which will be mandatory for the first time in the church’s history, based on a 2015 General Convention decision. If all 109 dioceses and three regional areas pay the required 15 percent, there will be $88,855,970 available, assuming that diocesan income will grow annually by a half percent.
Annual giving in the three-year budget is based on a percentage of each diocese’s income two years earlier. PB&F’s draft budget allows dioceses to exempt $140,000 of income from their assessment calculation. The exemption was $150,000 during the 2012 – 2015 triennium.
For a variety of reasons, not all dioceses pay the full asking. Lane said only 19 dioceses are asking for full or partial waivers and $5.5 million is in PB&F’s proposed budget to account for waivers for up to 20 dioceses.
Without getting a waiver, a diocese that does not pay the full assessment will be unable to get grants or loans from the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society (DFMS, the name under which the Episcopal Church is incorporated, conducts business and carries out mission).
The dioceses have moved from 40 percent paying at the full rate to more than 80 percent, bringing in $10 million in additional income, Lane said.
Additional major amounts of income are anticipated from DFMS investments; from leasing space in the Episcopal Church Center; events and programs, including Episcopal Migration Ministries’ refugee loan program and General Convention; and a new annual appeal to which members of PB&F have pledged their support.
The budget now becomes the shared purview of PB&F and Executive Council. Between meetings of convention, the canons assign oversight of the budget to the council while convention’s Joint Rules of Order assign very similar responsibilities to PB&F.
Executive Council crafts annual budgets out of the spending plan that General Convention passes. Typically, council adjusts each of the three annual budgets based on changing income and expenses. At least one PB&F member attends each of the council’s nine meetings during the triennium.
Full access to trial-use marriage rites
Convention agreed in passing Resolution B012 to give all Episcopalians, whether LGBT or straight, the ability to be married by their priests in their home churches.
Resolution B012 went from the House of Deputies to the bishops and back to the deputies on its road to approval. Deputies overwhelmingly approved a heavily amended version on July 9, and the House of Bishops added a technical amendment two days later that does not change B012’s goal of giving full access to two trial-use marriage rites for same-sex and opposite-sex couples approved by the 2015 meeting of General Convention (via Resolution A054).
Resolution B012 provides for:
- Giving rectors or clergy in charge of a congregation the ability to provide access to the trial use of the marriage rites for same-sex and opposite-sex couples. Resolution A054 (2015) and the original version of B012 said that clergy could only use the rites under the direction of their bishop.
- Requiring that, if a bishop “holds a theological position that does not embrace marriage for same-sex couples,” he or she may invite another bishop, if necessary, to provide “pastoral support” to any couple desiring to use the rites, as well as to the clergy member and congregation involved. In any case, an outside bishop must be asked to take requests for remarriage if either member of the couple divorced to fulfill a canonical requirement that applies to opposite-sex couples.
- Continuing trial use of the rites until the completion of the next comprehensive revision of the Book of Common Prayer.
New plan for liturgical and prayer book revision
Convention adopted a plan for liturgical and prayer book revision that sets the stage for the creation of new liturgical texts to respond to the needs of Episcopalians across the church while continuing to use the 1979 Book of Common Prayer.
Resolution A068 originally called for the start of a process that would lead to a fully revised prayer book in 2030. The bishops instead adopted a plan for “liturgical and prayer book revision for the future of God’s mission through the Episcopal branch of the Jesus Movement.”
The bishops’ amended resolution calls for bishops to engage worshipping communities in their dioceses in experimentation and creation of alternative liturgical texts that they will submit to a new Task Force on Liturgical and Prayer Book Revision, to be appointed by the presiding bishop and the president of the House of Deputies.
It also says that liturgical revision will utilize inclusive and expansive language and imagery for humanity and divinity, and will incorporate understanding, appreciation and care of God’s creation. The House of Deputies concurred.
Meanwhile, General Convention also adopted a resolution that allows all congregations in the Episcopal Church to use optional, expansive-language versions of three Rite II Eucharistic prayers in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer.
PB&F left it to Executive Council, the officers of the church, and the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music “to design a budget and funding process for the work” the convention eventually calls for, according to Lane. The budget does include $201,000 for what it calls “improved translation of the current prayer book.”
In other actions, the convention ensured that three 20th-century figures are a permanent part of the Episcopal Church’s calendar of saints.
Thurgood Marshall (May 17), Pauli Murray (July 2) and Florence Li Tim-Oi (Jan. 24) “are already very widely commemorated within the Episcopal Church,” the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music told the 79th General Convention in proposing the three’s permanence.
Marshall, the first African-American to serve on the Supreme Court, lived in New York while serving as an attorney for the NAACP, and joined the historically black St. Philip’s Episcopal Church in Harlem in 1938.
Murray was an early civil rights activist, fiery feminist and the first African-American woman ordained a priest in the Episcopal Church.
Li became the first woman priest in the Anglican Communion when Hong Kong Bishop Ronald Hall ordained her in 1944 in Macao. Her ordination caused much controversy after the end of World War II, and she decided not to continue exercising her priesthood until it was acknowledged by the wider Anglican Communion.
Convention also authorized a new version of Lesser Feasts and Fasts for trial use over the next three years.
Acting on immigration
If there was one issue that defied any expectation of controversy at the 79th General Convention, it was immigration.
Bishops and deputies arrived in Austin the first week of July on the heels of a national uproar over the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy toward immigration, particularly the decision to separate children from parents in detention. And despite the administration’s reversal on family separations, immigration policies continued to be a hot-button issue, including in the border state that hosted the Episcopal Church’s triennial gathering.
But if the country remains divided over what to do about immigration, the thousands of Episcopalians gathered at convention presented a unified front in support of families who have been separated, those facing deportation and immigrants in general — through prayer, testimony, action and legislation, adopting three resolutions on immigration issues.
Resolution C033 puts the church on record as respecting the dignity of immigrants and outlines how public policy should reflect that belief; A178 takes a forceful stand against family separations and treatment of immigrant parents and children; and C009, titled “Becoming a Sanctuary Church,” encourages Episcopalians and congregations to reach out to and support immigrants facing deportation, including by providing physical sanctuary if they choose.
One of the defining moments of this General Convention was the prayer vigil held July 8 outside the T. Don Hutto Residential Center, an immigrant detention facility little more than a half-hour drive outside of Austin. A massive gathering of more than a thousand Episcopalians prayed and sang in support of immigrant parents and children who had been separated.
Challenging injustices in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict
General Convention wrapped up its consideration of resolutions relating to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with mixed results due largely to the House of Bishops’ unwillingness to take many of the bolder steps urged by the House of Deputies.
Of the 15 resolutions submitted on Israel-Palestine going into General Convention, only six passed both houses, though the successful resolutions still touch on the plight of Palestinian children, the status of Jerusalem, the disproportionate use of lethal force on both sides and ways the Episcopal Church can press for peace through its investment decisions.
Bishops and deputies, even those arguing for a tougher stance against the conditions of Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories, took pains to affirm Israel’s right to exist and to defend itself, citing longstanding church policy toward the region. And while the bishops rejected the most controversial resolution, D019, saying it amounted to a dangerous “divestment” from Israel, they did join the deputies in passing Resolution B016, which echoes D019 in its use of the phrase “human rights investment screen.” Unlike D019 however, Resolution B016 includes no timeline for action by Executive Council or any reference to church complicity in the occupation, though it ultimately could result in the church pulling money out of companies that do business there.
Efforts that began in 2015 with action by General Convention, when racial reconciliation was identified as a priority of the Episcopal Church, bore fruit in work done during the 79th General Convention.
That emphasis was made clear early on in the convention, when a joint session of deputies and bishops spent 90 minutes focused on racial reconciliation, one of three TEConversations.
The racial reconciliation program featured three speakers: Arno Michaelis, a former leader of a worldwide racist skinhead organization who now works to get people out of similar hate groups; Catherine Meeks, director of the Absalom Jones Episcopal Center for Racial Healing in Atlanta; and the Rev. Nancy Frausto, assistant priest at St. Luke’s, Long Beach, a “Dreamer” who came to the United States without documents as a seven-year-old child. (Portions of their presentations are at www.episcopalchurch.org/teconversations).
- Framing discussions throughout the convention was the concept of “Becoming Beloved Community,” the Episcopal Church’s long-term commitment to racial healing, reconciliation and justice. It represents a series of interrelated commitments around which Episcopalians can organize efforts to respond to racial injustice and build a community of people working for reconciliation and healing:
- Telling the truth about the church and race
- Proclaiming the dream of beloved community
- Practicing the way of love
- Repairing the breach in society and institutions.
Resolution D022 provides $5 million over the next three years to help dioceses and other entities of the church respond to racial injustice. The Rev. John Kitagawa, deputy from Arizona and a member of the joint legislative committee on Racial Justice and Reconciliation, said most of the money will go to grants to help this work in communities — dioceses, congregations and regions. “Many things in the past have been top-down,” he said. “This is bottom-up.”
Bishop Prince Singh of Rochester, bishop chair of the legislative committee, said he was most excited about a new initiative adopted by the convention — a Beloved Community summit. Resolution A228 provides for a gathering of leaders working in racial reconciliation and racial justice across the Episcopal Church before the end of 2019.
The convention also tackled the issue of expanding anti-racism efforts to include racial reconciliation. That is reflected in Resolution B004, which started as a call for an end to use of the term “anti-racism” as spiritually imprecise. It was amended to encourage continuing work to address institutional and systemic racism while acknowledging the need to work for healing, justice and reconciliation.
The Racial Justice and Reconciliation Committee also presented Resolution A230, “Deploring the Sin of Scapegoating in Politics,” which was drafted by Bishop John Harvey Taylor of the Diocese of Los Angeles. The resolution “proclaims that the Episcopal branch of the Jesus Movement repudiates all political appeals and language rooted in the sin of scapegoating groups of human beings on the basis of race, language, culture, belief, caste, economic and physical condition, immigration status, gender identification, and sexual orientation.”
In the House of Bishops, Taylor spoke briefly in favor of the resolution, which was passed by voice vote without comment or debate, and ratified the next day by the House of Deputies.
A focus on the voices of women
The voices and stories of women played a significant role in the workings of the 79th General Convention, from a liturgy where bishops offered laments and confession for the church’s role in sexual harassment, exploitation and abuse, to Resolution D087 that allows deputies to bring infant children on the floor of the House of Deputies to feed them.
On the night of July 4, before the convention officially opened, a “Liturgy of Listening” featured stories from women and men who were victims of sexual misconduct perpetrated by someone in the church. Bishop DeDe Duncan-Probe of the Diocese of Central New York, who planned the service, said it was designed to help set a framework for General Convention’s consideration of resolutions dealing with sexual misconduct, exploitation and gender disparity.
As part of a response to that liturgy, the House of Bishops on July 8 adopted a covenant that commits them to seek changes in their dioceses to combat abuse, harassment and exploitation. The document, which applies only to bishops, is titled “A Working Covenant for the Practice of Equity and Justice for All in The Episcopal Church.”
Cuba is readmitted to The Episcopal Church
Convention voted to admit, or readmit, the Episcopal Church of Cuba as a diocese by passing Resolution A238. The Diocese of Cuba is set to join Province II, which includes dioceses from New York and New Jersey in the United States, Haiti and the Virgin Islands.
Immediately following the House of Bishops’ July 10 vote, Cuba Bishop Griselda Delgado del Carpio was seated in the House of Bishops. After the concurring vote in the House of Deputies the Rev. Gerardo Lojildes and Mayelin Aqueda were seated as deputies between the dioceses of Venezuela and Puerto Rico.
Following the vote and a prolonged standing ovation, House of Deputies President Gay Jennings invited Delgado to address the house. “Right now, I feel that the Holy Spirit is blowing on this entire convention and that it is moving: It’s moving here for all of us to really work with it in this very difficult world to make sure that we fulfill the needs of this world,” said Delgado through an interpreter.
“We meet like this in convention to put the family in order; that’s what’s behind it. And this is done so that we can welcome everyone.”
Reunification was a long time coming. The House of Bishops in 1966 voted unilaterally to separate from the Episcopal Church in Cuba in response to the effects of the Cuban Revolution and the United States’ response.
The Episcopal Church of Cuba traces its origins back to an Anglican presence beginning in 1871. Today, there are some 46 congregations and missions serving 10,000 members and the wider communities. During the 1960s, Fidel Castro’s government began cracking down on religion, jailing religious leaders and believers. It wasn’t until Pope John Paul II’s 1998 visit to Cuba that the government began a move back toward tolerance of religion.
When it took its unilateral action in 1966, the House of Bishops “stabbed Cuba in the heart, and it refused to die,” said retired Southeast Florida Bishop Leo Frade, a Cuban who was 23 years old when the bishops voted to expel Cuba.
“House of Deputies did nothing, the House of Bishops acted. … It was an unconstitutional action by a House of Bishops that had no authority to kick us out,” said a tearful Frade, speaking to the House of Bishops. “As Cubans, Cubans refuse to die. The reality is that the Church of Cuba is still alive, and it belongs here.”
Formerly a missionary district, the Episcopal Church of Cuba has functioned as an autonomous diocese of the Anglican Communion under the authority of the Metropolitan Council of Cuba since it was separated from the U.S.-based Episcopal Church in 1967.
Compensation for deputies’ president
Convention agreed to a plan to pay the president of the House of Deputies for the work of the office.
Resolution B014 passed with no dollar figure attached but agreed to pay the House of Deputies president director’s and officer’s fees “for specific services rendered in order to fulfill duties required by the church’s Constitution and Canons.”
The House of Deputies elected Gay Jennings to a third and final (due to term limits) three years as its president during the Austin meeting.
Extensive day-to-day coverage of General Convention by Episcopal News Service here. Daily reports from The Episcopal News may be found here. For texts of resolutions, visit the General Convention Media Hub here.