Dear Deputies and Alternate Deputies:
By now, you may have seen the news that Executive Council will meet next Wednesday to discuss how or if COVID-19 ought to affect our plans for General Convention in July. Shortly thereafter, the Joint Standing Committee on Planning and Arrangements will convene for a similar conversation.
To prepare for those meetings, I want to bring you up to date on what has been happening and ask for your advice in the form of a short survey:
A few months ago, the best public health advice we had available indicated that we might be entering a time of low COVID transmission, and that would be possible to hold General Convention as usual with the precautions of required vaccines and masks. Recent events—including a rise in cases across the United States; outbreaks at several church meetings, including a large clergy conference and the Executive Council meeting in Puerto Rico; and a growing understanding of the risks of long COVID—mean that the situation has changed.
At the recent Executive Council meeting, I asked for a budget allocation to hire a public health advisor for the House of Deputies. Through a referral from Dr. Reuben Varghese, the husband of a deputy and a highly qualified public health leader, I began consulting with Dr. Rodney Coldren. Dr. Coldren, who holds a master’s in public health from Johns Hopkins in addition to his medical degree, recently retired after 30 years in the U.S. Army. He led the Army’s COVID-19 response in Europe as the Regional Health Command Europe and U.S. Army Europe and Africa Public Health Emergency Officer.
Dr. Coldren has advised me that the current wave of COVID may well peak about the time of General Convention, and we should anticipate using what he calls “the 90 percent solution.” In short, with precautions that would include:
- our planned vaccine and mask requirements
- daily rapid testing of all attendees
- a ban on food on the floor of the House
- social distance
- a ban on singing, even when masked,
we could expect to hold our COVID transmission rate at about ten percent of people attending General Convention. He acknowledges that the best medical advice would be to postpone the convention, but understands that medical considerations are not the only ones at hand.
I have heard from many of you in recent days with your ideas, advice, and concerns about holding General Convention in the current pandemic situation. Some of you would like to postpone until 2024. Others would like to meet for at least a few days to hold elections and handle other essential business, with only deputies and bishops in attendance. Still others would like to meet online or in a hybrid format and favor gathering a small group to amend the House of Deputies Rules of Order to allow it. And some of you would like to go forward with General Convention as it is currently planned.
I am not the only decision-maker about how to hold General Convention, and there are many competing interests involved in the current conversations. But I have serious reservations about holding an event at which people are nearly guaranteed to get sick. I am also very reluctant to delay elections for new leaders and debate on key resolutions for two more years. And I am hesitant to embrace an online or hybrid solution that would have to include a rush to amend our Rules of Order in ways that could be used to limit the role of the House of Deputies at future General Conventions and minimize the role of laypeople and clergy in the governance of the church. In short, I see no good solutions, and so I am looking for an acceptable one.
So that I can act in the best interests of the House of Deputies in the coming days, would you take the time to complete this short survey about General Convention and COVID-19? It will remain open until May 15, but I would be very grateful if you are able to complete it by Tuesday, May 10, so that I can have the benefit of your perspective in time for the meetings scheduled on Wednesday.
Most of all, please pray for the church, for the House of Deputies, and for all who have suffered from COVID-19. May God grant us wisdom and courage in the days ahead.