I call heaven and earth to witness before you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life, so that you and your descendants may live. Deuteronomy 30:19
I remember hearing this reading from Deuteronomy when I was in middle school. At the time, I was befuddled. How was this even a question, I wondered. Who would possibly choose death? Who would, when given a choice, look at Life and Death, and think—Oooh. Death looks lovely today. I’ll go with that. (I hadn’t heard Eddie Izzard’s “Tea and Cake or Death” but if I had, I would have appreciated the sentiment.) Wouldn’t everyone want to live? Moses was clearly being a tad dramatic.
But it’s been over two years of a global pandemic, and I can now say that Moses was badly understating it. PLENTY of people are excited to choose death. It turns out, a great number of people are happy to embrace death, both for themselves and for those around them, if it means they can remain comfortable. People, as we have now learned, have a frightening capacity to waltz blissfully into the maws of destruction, even consciously, rather than do something they are convinced they would rather not do—be that get a vaccine, wear a mask, or change their plans.
I mention this, because it is again that time when we Episcopalians turn our attention towards General Convention. General Convention was scheduled to occur last summer, but—there was a pandemic. So, the leadership postponed it to this summer. We now appear poised to convene in Baltimore in a few months, for our usual 10 day Episco-fest of resolutions and merriment. Thousands of us will descend on the city, in the way we usually do, to take over hotels, shops, restaurants, and ballrooms.
And to be clear—I love General Convention. I have been attending these since I was 12 when I volunteered in Philadelphia. I love the debates and the weird motions and the legislations and the intensity for stakes that seem absurd to outsiders. I embrace how nerdy this makes me. I love the whole thing.
But I cannot see a way in which General Convention convening right now is not a huge mistake. If we meet, we will be putting a lot of people at risk, in ways that are not compatible with the Gospel, and frankly, we should not do it.
First, let me say that the work the leadership has done to mandate masks and vaccines, and to utilize air purifiers is good work, and should be commended. It is not like our church is unaware of the pandemic; I believe the leadership is trying to address it while also trying to convene Convention.
The problems, though, are legion, and do not disappear because of those good intentions.
First of all, we are not mandating boosters for everyone, only the first and second vaccine (if the Pfizer or Moderna sequence), and “boosters where recommended”. This leaves out the increasingly-vital boosters that fight the omicron variant, not to mention the other variants we now face. (My own pocket of upstate NY is currently dealing with an upsurge that seems to be a subvariant of the BA+ strain.). Also, we have a lot of deputations coming from overseas, where FDA-recognized vaccines are not available. Data on how those vaccines deal with our locally-spreading variants isn’t established. It’s not at all clear how GC will determine who should have gotten a booster, and hasn’t gotten one, or who needs two and has only gotten one. Is GCO going to be checking everyone for chronic illnesses or risk factors that enables us to qualify for a booster, aside from being over 50 years old?**
That introduces a justice issue: people attending this convention do not have equal access to healthcare and paid sick leave, either now, or when they return home. Some deputies (like me!) have adequate health insurance, paid time off if we get sick, and the possibility of accessing good anti-virals if we get sick. Many other deputies, however, do not have paid sick leave, and are already taking their vacation to attend General Convention. We are asking them to risk the loss of more income if they get COVID. Other deputies don’t have health insurance, and/or come from places where they won’t have ready access to a doctor, or to the latest COVID treatments. Even if everyone quarantines in Baltimore, not every deputy can afford $200 a night in a Convention hotel, or the price for a local doctor or treatment.
Also, we have known for a while that our Convention population trends older. Some deputies no doubt can breeze through a COVID infection with no lasting effects; others no doubt are at greater risk because of age or chronic illness. The increased risk factors for COVID are as common as depression or being overweight. That right there is a staggering amount of people, and there is no guarantee who will be fine, who will develop Long Covid, and who will become so ill that they need hospitalization.
We also need to recognize that Convention isn’t a hermeneutically sealed container. While masks will be required in the Convention space (good!), we will all be going to restaurants, and eating without masks. We will be interacting with the staff of the hotels, and breathing in our rooms, without masks. God forbid, if we get sick, we will quarantine in hotels. We will travel through airports and airplanes—spaces which now do not require masks, and all of which could allow transmission.
Even if we could work out a way to provide excellent medicare care, and paid vacation time for every deputy and Bishop at Convention, we would not be able to provide the same for the minimum wage workers at the hotels, airports, and restaurants we encounter. All we can do for them is expose them to COVID, or not.
The fact is, we will spend a great deal of time discussing legislation at Convention about racism, economic inequality, healthcare, and colonialism. Yet the very sins we have spent years legislating against, we are about to enact on a grand scale. We are about to talk about how we cherish and protect the vulnerable while we literally expose them to something that will disproportionately hurt and possibly kill them through our actions. If we hold Convention, it’s going to be privilege in action.
Lest you think I am being dramatic in the vein of Moses, consider: ENS has reported that Navajoland is currently not allowed to gather in groups of more than 25 people, because of how devastating COVID has been to indigenous people here. But we’re about to ask them to come across the country to sit with a few thousand for 10 days. The Diocese of Pennsylvania just had an in-person clergy retreat, with required vaccinations and boosters, but optional masks. Of the 150 clergy who attended, as of this writing, 41 now have COVID.
This pandemic has taken from us many things: security, safety, routine. But it also has given us an opportunity to be the church Christ is calling us to be: one that actually does the things we say we believe in. A church that acts to protect the vulnerable we encounter and that sit in our pews, and doesn’t just talk about it.
We need to cancel Convention. Until we can do it safely. Until we can do it without being hypocrites. Until we can do it within the Gospel.
ETA: This post has been edited at 2:26pm to reflect that 41 clergy in PA have COVID now, not 27. Math is hard and not my forte.
ETA again!: It was pointed out to me by Smart People on Twitter that the guidelines adopted by the Planning and Arrangements Team do require “boosters where recommended.” But that language is from a few months ago, before the rollout of the fourth shot, and again, it’s not clear how GCO is going to figure out who needs a booster and who doesn’t, aside from the honor system. (And how widespread has communication been about the availability of the fourth shot in your area?)