A decision may be getting closer about whether to hold the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) – set for June 20-27 in Baltimore – as scheduled.
Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan announced this week an order to convert the Baltimore Convention Center, where the General Assembly is scheduled to meet, and the nearby city-owned Hilton Hotel into a field hospital for COVID-19 patients.
Hogan did not say when the field hospital would open — it’s intended to provide care for an expected surge of COVID-19 cases. The Maryland National Guard is setting up the facility, which is to be operated by a joint partnership of the University of Maryland Medical System and Johns Hopkins Medicine. Hogan has asked the Federal Emergency Management Agency to provide 250 beds.
The Committee on the Office of the General Assembly is committed to making a decision about the 2020 General Assembly no later than April 15 — and possibly sooner.
Kerry Rice, the PC(USA)’s deputy stated clerk, told the Moving Forward Implementation Commission in a March 24 conference call that “there are wide-ranging conversations as you might imagine going on right now” about what to do about General Assembly – with the Office of the General Assembly staff researching a number of options.
And Hogan’s decision to turn the convention center into a field hospital “may take it out of our hands,” Rice told the commission.
One important consideration: The financial implications for cancelling contracts may be different if the PC(USA) decides not to hold General Assembly as scheduled, or if Maryland officials tell the church it can’t hold the General Assembly at the convention center in June. “If the state does something, then we get our money back,” Rice told the commission. “If we chose to do something, we don’t.”
Rick Jones, communications director for the Office of the General Assembly, has said the rules require that “there has to be a General Assembly this year, during the calendar year” — but what shape that may take is still under consideration.
The Southern Baptist Convention announced March 24 that it will cancel its annual meeting, scheduled for June 9-10 in Orlando, and will skip a year and meet next in June 2021 in Nashville, Tennessee. The last time the Southern Baptist Convention canceled a meeting was in 1945, during World War II, when the U.S. government prohibited meetings of groups larger than 50 people.
The United Methodist Church announced March 18 that it would postpone its 2020 General Conference, which had been scheduled for May 5-15 in Minneapolis — and where delegates were expected to take momentous votes on whether to split the denomination. That announcement came after officials at the Minneapolis Convention Center decided to restrict all events at the convention center through May 10.
In announcing the cancellation, Southern Baptist Convention president J. D. Greear cited both the spread of COVID-19 and the cost congregations would incur to send representatives to the meeting. “We believe without reservation this is the right thing for Southern Baptist to do,” Greear said in a video announcement.
He also said: “I don’t need to tell you how many of our churches are hurting right now. Or how most of our communities are experiencing unprecedented need. In this extraordinary hour, pastors need to be focused on their people, and churches need to be focused on their communities. Pausing from these efforts to make a costly trip to Orlando just doesn’t seem like the right thing to do. … Let me encourage you to consider reallocating resources that might normally have been spent on getting to the convention to minister to people in crisis.”
A “frequently asked questions” list on the denomination’s website addressed the question of why not hold the convention online, with remote voting?
The answer: “Although SBC Annual Meetings have been live-streamed for years, SBC governing documents state that ‘No proxy voting is permitted. All propositions, decisions, and choices shall be by a majority vote of the messengers present and voting in person, except where provisions have been made for a greater than majority vote.’ ”
As COVID-19 began spreading around the world, the Office of the General Assembly has twice delayed registration for the 2020 General Assembly – most recently, putting off registration until April 20.