SALT LAKE CITY — As the Episcopal Church embarks on its 78th General Convention this week, church leaders are intently focused on healing the world, the nation and the church itself.
At a news conference Tuesday at the Salt Palace Convention Center, the Rev. Gay Clark Jennings, president of the Episcopal Church's House of Deputies, said people of faith and goodwill have been "electrified" by officer-involved shootings of black men and boys across the country, and more recently "the slaughter of nine black Christians by a white supremacist in Charleston, South Carolina."
"I believe that God is calling on us to dismantle the systems of racism and privilege that are inextricably bound up in the history of the United States and in our church, which was founded … in the early days of the republic," Rev. Jennings said.
The Episcopal Church's General Convention, which is conducted every three years, "is a place where Episcopalians have the ability not only to proclaim that black lives matter, but also to take concrete action for ending racism and achieving God's great racial reconciliation and justice," she said.
Rev. Jennings was joined by the Episcopal Church's Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori and the Rev. Canon Michael Barlowe, executive officer of the faith's General Convention.
Bishop Jefferts Schori said the Episcopal Church is gathered in Salt Lake City at the invitation of Episcopal Diocese of Utah and its bishop, the Rt. Rev. Scott Hayashi.
She noted that the Episcopal Church is in 17 countries from Taiwan to Europe and as far north as Alaska to the northern part of South America.
"We are an international church. We speak many different languages. You will hear those different languages as you participate in or attend different meetings in this gathering. We're increasingly focused outside of ourselves, rather than our members alone. We think we are a people meant to participate in transforming this world to something that looks more like what God had in mind when God created it, and it's a long way from that so we've got plenty of work to do," Bishop Jefferts Schori said.
During each General Convention, Episcopal leaders, clergy and lay people take part in a bicameral legislative process, similar to U.S. Congress, to pass resolutions and change church policy.
All changes or additions to policy and positions must be approved by the House of Bishops, who will include more than 200 current or retired bishops, and the House of Deputies, a 900-member body that includes clergy and lay people who represent their respective dioceses.
The General Convention will be aided by a host of volunteers from Utah, among them a large contingent from The Church of Jesus of Latter-day Saints, "and we're tremendously grateful for that," Bishop Jefferts Schori said.
Barlowe said the 78th General Convention "will be the most digitally oriented General Convention we have ever had." It's not yet paperless, but the two legislative bodies will conduct their most of their business on iPads, he said.
"A couple of days ago, one of the consultant IT folks who worked on our last General Convention exclaimed … that we've moved three decades in three years," Barlowe said.
Enhanced technology should make the gathering more efficient and in keeping with the "green principles" of the Episcopal Church, as is the convention venue of the Salt Palace Convention Center, which is a LEED-certified facility, he said.
Some 4,500 people preregistered for the General Convention. If past conventions are a guide, that means at least twice that many people will come together in Salt Lake City over the nine-day event, Barlowe said.
Later this week, Episcopal bishops will select a new presiding bishop to lead the church for the next nine years. Their selection must be confirmed by the House of Deputies.
On Sunday, Bishops United Against Gun Violence will lead a prayerful procession from the convention center to Pioneer Park to urge people of faith to seek common ground against gun violence.
Meanwhile, some of the issues the church's two legislative houses are expected to address are marriage theology, the Episcopal Church in Cuba and the church's policy on drug and alcohol abuse.
The latter came to a head after Heather Cook, former suffragan bishop in the Diocese of Maryland, was involved in a motor vehicle accident resulting in the death of a bicyclist on Dec. 27, 2014.
Cook, 58, faces charges of manslaughter, homicide by motor vehicle while impaired, drunken driving, and texting while driving in the death of Thomas Palermo.
Cook resigned on May 1 and was deposed from the ordained ministry the same day.
As the Episcopal Church has reviewed the ordeal, it has taken several steps to address alcohol and drug abuse publicly, Rev. Jennings said.
She and the presiding bishop have each appointed a special legislative committee to address the church policy on alcohol and drug abuse.
"The last time the General Convention adopted a comprehensive policy for the church was in 1985," Rev. Jennings said.
In the past 30 years, there have been new discoveries and understandings about addiction, she said. That should guide the policymaking efforts as well as dioceses' individual efforts to partner with community resources and educate church members.
Part of the policy discussion will center on the selection of church leaders — lay and ordained, Rev. Jennings said.
Cook was elected suffragan bishop of Maryland last year. According to The Baltimore Sun, the diocese came under criticism after it was learned that a search committee that had vetted Cook knew she had been arrested on a DUI charge in 2010 but had not shared that information with electors.
"Cook's blood-alcohol level was measured at more than three times the legal limit at the time of her 2010 arrest, police said, and she had marijuana and two bottles of liquor in her car. Diocesan officials have said they knew none of the details surrounding that arrest during their search and would have eliminated Cook as a candidate if they had," the Sun reported.
Rev. Jennings said she fully expects the parallel committees to draft a resolution or package of resolutions to help the church address the issues sensitively and "with heightened awareness."