General Convention and new technology draw church family together

June 30, 2009

One week from today, the Episcopal Church gathers for the 76th General Convention, a triennial legislative gathering that runs from July 8 to 17 in Anaheim, California.

At 8,000 to 10,000 total attendees, including exhibitors, visitors, guests and media, it’s one of the largest meetings in the country.

Technical staff from Church Center in New York traveled to Anaheim several days ago to begin setting up a computer network that will be as extensive as that at the main office. Digital communications staff are putting the final touches on an innovative website center called “the media hub,” where those both onsite and around the world can access the church’s family reunion.

Since the first gathering of convention in 1785, the church has examined its faith, both within the nature of the age and against its perception of timeless Christian truths. The light of worship and prayer balances the heat of legislative debate and voting.

Among the more-pressing matters in 2009: how the church supports its mission in a time of severe economic stress, how it views issues of human relationships such as marriage and homosexuality, how it relates to other churches and other faiths and what words and actions in liturgy best relate to our lives today.

All around the main business of convention swirls a kaleidoscope of activities: a huge and colorful hall with exhibitors from every conceivable corner of the church’s mission and those who help us live out our mission, a full children’s program, the concurrent Episcopal Church Women triennial meeting, a special event featuring Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams.

At that first convention, with the nation just nine years independent, the church sought a new identity that was not British yet not colonial. Today, the church encompasses 16 countries, but its birth and growth mirror that of its natal country, the United States. It has faced such challenges as a nation’s civil war, the establishment and the end of slavery, changes in the role of women and increasing diversity among its members in race and nationality.

The 1500 clergy and lay representatives called deputies and alternates and the approximately 200 bishops, meeting in separate legislative bodies, represent a cross-section of the church today in its 110 dioceses. A very visible symbol of that diversity – one that could hardly even be contemplated in 1785 -- will be the fact that the House of Bishops and House of Deputies will be led by women for the first time: Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori and President Bonnie Anderson.

Technology provides connectivity

For the first time, much of the convention can be followed live. The digital communications team started work on the media hub in January and it is scheduled to go live July 6.

"We wanted to give people a way to follow General Convention in real time," said Mike Collins, director of digital communications for the Episcopal Church, adding that the media hub is organized so that people can customize how they follow convention.

Collins's team will provide live web streaming of events, hearings, meetings, links to secular media and coverage, blogs, breaking news via Twitter and Facebook news updates.

The media hub will also provide some live coverage of the House of Deputies legislative session, and, possibly, pending approval, the House of Bishops, Collins said.

This year's coverage represents a "quantum leap" in how digital media covered past conventions. "[Last time] it was a 30-minute closed circuit show broadcast for those in attendance," Collins said, adding that this time he expects more people to be following the convention offsite than onsite.

As for the computer systems, Mike Martino, business technology coordinator, and Tan La, systems coordinator, left New York City in a moving truck June 25 with 4,000 pounds of equipment and took shifts driving around the clock the more than 2,800 miles to Anaheim.

The goal: to rebuild the church center's information technology network at the Anaheim Convention Center.

"Management Information System's (MIS) primary objective is to support the legislative tracking system," Martino said. "Everything else is window dressing."

For church center staff working at the convention, "window dressing" means that their computers will function as if they were working from the church center.

This is the fourth time MIS has created a mirror network at convention: a network that depends on thousands of pieces of equipment (some rented) connectivity, and hundreds of step-by-step procedures.

"Everything is working like clockwork so far," said Martino in an email July 1.