Disaster Looms as Churches Continue In-Person Services

By | January 4, 2021

The data are frightening.

COVID-19 cases are skyrocketing worldwide. Some states in the US, notably California, are already forced to ration health care as our health care systems teeter on the brink of collapse. We have passed the point that one American dies every minute due to COVID-19. Massive travel over the winter holidays and soaring positivity rates suggest we face a tsunami of new infections. Meanwhile, two new strains of the coronavirus, notably the South African variant, appear to be as much as 70 percent more infectious than the previous dominant strain. And vaccinations are woefully behind schedule.

Yet many Episcopal churches continue their socially distanced services, or to stream services from the nave that include small choirs and altar parties, or operate schools that provide in-person classes, either via a hybrid distance learning model or full-time. This contrasts with the early days of the pandemic, in which most churches held services exclusively from the homes of members and clergy.

This situation implicates troubling ethical, spiritual, and practical issues that warrant urgent examination.

To be sure, small services are better than large services. Streaming services can and will reduce infections. And schools can reduce risk by implementing social distancing, cleaning, and other preventive measures.

But the reality is that, even with the old, less transmissible strain, only five minutes’ exposure at a distance of 20 feet can result in infection.

Nor are face coverings a panacea. Indeed, experts are quick to point out that masks are at best a distant Plan C — with Plan A being to stay at home, and Plan B to social distance. And there are first-hand cases of people masking, increasing ventilation, and testing, only to end up with a fatal infection.

In short, as the situation at Christ Church Georgetown illustrates, which was ground zero for the pandemic in Washington DC despite social distancing and other measures, social distancing is an imperfect form of risk reduction at best.

The New Strain: A Ticking Time Bomb

Into this mix we have the new strain, over which many are breathing a sigh of relief due to the fact, that while it is more readily transmissible, does not appear to cause more serious illness than the prior strain.

But that in itself is misguided.

As Zeynep Tufecki notes in The Atlantic, a more lethal strain would only result in linear progression of the disease. In other words, it would hit harder those that it infected, but it would not increase the numbers of those infected.

But a more contagious strain, as we now face, results in exponential progression of the disease, at a time when numbers are already surging and health care systems faltering. In other words, it drastically increases the strain on a health care system already struggling to keep up.

Thus, to use Tufecki’s phrase, we face a “ticking time bomb.”

Why are Churches and Schools Reopening?

Few Episcopal churches, schools, or other organizations articulate their reasons for their reopenings, or partial reopenings.

But there are hints.

Here in the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia, the guidance from the Bishop Goff, as she announced the suspension of in-church services prior to Christmas, included a caveat:

Even as the best advice is clear that outdoor worship presents a high risk of spreading the virus, I offer you some breathing room for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, particularly if you are experiencing untenable pressure from your congregation to gather in person on those days.

Other bishops seem fearful of overreaching their canonical authority. For example, the bishops of Massachusetts say:

As communicated by the bishops in their Nov. 19 guidance to our churches, the bishops continue to urge, in the strongest possible terms, that in-person, indoor worship be suspended in favor of virtual worship. (emphasis supplied)

This, despite ++Curry’s statement in March that he will support those bishops who choose to close churches.

And some sidestep the underlying question of the propriety of reopening altogether, with one Episcopal school saying:

With hope and optimism, we embrace the 2020-2021 school year in the midst of a global pandemic.  This year may put numerous challenges in our path, yet our mission to serve children remains steadfast.  Although we all must agree that we cannot mitigate all risk for our students and families, the school will take comprehensive steps to offer the most safe and successful reopening that we can.

Begging the Question

All that begs the question: Are you indeed serving others by reopening?

Answering that question requires understanding the challenges facing churches and schools that reopen.

It is well established that churches are a major source of transmission. For example, in a July article with numbers that now sound quaintly low, the New York Times reported that churches were responsible for more than 650 infections.

This aligns with experiences from the 1918 influenza pandemic, where churches that operated on a business as usual basis experienced devastating results. CNN reports, for instance, that churches in Zamora Spain, which took just such an approach, caused a death rate more than double that of cities elsewhere in the country.

The situation in Zamora underscores that decisions to reopen don’t implicate only the church involved. In the recent case of the United House of Prayer for All People in Charlotte NC, an outbreak at the church lead to 12 deaths and more than 200 infections, with the majority involving persons not connected to the church.

Complicating things is the fact that the new COVID-19 strain may be more likely to infect younger people than the old strain. And while some note that the new strain does not appear to pose an increased threat to children, the aging demographics of the denomination, combined with what some experts believe is the inevitable transmission of the coronavirus to adults, poses a potentially devastating risk to churches and the communities they serve. That is all the more the case when, as now, the pandemic already is spiraling rapidly out of control.

Ethical and Practical Implications

These issues in turn implicate ethical and practical considerations.

  • Of course, Jesus commands us to care for the marginalized, the oppressed, and the downtrodden.
  • By extension that includes those who may not fully recognize the risk.
  • Or those whose job, paid or volunteer, may lead them to feel that they cannot say no.
  • Or whose financial or personal circumstances may not allow them the option to stay home from work.

Some church leaders no doubt fear that further closures will lead to reduced engagement of parishioners, leading in turn to reductions in giving. That’s a legitimate fear and there is ample evidence that lack of in-person engagement indeed may engender this result.

But consider the devastating results if a parish or school makes headlines as a superspreader.

  • Will older members want to return any time soon?
  • What message does this send to younger people about caring for others?
  • Or to those who are themselves at risk?
  • Does the ability to attend school in-person for children outweigh the risk of losing parents, grandparents, and others vital to a child’s happiness and success?
  • How will members of the community feel about the church or school if they lose family members due to organizational negligence?

Then there is the risk of litigation. While churches like to imagine themselves above the fray on these issues, the reality is that private employers already face a wave of negligence suits from employees or their survivors pertaining to COVID-19 workplace infections.

And frankly, the small size of many Episcopal parishes and sharply declining attendance/membership suggest that the church can ill afford to lose even a single member, let alone life-long, older members, who in this author’s experience often are among the most generous. Is it worth the risk of losing these stalwarts of the church?

Now Is the Time

No one can answer these questions for a particular church, school, diocese or vestry but those directly involved.

But there is no doubt that the darkest weeks of the pandemic lie in front of us.

The overarching question, though, for the church, its schools, and other related organizations is simple:

Will the church be proactive in locking down? Will it learn from the experience of the UK, which now teeters just 21 days away from overwhelming the total capacity of its medical system? Will it recognize that the new COVID-19 strain now is present in 4 states and 33 countries will inevitably increase its footprint in the United States?

Or will  churches, both here in the US and elsewhere in the Anglican Communion, wait until they have no choice but to lock down?

Sadly, if history is any indicator, the Episcopal Church will dither about until its hand is forced.

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