Dumb and dumber: Episcopal bishops fumble COVID-19 response

By | March 13, 2020

Here in Virginia, where The Episcopal church spent much of the last decade noisily arguing in court that it is a hierarchy, there’s a not-so-delicious irony afoot. That is that the church’s response to the COVID-19 emergency has been inept, disorganized, and inchoate on multiple levels. In fact, it’s looking like something straight out of a congregational polity.

Why is that?

First, let’s take a look at the composition of Episcopal parishes. While somewhat dated, the Episcopal Congregations Overview: Findings from the 2010 Faith Communities Today Survey remains useful. Among its findings:

  • 30 percent of members are age 65+
  • 56 percent of members are age 50+
  • 69 percent of parishes report that at least half their members are age 50+

Now, let’s take a look at morbidity rates as derived from World Health Organization (WHO) data. This reveals that persons age nine and under have an almost zero likelihood of dying due to COVID-19 infection. Rates remain low through all cohorts up to age 49, but sharply increase after that. Indeed, there is a 21.9 percent probability of dying from the virus for persons over age 80. (Source: Worldometers.info). As a result, American Health Care Association President and CEO Mark Parkinson describes the virus as an “almost perfect killing machine” for the elderly.

In short, The Episcopal Church, like many mainline denominations, is profoundly at risk due to its demographics.

Into this mix, we face the hard reality that, in some areas, infections are doubling every 48 hours. For example, in the greater Washington DC area, the Washington Post reports that, as of this writing, the number of cases is doubling every 24 hours.

In responding to these alarming trends, Episcopal bishops have ranged in their responses from excellent to alarmingly clueless.

In the former camp is Episcopal Diocese of Washington (EDOW) where Bishop Mariann Budde wasted no time in shutting things down lock, stock, and barrel. Tellingly, that was every before the conference call with Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, in which some bishops questioned whether they had the authority to do so.

Bishop Susan Goff, possibly prompted by advice from her medical team as she deals with breast cancer, followed suit but left wiggle room for small-group meetings, church offices, and other groups included in Bishop Budde’s directive.

Marc Andrus in California followed suit, with a cancellation of all public worship gatherings.

Bishop Eugene Sutton of Maryland came in at the other end of the spectrum, initially urging people to “just go to church,” despite the fact that the Centers for Disease Control were urging exactly the opposite. As the gravity of the situation became more pronounced, he eventually decreed “contact-free” worship, later cancelling all public worship at the gravity of the situation became increasingly obvious.

Sutton’s lack of common sense is clear when one looks at the specifics of the outbreak at Christ Church Georgetown. There, rector Timothy Cole not only routinely washed his hands and used sanitizer, but he actually preached on the topic of COVID-19 safety during the Sunday before his hospitalization. Based on information from the Centers for Disease Control and other reputable sources, the parish had hand sanitizers throughout the building and had otherwise taken measures to prevent transmission. Despite these measures, the church’s director of music was infected. Three other cases are tied to the church and more than 550 people are now in self-quarantine. In short, a single case of COVID-19 quickly touched the lives of hundreds of people.

Other bishops have been equally feckless. While I very much like her, Bishop Jennifer Reddall of Arizona went down the rabbit hole of hairsplitting about the historical and canonical issues with restricting the common cup and related issues. Similarly, Bonnie Perry of Michigan resorted to an wishy-washy invitation to churches to close, a plea to use common sense, and a suggestion that church offices remain open.

Up in Massachusetts, where Harvard University is quickly moving to evict students from campus housing, Bishop Gates issued a series of voluntary suggestions that places all authority for closures with local church officials. This came despite the fact that, as of this writing, Massachusetts has 123 cases, while Virginia has 30 (more than double in the last 24 hours) and DC has 10 cases. Meanwhile, Boston schools will close Tuesday, yet an informal survey of churches in the diocese indicates most are open with modest changes this Sunday.

Oregon, presently the epicenter of infection in the US, has suspended Sunday services, while leaving options open for weekday services and other events. This mixed message runs counter to the bishop’s comment in the same communique, “We must do all in our power to slow the progress of the spread of this virus.”

Ironically, while Presiding Bishop Curry tells bishops not to worry about clergy disciplinary issues related to their efforts to delay spread of COVID-19, he conveniently overlooks the fact that he is primate of a hierarchical church. As egregious as the pandemic is, and in light of the current national emergency, in may be time to ensure a consistent response throughout the church.

The situation at the national level is made even more ironic by the fact that +Curry seems to be one of the few to take the right actions at the right time. While it seems likely that preaching via Zoom webinar cramped his style, he made the right decision when he held last week’s bishop’s meeting virtually, versus in-person in Arizona—even though it would have been a relatively small gathering at which hand sanitizer and other safety measures could easily be implemented.

Of course, given the average age of the episcopacy, Curry recognized what other church leaders need to understand: The demographics of The Episcopal Church make it uniquely vulnerable to a virus that is alarmingly deadly to older Americans. So while some bishops get it, the inchoate and flat-footed overall response from the episcopacy overall has been anything but helpful.

Meanwhile, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) continue to urge people at elevated risk of infection due to age or others factors to stay at home as much as possible and avoid crowds, Not crowds where people stand within six feet of each other. Not crowds that avoid physical contact. Not crowds that fail to use hand sanitizer.

Just crowds.

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Christina W

How long sheltering at home is enough? Perhaps years, decades even.