Episcopal bishops grapple with life in a COVID-19 epicentre

A byproduct of COVID-19 restrictions, small funerals with fewer familiar rituals—such as this service held in Ontario—have left some faithful Episcopalians struggling with grief, New York Bishop Andrew Dietsche says. Photo: The Rev. Ralph Carl Wushke
Published September 1, 2020

Since the first cases appeared there in early spring, the COVID-19 pandemic has ravaged the United States. The Centre for Disease Control reports, at writing, that there have been more than 3.8 million cases in the country and upwards of 180,000 deaths caused by the virus.

For leaders in the U.S.-based Episcopal Church, this unprecedented time has been a test of leadership, wisdom and patience.

In New York, cases spiked in April and May. “Living here in Manhattan, it was just the constant background sound of sirens, day and night,” says Bishop of the diocese of New York Andrew Dietsche. “Overlapping sirens—couldn’t even count how many, just roaring through the city taking people to the hospital. It was scary, and it was tragic.”

By early July, at the time of his interview with the Anglican Journal, Dietsche says New York was on the other side of that mountain of cases. While he worries about a second wave—especially as cases rise in other parts of the country—the diocese is beginning to restart in-person worship in some churches.

“Living here in Manhattan, it was just the constant background sound of sirens, day and night.”—Andrew Dietsche, bishop of the diocese of New York

Dietsche suspended worship in the diocese on March 15. Since then, churches have been live-streaming services, holding Zoom coffee hours and Bible studies, and having Sunday morning prayer in lieu of the Eucharist. “I think on one hand, everybody got very appropriately worried about COVID, and then on the other hand they all became very resilient all of a sudden. Seeing the many ways that churches adapted to this crisis and continued to provide spiritual resource for their congregations and communities was, for me, very inspiring.”

Now that restrictions are easing, Dietsche says, some churches are able to hold in-person worship with a limited number of attendees, social distancing and celebrating the Eucharist with bread only.

Because many Episcopal congregants are older and fall into a higher-risk category for COVID-19, Dietsche says, the diocese is proceeding “slowly and cautiously.”

There have certainly been many losses already. “We’ve had a lot of people die of COVID in the diocese,” says Dietsche. He estimates that one-quarter to one-third of the diocese is made up of people of colour, including Black and Latin members—demographic groups that have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19 in the United States.

When the novel coronavirus first began to spread, Dietshe says, he heard talk that most people who contract COVID-19 survive. “I thought, you know, this isn’t a big deal. I guess I was a little cavalier about it. And then almost immediately, probably our chief lay leader in our churches in the Bronx—a real institution in the diocese of New York—got COVID and died immediately. And I thought, oh no, this is going to be far costlier than I had imagined.

“We’ve had a number of clergy get COVID; everybody has survived. But we’ve had probably six or more church wardens die of COVID. And others. People that sit in the pews. They’re there one day, gone the next. One of our priest’s wife died of COVID. So it’s been costly for our diocese, very, very painful. And for churches that have lost good friends to this thing … it’s very tough.”

With distancing measures in place, the regular rituals of grieving are not possible. Funerals in the diocese have been held graveside, with up to 10 people in attendance. Dietsche says he hopes that as restrictions lift, larger celebrations and memorials can be held. “Not being able to have the funerals has been hard, for a lot of families. They just don’t feel like they’ve had the closure that they expect. Our rituals actually work. We develop certain ways that we mourn and our rituals are part of that. So if somebody loves their spouse of 15 years and they lose them, and then we have a seven-minute service out by the graveside, it doesn’t do it, does it?”

During this time, Dietsche says he has been reflecting on the language and imagery of exile as it appears in the Old Testament. “For me, the experience of this is one of exile. I just want to get back to Jerusalem, but I want us all to get back safely. That question keeps resounding: ‘How can I sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?’

“I think that’s some of the grief and the confusion that I’m feeling and that plenty of others are feeling here too. We were just so close to going into Holy Week when all of this started up, and that image of the desert and the exile really resonated after those hard days of Holy Week. So that’s what’s on my mind, is the Hebrew people being taken away into exile and mourning, mourning Zion, mourning their home while they were in a strange land.

“But eventually they went back—and we will too. This will pass. The exile is just a long period, and we have to get through it.”

As New York recovers, other states have seen case numbers and death tolls jump dramatically.

“I was in New York City for the last 15 years. And I watched them on the first few weeks of this and thought, well thank goodness I’m in Arizona,” says Bishop Jennifer Reddall.

“It interrupts all the grief rituals…. All of our normal ways of dealing with sickness and death had to be reimagined.”—Jennifer Reddall,
bishop of the diocese of Arizona

Reddall has been bishop of the diocese of Arizona for the past year. Like New York, the diocese suspended in-person worship services in mid-March; by May, Reddall says, they were beginning to formulate re-opening plans and guidelines.

Then, Arizona Governor Doug Ducey lifted the state’s stay-at-home order May 15. Suddenly, case numbers began to skyrocket.

It turned out what happened in New York “absolutely can and did happen here,” says Reddall.

Arizona was among the states experiencing a surge of cases in June. By early July, the BBC reported that Arizona was registering as many new cases per day as the entire European Union, which has a population 60 times greater, and the state’s department of health services was reporting that ICUs were at 90% capacity.

“A lot of our congregations are experiencing members who have COVID-19 or who have died from COVID-19,” says Reddall. “It’s a hard time.”

Funerals, of course, are affected by restrictions on public gatherings. “People are doing very small, graveside, 10-person services, or waiting. It’s really hard. It interrupts all the grief rituals that we would be doing…. All of our normal ways of dealing with sickness and death had to be reimagined.”

In Arizona, restrictions on public worship came from church leadership, not the government. “Churches have never been required to close by the government in Arizona. So many churches have continued to gather…. But I definitely know that I don’t want our churches to be meeting places where people could [have] a super-spreader event and end up infecting and killing large numbers of people because they came to worship,” Reddall says.

“I think it’s been very good to provide the sort of clear leadership [of saying], no, we’re not going to have church and kill people! Our goal is that everyone is alive in our churches—we believe in life! As a bishop, it’s been interesting, because these are the issues [about which] I’m suddenly involved in conversations with government leaders.” The depth of the crisis, she says, has prompted civic leaders to ask faith leaders to speak up, and she’s been addressing the effects of COVID-19 on the state prison system.

Through this advocacy, Reddall has helped get masks into prisons and is pushing for the department of corrections to begin universal testing. She is also advocating for the governor to extend an eviction moratorium, which was set to last through July 22 at the time of writing, and to distribute rent relief.

The diocese, too, has been able to adapt its ministries to address evolving need. Food banks have turned into drive-through food banks, Reddall says, and the diocese has sent aid—including supplies, financial donations, and 2,000 handmade masks—to local Native American communities that were hit hard by the virus in the spring.

One ministry in the diocese called Crazy Chile Farm—which grows chili peppers and other crops from heritage seeds and sells chili powder to support food security projects—partnered with several churches to airlift 2,200 lbs of supplies, 26 tons of hay and livestock feed, two truckloads of food and a $4,000 collection to the Hualapai Tribe in the northwest corner of the state.

There is also the ministry of delivering, remotely, a church service every week. In some churches, “whole media teams have sprung up of people who are working on their whole online offerings, whether it’s for worship or classes.”

While there have been encouraging moments—seeing churches pivot to online platforms, taking part in a diocesan worship service and video coffee hour—Reddall says she is feeling the strain of so much distancing. “I miss people.”

Reddall says she is praying for wisdom and patience in this time.

“We don’t get to live in the world we want to live in, we have to live in the world we’re living in.… I’m reminded of the serenity prayer: ‘God, give us serenity to accept the things we cannot change, the [courage] to change the things we can, and the [wisdom] to know the difference.’

“I have to have the serenity to accept that this is the world we’re in. I don’t get to pick a different world. But I have to have wisdom to figure out, what are the things that we can change? We don’t have to accept just unbridled growth of COVID. We actually can wear masks, keep distant, stay at home. We can change some things. And then to figure out what those things are and figure out how to get people to love their neighbour enough to do them.

“We want your prayers, though. We would be very grateful for getting prayers.”


  • Joelle Kidd

    Joelle Kidd was a staff writer for the Anglican Journal from 2017 to 2021.

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