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Only seven dioceses show a greater Sunday church attendance in 2020

By Mary Ann Mueller
VOL Special Correspondent
October 8, 2021

When the 2019 statistics came out on October 16, 2020, the Episcopal News Service wrote: "2019 will now be the last year of this particular iteration (ASA) of the parochial report, the oldest continuous gathering of data by The Episcopal Church. With some adjustments in methodology and definitions, the report has measured membership since 1880 and Sunday attendance since 1991."

"Even before COVID-19, efforts were underway to redesign the parochial report, and the onset of the pandemic made that even more urgent. For 2020, parochial reports will only measure Sunday attendance from January 1 to March 1 and include new narrative questions to help track 'opportunities, innovations and challenges.' After 2020, the new permanent parochial report format may include additions or changes."

The coronavirus got its start in China. Early cases were detected as early as November 2019, hence the name COVID-19. (Coronavirus first discovered in 2019). The first death from the "mysterious viral pneumonia" was registered in China on January 11, 2020.

Coronavirus then quickly spread to Italy, Thailand, Japan, South Korea, and then the United States.

The first case of COVID to hit the United States was on January 21, 2020 in Washington State. The first American COVID death was on January 31, 2020 in California. Since then, there have been many Episcopal COVID funerals.

As 2020 got under way, the coronavirus (COVID-19) was being unleashed and a worldwide pandemic was announced by the World Health Organization on March 11. The next day -- March 12 -- COVID had reached West Virginia, the final US state to be COVID free.

Also, on that date, Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, during a virtual House of Bishops' meeting, said that he would lend his support to the cancellation of public worship to help slow the spread of the virus.

The bishops in Virginia, California and District of Columbia had already jumped the gun. On March 11, bishops Mariann Budde (IX Washington, DC); Susan Groff (Virginia suffragan); and Marc Andrus (VIII California) had announced in-person services would be verboten within their respective dioceses. This happened 10 days after the first Sunday in March representative people-in-the-pews ASA nose count.

The bishops' decisions were based upon the fact of the swiftness of the COVID virus sweeping across the United States and that several Episcopal clergy had already been bitten by the disease, which was thought to have initially migrated from China.

Within days, the Episcopal dioceses of Southern Virginia, Easton, Fort Worth, West Virginia, Rhode Island, North Carolina, West Missouri, Lexington, Eastern Michigan, Western Michigan, Michigan, and Northern Michigan all jumped on the cancellation bandwagon. Then Episcopal dioceses started cancelling church services all across the country. Churches were shuttered. Some priests were able to do online services from the rectory or empty church, but many were caught up short by the swiftness of their bishop's actions.

The United States, indeed the entire world, had not seen anything quite like this since the Spanish Flu at the wane of the Great War (World War I). Few Episcopalians are still alive who weathered the Spanish Flu a century ago.

As coronavirus spread across the nation -- and the world -- governments, schools, sports venues, churches, civic organizations -- did what they could to stem the tide. Businesses were closed. Schools were closed. Restaurants were closed. Sporting arenas were closed. The common workplace was closed. National and state borders were closed. And churches were also closed -- Episcopal churches, Presbyterian churches, Catholic churches, Lutheran churches, Baptist churches, Jewish synagogues. Denominations didn't matter. The Houses of Worship were closed.

Streets were empty.
School playgrounds were quiet.
Stores were shuttered.
Businesses went out of business.
Churches were silent.

Even Easter and Christmas church services were cancelled -- the two largest church attendance days in the liturgical and secular calendars. The times when "Easter lily and poinsettia Christians" show up at church, giving the local parish an overflow congregation and a boost in the collection plate. Easter is always on a Sunday. Christmas usually is not a Sunday event.
Easter 2020 was on April 12 and Christmas was on a Friday.

Usually, a local Episcopal church takes weekly Sunday attendance, adds up all the numbers and divides by 52 to get a yearly average Sunday attendance (ASA) figure and sends that number on to the diocese to be combined with other local congregations for an overall diocesan yearly ASA figure.

But not for 2020, as the COVID pandemic wreaked havoc with in-person worship attendance.

Some churches got creative. But very few. Some churches, if the priest was tech savvy, went online via Facebook, YouTube, or other live-streaming platforms so locked down parishioners could watch him celebrate Holy Communion on his dining room table, or alone in his empty church.

Other parishes held worship services in their parking lots with the service being broadcast over radio frequencies and followed up by drive-thru Communion.

Some congregations did nothing, patiently praying for the pandemic to be over, to finally slide a key in the front door lock and again turn on the lights. Some churches will never reopen. COVID was the death knell as the membership was locked out and finances dried up.

When COVID restrictions started to be lifted, it was, and still is, a patchwork quilt of sometimes conflicting rules and regulations, mandates and restrictions.

Baptisms and confirmation services were postponed. Also, only 10 people could attend a funeral or a wedding. Masking and social distancing was paramount. And the battle over masking still rages on.

Some states or counties allowed 50 people in a church building at one time -- no matter how big or small the edifice is. Fifty people in the church that holds 400 gives plenty of social distancing. But only 50 people in a large cathedral is ridiculous.

Other states insisted on a 25% capacity with every other pew blocked off in the common worship space.

The latest Delta variant wrinkle is that some churches and cathedrals, will only allow "fully-vaccinated" worshippers to cross their hallowed thresholds. One shot is not enough. Two is better, and all three is desired as the boosters roll out.

The Episcopal Church's problem was how to count Sunday attendance and get an overall COVID ASA.

TEC came up with a hackney-eyed solution.

It would ask churches to count noses on all the Sundays in January and February and the first Sunday of March -- nine in all. Add up the figures, then divide by 9 and send the results into the diocese.

The 2020 Parochial Report Workbook explains that all persons of any age, lay or clerical, who participated in all or part of your services, in the nave, choir, or sanctuary on Sunday mornings are to be counted in addition to the people in the pews. Saturday night services are also included if they are a part of the regular weekend service schedule.

Well, January and February is snowbird season, where many snowbound retirees head south to warm their bones until the snow melts and the spring flowers bloom back home.

So, January and February -- a time before COVID hit hard -- is when Episcopal churches in the Sunbelt states along the Gulf coast and the desert Southwest have the highest attendance for the year.

The RV parks are jammed with license plates from north of the Mason-Dixon line and Canada as snowbirding Episcopalians and Anglicans enjoy semi-tropical weather and the Southwest desert sands.

Conversely, Episcopal churches in snow country have their lowest Sunday attendances in January and February each year. The retirees flee to the South, pulling their travel trailers behind them.

Snowbirds may have even flown south before Christmas not to return until after Easter. In keeping with the flight pattern of other "migratory birds." So, for The Episcopal Church to take attendance on the Sundays in January and February and the first Sunday of March and have those figures be reflective of the Year-of-COVID is skewered at most and disingenuous at least.

First: the yearly "snowbird" migration is in full swing, which skewers the statistics on both sides of the spectrum.

Second: the January-February-first Sunday in March nose count occurred before the COVID shutdowns, so it does not accurately reflect the real impact COVID had on Episcopal congregational attendance during 2020. By the third Sunday in March (Lent III), churches were shutting down.

Third: snowbirds tend to keep their church membership in their home state, so the travelling Episcopalians are usually not a part of the Sunbelt parishes' membership rosters, but merely visitors; although they may show up visiting the same church year after year as they travel south and west seeking sun, sand and palm trees.

Many churches were shut tight for three months or even longer. Then when they started opening up, it was for a 25% top capacity, then slowly inching up to 50% and 75% until the various COVID variant waves hit, shutting things down again.

The January-February-early March nose count should have been followed by at least 13 zeros (the Sundays in the rest of March, April, and May) then divided by 22, which gives a completely different figure than that which is being reported by The Episcopal Church. Perhaps that is an even more accurate figure of COVID church attendance.

TEC's 2020 statistical report, with its creative counting method, lists seven dioceses showing more people-in-the-pews in 2020 than in 2019. They include: Kansas +936 (+103.5%); Iowa +482 (+21.7%); Easton +389 (+17.2%); Southwest Florida +389 (+3.7%); New Hampshire +76 (+2.3%); Lexington +29 (+1.2%); and Indianapolis with an increase of one more person-in-the-pew.

Lexington and Easton were among the first Episcopal dioceses to implement COVID lockdowns. Their 2020 ASA increases are suspect. New Hampshire, Iowa, Kansas, and Indianapolis are all snow country dioceses which empty out when the snow flies. The Diocese of Southwest Florida is where the northern snowbirds flock to, so a January-February ASA increase is possibly plausible.

But the Diocese of Northwest Texas is probably revealing its true 2020 COVID numbers with a drop of 686 average Sunday worshippers reflecting a 76.2% COVID decrease.

Mary Ann Mueller is a journalist living in Texas. She is a regular contributor to VirtueOnline.

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