July 24, 2020
Hello, friends
By now you’ve all figured out that the main message in these things is printed in bold italics, and I expect you’re looking for that bit, so we can go ahead and get it out of the way: I am extending our suspension of in person indoor worship until August 17th I imagine that some of you are glad to see this, and that others are becoming more and more impatient, or hearing from people who are. I understand. We’re all ready to come back; I am, too. But we can’t, not yet.
Here’s the thing: we are not choosing between something bad and something good. We are choosing between one bad thing and another bad thing, between risking becoming contributors to the spread of the coronavirus on one hand, and not worshipping together on the other. There is no good choice, but since it falls to me as the bishop, I choose to keep our people, our communities and ourselves as safe as we can be in these dangerous days.
We don’t pressure or guilt people into attending church, but we do think it’s important. It’s how we come together in community, how we know and feel that we belong. We belong to God in Jesus Christ, and we belong to each other; coming to church – singing the hymns, saying our prayers, reading the lessons, enduring the sermons, confessing our sins and receiving absolution, passing the Peace, taking the Bread and Wine, receiving the blessing – is how we celebrate that belonging, how we connect to our Lord and our family in God. I hate telling you all that we need to extend our suspension of face to face worship.
I am determined to make these decisions based not on emotion or politics but on the data, that we should not come back together in large groups until it is safe to do so, and the numbers are telling us – screaming at us – that it’s not.
I asked our Bishop Coadjutor, who was trained as an RN and whose husband Bill is a physician very involved in UAB’s response to the pandemic, to explain the various numbers we’re all looking at, to help make some sense out of them. Glenda shared the following:
We have been following several numerical indicators that help us in decisions. On Bamatracker.com and the Alabama Department of Public Health COVID webpage, we watch numbers of hospitalizations, which is aggregated by state totals vs. county. On May 15, we had 2,259 people in the hospital with the virus, and 502 in ICU. On July 15, we had 7,378 people in the hospital, 941 in ICU. Numbers of admissions doubled in three days between July 9 and July 12 after 6 weeks of only a steady increase, suggesting a relapse in our stopping the spread campaign. We don’t want to contribute to overwhelming the health care system.
The seven-day average of hospitalizations for the state had been steady at about 32 per day since April, but on July 23, that number jumped to 85 and on July 20 was 177. Clearly, we are in a phase of relapse which should take about three or four weeks to contain.
Another number we watch is the RT, which is a complex number that measures several variables to tell us how fast the virus is spreading. Ideally, experts want that number to be below 1.0. Currently it is 1.09. In March, it was at 1.75. So, we are making progress.
Finally, our cumulative death rate is declining from the highest levels of 5 per day in May to about 2 on July 20. Also, the percent of counties with cases is now 100%. In April it was at 20%, telling us the virus is now widespread.
The seven-day average of percent positive tells us with the increase in testing, how many people in the population are positive, with or without symptoms. In April that number ranged from 3 to 23%. In July that number ranges from 9 to 18%. Our percent positive 14-day average is rising steadily from 9 to 13%.
We also talk with physicians at UAB and continue to monitor the impact of churches worshiping in other denominations. The ala.gov COVID website does have information by counties. They measure risk of infection in the environment and currently most counties are high risk or very high risk. All these numbers say that continuing to wait on worship indoors supports stopping the spread of the infections and helps our community be safe.
I know we’re all getting tired of talking to faces on our computers. We’re tired of wearing masks, and as much as we love our families, we’re tired of being cooped up. I know we all have folks who are feeling financial hardships. It is dark, difficult time. We don’t want to make it worse. Y’all hang in there, keep praying – for the sick and grieving, for the doctors and nurses, for those who are working to find a cure or a preventative, for our communities, for this state, for our nation, for the world – and keep hoping.
As I’ve written before, congregations will still be able to gather in manageable numbers outside, with masks and appropriate physical distancing. We are still making provision for weddings, baptisms and funerals that need to be inside, with the same conditions. It is still very much my preference that we not offer communion until we feel it’s safe to do so, and that if we do offer communion, it should be the Bread only.
Maybe I’ve shared this before, but just in case there’s somebody that doesn’t remember every single word I’ve ever heard or written – one of my favorite stories about Bishop Carpenter tells about a moment in the turbulent 1960’s, when the Bishop was addressing a group of Episcopalians anxious about racial tensions and rumors of a new prayer book and the threat of women’s ordination. When a woman from one of our parishes declared that this would be the end of the Episcopal Church, the good Bishop is quoted as having said, “Madam, I assure you that if the Lord God wants there to be an Episcopal Church in Alabama, then by God there will be.”
We’re going to be okay – cross my heart. Not because I’m always right, not because we always do everything correctly in our worship together, and not because we are efficient and organized, but because we are assured that the Lord God does want there to be an Episcopal Church in Alabama. And by God we will do our best to be good stewards of this part of God’s holy Church, and keep the children of God healthy and safe.
May the Lord continue to bless you and keep you and all those you love and care for.
God’s Peace,
The Rt. Rev. Kee Sloan
Bishop Diocesan
Episcopal Diocese of Alabama
521 20th Street North
Birmingham, AL 35203