2020 in Review: The Episcopal Church

Hundreds of singers and musicians collaborated on a hymn at Easter

TLC‘s review of 2020 in the Anglican Communion was published yesterday.

By Kirk Petersen

The pandemic undoubtedly did more than any other factor to affect the lives of Episcopalians and the workings of the Episcopal Church in 2020 — and the pandemic dominated TLC‘s news coverage. But racial issues provided another strong theme, as the Church joined society’s anguished considerations of racism in the wake of the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police.

In secular America, the third top theme of the year was convulsions in the political world, from impeachment to the election to the transition. But political issues arose only a few times in TLC, reflecting the reluctance of Church leaders to take sides in partisan conflicts.

Pandemic stories largely fell into two categories, represented by the questions “how bad is it going to be?” and “what do we do now?”

How bad is it going to be?

On March 11, the dioceses of Washington and Virginia canceled all public worship “for two weeks,” after a rector in Georgetown was hospitalized with COVID-19. It was the Episcopal Church’s strongest response to the pandemic to date, although many dioceses had issued restrictions earlier on the use of the common cup for Communion. In the secular world, the Church’s moves were overshadowed by an announcement, also on March 11, that the National Basketball Association would suspend all its games until further notice. College basketball (“March Madness”), Major League Baseball and the National Hockey League all followed suit the next day, and many people started to understand how big an effect the pandemic would have on society.

TLC talks with the video team

Within days it became apparent that restrictions on services would affect the holiest day of the Christian calendar, Easter, which this year fell on April 12.  A small group of communications and technology professionals quickly resolved that they would not let Easter occur without soaring choral music, and under intense time pressure they pulled together individual performances by hundreds of singers and musicians into a seamless virtual choir, with a debut rendition of “The Strife is O’er” on the National Cathedral’s online Easter service. TLC later interviewed the team as a group for a behind-the-scenes story about the hundreds of person-hours of work the project required.

That achievement soon gave way, however, to a realization that even more than sitting in crowded pews, “Choir is Dangerous” because of the nature of the activity. Choristers typically stand together in a tight cluster and draw on all their lung power to project to the back of the church, and the suspension of choral singing is likely to last far longer than mere restrictions on the number of people who can gather indoors.

In early June, Church leadership warned that the pandemic might well affect the next General Convention — the top governing body of the Church, which normally meets every three years. The next convention was more than a year away, but “we have concluded with regret that we must plan as if our traditional 10-day gathering of 10,000 people or more will not be possible in 2021,” said the letter from the Rt. Rev. Michael B. Curry, presiding bishop, and the Rev. Gay Clark Jennings, the president of the House of Deputies.

Fridge magnet distributed at GC 2018

The official postponement happened in November, when the 80th General Convention was rescheduled for July 7-14, 2022, still in Baltimore.

One bright spot in midyear was the announcement in July that the Church’s financial condition is strong, and despite earlier warnings that layoffs at the Church Center might be required, the Executive Council passed a budget for the remainder of the year that made only minor additional cuts in spending,

What do we do now?

As the year progressed, the focus on how long it will take to get back to normal morphed into a focus on how to operate in the new normal.

The General Convention’s two-year-old Task Force on Liturgical and Prayer Book Revision had turned its attention to “weighing which adaptations to retain, which ones to discard, and which sidelined practices from pre-pandemic times to restore when public health conditions permit,” TLC reported in September.

Online streaming of worship services is clearly here to stay in many churches, and many churches will need or want to invest in more sophisticated digital equipment. “The Cost of Returning” also may include ventilation improvements in old buildings, and other infrastructure changes to enable soup kitchens, AA meetings, and other social outreach efforts to resume.

TLC‘s coverage of pandemic-driven developments at the parish and diocesan level included reports on:

Jessica Tso has two teenage daughters sharing a twin mattress | Photo: Asher Imtiaz

One of the hardest-hit areas in the United States has been the Navajo Nation, where the Episcopal Church has a small but active presence. In a rare departure from covering the news remotely during the pandemic, TLC sent a reporter and photographer for several days to the sprawling Navajo reservation at the northern juncture of Arizona and New Mexico, where “Overcrowded housing, poor sanitation systems, lack of running water, and high rates of chronic diseases such as diabetes” have taken a devastating toll.

In the first installment of a two-part report, TLC described how the increased food ministry of the Episcopal Church in Navajoland is both filling an urgent need, and also building relationships in ways that were not possible before the pandemic.  The second installment described ECN’s efforts to honor Navajo culture and practices — a sharp departure from the church’s shameful historical participation in forced assimilation.

The George Floyd murder and aftermath

The nation was shocked and appalled by a cellphone video on May 25, showing a uniformed Minneapolis police sergeant kneeling for several minutes on the neck of George Floyd while his breath and his life faded. Protests erupted throughout the country, and Episcopal churches in Minneapolis, Washington DC and elsewhere provided gathering spaces and other forms of support.

Minneapolis, 2020

Photographer Asher Imtiaz happened to be in Minneapolis at the time of Floyd’s death, and filed a photographic report.

Just 12 days after the murder, the Rev. Craig Loya was consecrated Bishop of Minnesota, in a nearly empty cathedral just a few miles away. Later in June, TLC published an extensive interview with Loya, in which the new bishop talked about taking on challenges that are very different from what he expected; about continuing his predecessor’s efforts to help build bridges between police and the Black community; about the Church’s historical complicity in systemic racism; and about looking forward to sampling the food at Sammy’s Avenue Eatery, an important meeting place in the Black community that is just downstairs from the diocesan headquarters.

The dioceses of Minnesota and Kentucky each received mid-year grants of $150,000 from Executive Council “in response to the recent racist killings by officers of the law in their dioceses.”

At its September meeting, the House of Bishops reflected on white supremacy while issuing a 52-page report on the topic. In February, the Diocese of Texas pledged to devote $13 million to reparations for slavery, following reparations funds announced in late 2019 by the dioceses of New York, Long Island and Georgia.

Church and state

TLC generally avoided any coverage of secular politics, until a story too big to ignore happened literally on the steps of the Church.

Screen capture from the Washington Post

On June 1, after peaceful protestors were dispersed by tear gas and mounted police, President Donald Trump walked across Lafayette Park to the historic “Church of the Presidents,” St. John’s Episcopal, where he posed briefly for pictures while holding a Bible aloft, before walking back to the White House.

This prompted furious responses from the Bishop of Washington and from the presiding bishop. “The president just used a Bible, the most sacred text of the Judeo-Christian tradition, and one of the churches of my diocese, without permission, as a backdrop for a message antithetical to the teachings of Jesus, and everything that our churches stand for,” said the Rt. Rev. Mariann Edgar Budde.

“He didn’t say a prayer, he didn’t ask for God to bless and help the nation,” said the Most Rev. Michael B. Curry in a lengthy interview on MSNBC. “The president could have used that in a positive, spiritual, and moral way. Instead, it was used as a matter of partisan politics and a photo op. And that is just simply wrong.”

Bishop transitions

The Rt. Rev. William Love in October announced his plans to resign as Bishop of Albany, thereby avoiding further disciplinary action related to his refusal to comply with the General Convention’s decision to make same-sex marriage rites available in every diocese where the practice is legal. In June, a Title IV Hearing Panel heard three and a half hours of online arguments in a public hearing about whether Love’s actions violate the “doctrine, discipline, and worship” of the Episcopal Church. After his resignation takes effect February 1, 2021, Love will remain a bishop, whereas he could have been stripped of his ordination as a priest if the Hearing Panel imposed the harshest available penalty.

In August, the Rev. Dr. Diana Akiyama was elected the XI Bishop of Oregon, in the first bishop election conducted virtually.

Several retired bishops passed away during 2020, including the Rt. Rev. Barbara Harris, who in 1989 became the first woman elected as a bishop not just in the Episcopal Church, but in the entire Anglican Communion.

The Rt. Rev. William “Bill” Frey died in October at the age of 90, and was remembered in an extensive TLC article describing his episcopacy in Guatemala and Colorado, during which he bridged ideological divides by “combining advocacy for social justice with a robust defense of traditional doctrine.”

Other retired bishops who ended their earthly journeys were:

The Rev. Harold Knight was not a bishop, but he merits mention here because he may have lived longer than any bishop in history. He passed away at the age of 108 in Arizona, after retiring at age 65, thereby living through a retirement that lasted longer than his career.

Property rights

After 11 years of litigation the Episcopal Church (TEC) and the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA), settled their largest lawsuit over the property of the former Episcopal Diocese of Quincy. An ACNA negotiator told TLC that “Both sides walked away from this, not completely satisfied, but very happy that the hostilities had ended.”

Quincy was one of five dioceses where theologically conservative bishops led many of their congregations out of the Episcopal Church a decade or more ago, leading to legal disputes over the ownership of church buildings inhabited by the congregations.  In two of the other dioceses, there is no sign of a cessation of hostilities.

In Fort Worth, TEC and ACNA both claim ownership of the name “Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth.” The Supreme Court of Texas ruled in May that the ACNA faction is the continuing Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth, and thereby entitled to more than $100 million of property held by the diocese. The TEC faction has appealed to the United States Supreme Court.

In South Carolina, “a state circuit court appears to have reversed what was thought to be the decision of the South Carolina Supreme Court, to which the circuit court is subservient,” TLC reported in June. As a result, the Anglican Diocese of South Carolina was told it could keep $500 million in church property that has been disputed for more than a decade.  In November, the TEC diocese formally asked the state Supreme Court to overrule the lower court that previously overruled the higher court.

In happier property news, the Diocese of Chicago stands to recognize a huge financial windfall by selling the diocesan headquarters, The five-story building is located just a five-minute walk from the Magnificent Mile, Chicago’s luxury shopping district.

And in other news from 2020….

Gregory Lisby, a former Episcopal priest who had been charged with possession of child pornography in 2019, was sentenced in September 2020 to six years in prison, after testimony about an alleged sexual encounter between Lisby and a teenage boy.

The rector of the world’s richest Episcopal Church, Trinity Wall Street in New York, abruptly resigned on January 3 for reasons that were not specified. Here’s a peek behind the curtains: That article received far more traffic than anything else TLC reported during the year, because TLC had the news before any other online publication.

Another high-traffic story was titled “The Fastest Growing Episcopal Churches” which purported to identify the 10 highest-growth churches in the country. This was followed by an embarrassing correction, because TLC had misinterpreted data it received from the Church Center. If you click on either of those links, please ignore the byline.

TLC launched the Living Church Podcast in March with an interview of the Rt. Rev. Daniel Martins, Bishop of Springfield, in which he discussed adapting to life without administration of the sacrament. Later in the year, the podcast published a two-part interview with Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, talking with author Marilynne Robinson and unpacking theological themes in Jack, her most recent novel.

And finally, the Living Church Foundation elected five new members to its leadership, and unveiled a five-year strategic plan to support the continued development of an independent voice that has been serving the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion since 1878.

All of us at TLC pray that all of you will have a safe and healthy 2021.


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