With Christmas Eve on a Sunday, churches faced unavoidable ‘conundrum’ in scheduling Advent

By David Paulsen
Posted Dec 18, 2017
All Saints Advent

Members of All Saints’ Episcopal Church in Beverly Hills, California, light the Advent wreath during a Dec. 3 service. Photo: Colleen Dodson-Baker/All Saints’

[Episcopal News Service] What to do about Dec. 24?

It’s a liturgical debate that has been brewing in congregations and clerical forums all season, based on a church calendar that this year has Christmas Eve landing on the Fourth Sunday of Advent. Every parish in the Episcopal Church must answer the question, as a matter of scheduling, and there are strong views on both sides.

“It’s the Episcopal Church. Everything we do leads to debate,” said the Rev. Keith Voets, a New York City priest who helps moderate a Facebook discussion group on Episcopal liturgy.

The conundrum for parish leaders goes something like this: If they load up on Christmas Eve services while maintaining their full Sunday morning schedule, they risk burning out their clergy and volunteers. But to reduce or eliminate the morning services could be seen as curtailing Advent.

The potential solutions churchwide are as plentiful as Advent candles, though the scenarios playing out at Episcopal churches across the country generally fall into a few categories. Episcopal News Service surveyed more than a dozen congregations by phone and email and found that church leaders were basing their scheduling decisions on tradition, local needs and, in some cases, a bit of experimentation.

For large congregations like All Saints’ Episcopal Church in Beverly Hills, California, the plan is to offer something like a marathon of services.

“If you’re preaching one service, you might as well preach two,” the Rev. Nat Katz, associate rector at All Saints’, said.

All Saints’ Church won’t stop at two services. In addition to worshiping at 8 a.m. and 10 a.m. for the Fourth Sunday of Advent, the congregation is expecting big turnout at its four Christmas Eve services, at 11:30 a.m. and 4, 8 and 11 p.m.

Average Sunday attendance at All Saints’ is around 300, but Katz predicted an overflow crowd of about 800 at its 4 p.m. family service. It helps to have three priests sharing the burden, though Katz, who is in charge of scheduling volunteers, said he still was working to line up acolytes and Eucharistic ministers for the church’s seven services, including one Christmas Day service.

“When we sat around a table and talked about our community, we thought … there are enough folks in our community that would want to observe both Advent IV and Christmas Eve,” he said. “On a spiritual and liturgical sense for us, it is absolutely and fundamentally important that the Advent journey be completed to come and observe the Feast of the Nativity.”

At the other end of the spectrum are small parishes like the Church of the Messiah in Chester, New Jersey, which moved its Advent calendar up by a week to avoid any overlap on Dec. 24.

“If the Advent police have a problem, I’ll respond to it, but the calendar is a challenge this year,” the Rev. Margaret Otterburn told ENS.

As rector at the Church of the Messiah, Otterburn realized back in early October that with Christmas Eve falling on a Sunday, she might not get many people attending church that morning. The congregation’s 4 p.m. pageant service for Christmas Eve, on the other hand, is one of the biggest of the year, drawing about 130 people.

So, while the Fourth Sunday of Advent will be celebrated on Dec. 24 in most churches, it was celebrated on Dec. 17 at the Church of the Messiah. Parishioners who want to attend a morning service Dec. 24 will have that option, but it will be a very simple Christmas Eve service.

“Advent is a very important time for us,” Otterburn said. “So, the reason for moving was for all of us to experience Advent.”

For the record, the Episcopal Church has no Advent Police, but it does have the Book of Common Prayer, which establishes a four-week Advent schedule, the same one followed by other Christian denominations.

“We don’t get to adjust the liturgical calendar for our own needs,” Voets said.

Voets, priest-in-charge at the Church of St. Alban the Martyr in Queens, New York, has been a moderator for the past few years of the Facebook group Rubric: Dissecting the Episcopal Liturgy. The group, with more than 1,000 members, many of them Episcopal clergy, discusses interpretations of the prayer book. Voets sees it as a resource, not a forum encouraging tense debate.

But discussion of Advent scheduling picked up in November, in reaction to the decision by some churches to move up Christ the King Sunday to make way for an earlier Advent, as the Church of the Messiah did. One group member called the Dec. 24 question a “fabricated conundrum” that is easily solved – Eucharist in the morning, Eucharist in the evening.

Several members noted that this is nothing new. Christmas Eve falls on Advent IV every six years or so, though by 2017 it hadn’t happened for 11 years because of how leap years affected the calendar.

Voets leads a mostly West Indian congregation with an average attendance of around 150 on Sunday. He describes it as “Anglo-Catholic,” and its members are comfortable with the expectation that they attend an Advent service in the morning and the church’s one Christmas Eve service at 11 p.m. The only change he made was to combine the two regular Sunday morning services into one.

“As a priest, I took a vow to conform to the doctrine, discipline and worship of the Episcopal Church,” he said. “And the doctrine, discipline and worship allow for a four-week Advent.”

The Book of Common Prayer says “the Sundays of Advent are always the four Sundays before Christmas Day, whether it occurs on a Sunday or a weekday.” That would seem to not leave a lot of wiggle room, though the Rev. Ruth Meyers, a liturgics professor, said churches still have some flexibility with Sunday scheduling.

“I think the question is what do you do with your Sunday morning schedule, and I think that’s very much dependent on the particular context, what the expectation is in your particular congregation,” said Meyers, who teaches at Church Divinity School of the Pacific in Berkeley, California, and serves as dean of academic affairs.

The compact schedule could even serve to enhance the Advent experience, Meyers said. It is a season of preparation, and the final Sunday leads directly into the story of Jesus’ birth.

She also is intrigued by a movement to extend the season of Advent from four to seven weeks, as St. John’s Episcopal Cathedral in Knoxville, Tennessee, did this year.

Think Dec. 17 was the Third Sunday in Advent? At St. John’s, it was the Sixth Sunday of Advent.

Jason Overall, who helped develop the expanded Advent program as the cathedral’s director of music, said the aim was “reclaiming Advent” through a more meaningful observance of the season, bucking a popular culture that immerses itself in Christmas immediately after Thanksgiving.

He and other cathedral leaders had discussed expanding Advent for the past three years, and their justification invokes centuries of church history, during which Advent’s length fluctuated and sometimes varied from community to community. A four-week Advent hasn’t always been the norm.

“As Episcopalians, we feel like if something has been done twice, that’s how it’s always been done,” Overall said. “We were trying to free ourselves from that.”

He also acknowledged that the difficulty of scheduling services on Dec. 24 was at least one catalyst to experimenting with an earlier Advent this year at St. John’s. The cathedral will offer six services that day, all of them for Christmas Eve.

And Overall agreed with those who would call it “regrettable” that by expanding and moving Advent this year, St. John’s was going against the “common” in the Book of Common Prayer. That was a consideration, but he and other cathedral leaders felt that the positives of the plan outweighed the negatives. It was the right move for St. John’s, he said, and they aren’t trying to persuade other congregations to do the same.

Most of the other congregations who responded to ENS’ inquiries have made more modest changes to their schedules.

St. Anne’s Episcopal Church in Annapolis, Maryland, and Trinity Parish in Bayonne, New Jersey, chose to move their Sunday morning services to Saturday, so Advent IV wouldn’t compete with Christmas Eve. Numerous churches are reducing but not eliminating their Sunday morning services, including St. John’s Episcopal Church in Saginaw, Michigan, St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, and St. Martin-in-the-Fields Episcopal Church in Keller, Texas.

“We planned earlier than ever before because we saw all the conflicts and compression of the season, and made adjustments in scheduling activities,” said Susan Kleinwechter, communications director at St. Martin-in-the-Fields.

All Saints’ in Beverly Hills, despite its marathon of services, has reduced its normal three Sunday services to two. All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena, California, reduced to one Sunday morning service but is offering four services for Christmas Eve.

Other churches are planning simple services for Sunday morning and saving their congregations’ collective energy for their Christmas Eve services. St. Benedict’s Episcopal Church in Smyrna, Georgia, opted for a said service Sunday morning and Christmas Day, while the Christmas Eve services will have full music. And St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, is offering Morning Prayer for its Advent service at 9:30 a.m., followed by a family service at 4 p.m. and a festive Eucharist at 11 p.m.

“Every decision struck me as sort of having a downside,” said the Rev. Ian Burch, rector at St. Mark’s, but he didn’t want to mix up the schedule for the 90 to 120 people who normally attend on Sundays.

“I’m allergic to changing service times,” he said. “It’s sort of Kryptonite to church growth. At the same time, I didn’t see a way that three Eucharists for a parish my size made a lot of sense.”

He and other church leaders began planning for Advent and Christmas back in early October. An expanded schedule isn’t just taxing on a congregation’s priests, he said. It also requires a lot from the volunteers, from the altar guild and flower guild to the musicians.

“It doesn’t just happen. There are no elves in the church. It’s not magic,” he said. The congregation also spends a lot of time planning because Christmas Eve is “an amazing evangelism opportunity, so don’t miss it and don’t be sloppy.”

With many Americans feeling crunched for time by jam-packed schedules, it may be too much to expect parishioners to attend two or three services in a 30-hour period, but Burch also doesn’t want to forget the parishioners who are likely to be in church every day it is open. He wants to give them that option, especially around Christmas.

“Removing choices is asking the church to shrink. If there are 15 people there in the morning, that’s a really beautiful number,” he said. Having more services at significant times is a lot of work, but “it’s worth it.”

– David Paulsen is an editor and reporter for the Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at dpaulsen@episcopalchurch.org.


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Comments (29)

  1. The Rev’d Daniel Stroud says:

    There is no conundrum. There is doing what we as clergy vowed to do and then there is being lazy. No one has said Advent IV must be elaborate productions, just that it must be offered.

    The fact that the calendar is sometimes difficult is precisely its point.

  2. Fr. carlton Kelley says:

    This debate could only occur in the Episcopal Church. Keep Advent in its fullest sense, and Christmas in its fullest sense. I’m unconvinced that numbers of people have anything to do with what is offered. Nor I am convinced that we clergy are at risked of being overworked.

  3. Ron Fox, BSG says:

    Debate? What debate? This year, Advent IV is Sunday, Dec. 24. You do Advent IV in the morning, and Christmas Eve in the evening. Fr Kelly is right.

  4. David Paulsen says:

    Even parishes that are doing Advent IV in the morning and Christmas Eve in the evening have had to figure out how to schedule so many services and whether to cut back on some. I didn’t hear from anyone that maintained their full Sunday morning schedule, even the larger churches, though there may be some that did.

  5. Linnea Sommer says:

    My church, which usually has three Sunday morning services, is scaling back to two- one main service and one abbreviated one, and then three afternoon/evening services- 3, 6, and 11 PM. I think that’s reasonable. Takes some of the heavy lifting off the clergy, but still allows for full celebration of Christmas.

  6. Jennifer Ladefoged says:

    From the Altar Guild: when do you decorate, between morning and 5 on the 24th?

  7. At All Saints’, Virginia Beach, we will have our 8:00a.m. Eucharist for the 4th Sunday of Advent.
    After this we will prepare the church for our Christmas celebrations:
    Dec 24 HE at 5:00 p.m. & 10:00 p.m
    Dec 25 HE at 10:00a.m.

  8. Janet King says:

    I am the music director at a small inner-city parish (about 30-35 ASA). We are doing something different than anything you mentioned in the article. We normally do a Christmas Lessons and Carols with Eucharist on Sunday Christmas 1. This year the rector came up with the idea of doing Lessons and Carols for the morning service on Advent 4. I constructed a hybrid of the Advent and Christmas L & C services which highlights the Annunciation, Visitation and Magnificat scenes, and finishes with the birth story (stopping before the angels and shepherds). The service will conclude with the children doing the Procession to the Creche. So we get moved scripturally from Advent into the start of Christmas Eve through the lessons. In the early evening the angels’ and shepherds’ story and songs will be out in full force at one combined Christmas Eve Eucharist (normally we do 2). This is still a stress for the volunteers (only 6 in the choir) and the staff musicians (there are something like 20 or so musical numbers altogether!) but I think it will work well. We also ease our Christmas Eve stress by having our pageant (focusing on the 3 Kings’ visit) after Christmas, at a family supper during the first week of January. We invite our after-school music program children and their families to participate. We’ve been doing that for the past 3 years and people really enjoy it.

  9. Fr. Anthony C. Dinoto says:

    Here at St. John’s-Niantic, CT with an average Sunday attendance of 150 that swells to nearly 350 for Christmas Eve and Christmas , we’re celebrating Advent 4 at 8 am. At 10 am, we’re beginning the liturgy for Advent 4 with the Children’s Christmas Pageant, normally presented at a “family Christmas Eve” mass at 5 or 6 followed by a 2nd Christmas Eve mass at 8 pm. This year we’re celebrating ONE Christmas Candlelight Mass at 7 pm with a Prelude of Christmas Carols accompanied by organ, brass, strings and our Adult Choir (18 voices) and a Christmas Day mass at 9 am. Merry Christmas to you all.

  10. Catherine M Cheek says:

    Our Rector and I were laughing about this this past weekend. Fr Richard has worked it out perfectly, for the sake of the voices of our choir members. We are having no music at the ten-thirty Mass, and are combining the two morning services, where we will light the fourth Advent candle. For those of us in the Altar Guild, we will be busy. Serving God is wonderful, until you have to lift the celebritol altar frontal. It is heavy. Plus, there will be three masses on Sunday, but Christ is so worth it.

    Sometimes, we Episcopalians can be pains-in-the-butt, debating so much. But we have to make sure that we keep up with Scripture and tradition. And we have the ability to laugh at ourselves.

  11. Rev. Karen LaJoy Smith says:

    We are small Episcopal congregation with an ASA of just over 50. We have one service on Sunday mornings at 10am. This year we will celebrate Advent 4 which will include our Christmas Pageant. The Christmas Eve service will begin at 9pm with carols followed by Eucharist. Pretty simple.

  12. Araminta Johnston says:

    I really like what we’re doing at St. Martin’s Charlotte. The

  13. Araminta Johnston says:

    I really like what we’re doing at St. Martin’s Charlotte. The 8:30 service will be an Advent service (with organ) and the 10:45 service will be our Christmas Pageant. Then we’ll have the normal Christmas Eve service beginning at 10 p.m. with music. Then Monday morning at 10 a.m. Thanks to Father Josh Bowron and our creative staff for this solution!

  14. Interestingly enough, the further conundrum faced by churches with Hispanic congregations is not mentioned. Hispanics throughout the world celebrate Christmas on “Noche Buena” (Christmas Eve). Families spend their day preparing for large family meals and their night feasting and dancing. We at St Mary Magdalene in Coral Springs, Florida, left the decision up to the vongregation itself. We will have eight services throughout the weekend, including 3 Advent IV services on Saturday and Sunday, four Christmas Eve and one on Christmas morning. The Spanish congregation decided they would have to have only a Christmas Eve service at 2pm. There was no way we could get them to church twice on such a busy day for them. And this Hispanic priest has had to change her tradition to celebrate at home on Christmas Day instead.

  15. Fr. carlton Kelley says:

    There is an elephant in this room. We clergy often like to complain about “overwork” around busy seasons all the while forgetting about our people who, for one reason or another, must work more long hours without relief and without the benefit of simply taking days off as priests are able do as we control our own schedules.

  16. The Very Rev Thomas Hurley says:

    I am so happy to be retired. I will be able to enjoy Advent IV Christmas Eve with my family.

  17. Howard Buskirk says:

    At St. Anne’s in Annapolis, where I am a member, we also have four services on Christmas Eve and one on Christmas morning. The Saturday evening service has been restructured to be more like out traditional 9:30 a.m. Sunday morning service, with a choir and Sycamore Tree for the children. This is in keeping with liturgical time, since Sunday begins at sunset the night before. At least this won’t be an issue again until 2023.

  18. In a way the Church has preserved the Medieval custom of an extended Advent, “St. Martin’s Lent,” from November 11th to December 24th. Maybe the liturgical color hasn’t yet changed from green to blue (or purple), and maybe we don’t set out an Advent wreath, but for the three Sundays leading up to First Advent the Propers are indeed First Advent themes (the “end times”). So this year I kept mentioning that Advent was lurking in the background and my sermons were First Advent themes (as per the readings of the day). I called First Advent “the Fourth Sunday of the First Sunday of Advent.”

  19. The People of God often dictate the adjustments by their attendance or their absence. But I am stubborn, and insist that Sunday is Sunday, Christmas Eve is Christmas Eve, and so we keep the schedule as is. We have two on Sunday morning, 8 and 10:15, then 5pm and 8PM Christmas Eve, and 10:30 am Christmas Day. The Sunday numbers for the a.m. will most probably be low, because most people here are not inclined to worship more than once on a Sunday. But I have to be here just the same, so it’s all the same to me. Besides, we’re worshiping the Lord, so what’s the big deal? I’ve been doing this for almost 38 years and have learned that you just do what needs to be done.

  20. We solved it very simply and logically (if there is such a thing!) We decorated after church on Advent III with wreaths and garland. The lights in the trees were hung but will not be lighted until the Christmas Eve services on Sunday night. We will have one principal service at 10:30 (instead of 8:00 and 10:30) and our regular Christmas Eve services in the evening at 5:30 and 11:00 p.m. I jokingly told the congregation last weekend to pretend not to see the greenery next Sunday morning, but to focus instead on the readings, the hymns, the Advent wreath, and the purple hangings and vestments. We’ll change to white after the morning Advent service. I don’t think we’re going to fool anyone that it’s not both Advent and Christmas Eve, so we are honoring both, while both having a little fun and making it easier on the volunteers for Christmas Eve readiness.

  21. Jenifer Lewis says:

    At St. Andrew’s in Winthrop ME, we’ll have a lay-led Morning Prayer at our usual time. The Altar Guild will change the colors, set the table for the Lord’s Supper, and place Mary, Joseph, Baby Jesus, and the shepherds on the credence table. We’ll celebrate the eucharist at 5:30 pm, then the AG will prepare for the Principal Feast of Christmas Day at noon on Monday, for which a lay person will play the guitar so our organist gets the day off. It will all be lovely and memorable, I’m sure!

  22. Rev. Les Ferguson says:

    Simple solution in rural Suffolk Virginia. St. John’s (ASA 20-25) decorated in traditional and simple fashion on 3 Advent (garlands, poinsettia, and lanterns with candles on the windowsills). 4 Advent service at 10:30 am (normal time); Christmas Eve service at 5:00 pm (normal time). It’s only an issue if you make it an issue.

  23. Great opportunity for Episcopalians to teach about Advent being a preparation for Christmas. We keep our regular 8am and 10am services with the focus on the 4th Sunday in Advent and after the service we prepare the liturgical colors for Christmas and prepare for an 11o clock service.. Had folks work in the Caribbean , let me share the schedule- Christmas Eve- 6am. 7,30 am . 9.30 am , then 5pm at a mission church followed by 11pm Candlelight service. The next morning – Christmas day- 6am- 7.30am and then 9.30 am.

  24. Doug Desper says:

    This is a golden opportunity to educate. This Sunday sees two distinct liturgical seasons meeting in a transition centered around the Genesis definition of what a “day” is. In Genesis we see that the day begins, not at sunrise, but instead in the evening “…and there was evening and morning, the first day”, etc. The day does not begin with us producing, managing, working, manipulating events, or being “in control”. Instead, the day begins with us dependent on the mercies and protection of God and for God to control life and bless us without our assistance. Into that night comes the blessing of Jesus.

  25. Sue Eades says:

    At St. James we are having an Advent service of Lessons and Carols in the morning and the Christmas Eve service in the morning.

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