COVID-19 surge forces new suspensions of in-person worship as Episcopalians look to Christmas

By David Paulsen
Posted Dec 11, 2020

[Episcopal News Service] Advent and Christmas services are among the most anticipated of the liturgical year. This year is no exception, but with COVID-19 cases spiking across the United States and worldwide, some Episcopal dioceses are suspending in-person worship – even if it means celebrating the birth of Jesus online.

In Mississippi, the number of daily cases topped 2,000 for the first time on Dec. 2. That day, Mississippi Bishop Brian Seage halted worship services and other in-person church activities until further notice. In California, daily cases and deaths rose to new highs this week. On Dec. 10, California Bishop Marc Andrus, whose diocese encompasses the San Francisco Bay Area, announced he too was suspending all in-person gatherings.

“I issue this advisory with a heavy heart,” Andrus said. “We are, after all, in Advent, a season of hopeful watching and waiting, and approaching Christmas, one of our holiest and most beloved holidays.”

Other bishops and dioceses are issuing similar advisories. Some church leaders began in November to impose new restrictions, amid concern that families gathering for Thanksgiving would accelerate transmission of the coronavirus. Whatever effect that holiday had on local outbreaks, the latest national numbers are alarming: An average of more than 2,000 Americans a day have died in the past week, according to data tracked by The New York Times, making this the deadliest period of the pandemic.

“Renewed restrictions, while causing short-term disappointment, will help us all traverse the coming months in greater health and with genuine care for one another, as Jesus has commanded,” the bishops of Massachusetts and Western Massachusetts said on Nov. 19 in a joint message to their dioceses.

They advised churches to suspend in-person, indoor worship for the foreseeable future.

“We know and grieve that the timing of these restrictions means that Advent and Christmas simply will not be observed with many of our cherished traditions this year,” the bishops said. “Instead it will be a year for small, quiet, contemplative possibilities – perhaps not unlike the lonely stable in Bethlehem shared by that little family at the Incarnation, where Christ first came to meet all our hopes and fears.”

St. Andrew’s in the Valley Episcopal Church in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, stages a living nativity scene in December 2018. This year, congregations churchwide have developed socially distanced offerings to help parishioners celebrate Advent and Christmas safely. Photo: Diocese of Central Pennsylvania

Despite the pandemic cloud hovering over Advent, there is a silver lining: Episcopal churches have been through this before.

The onset of the pandemic in mid-March during Lent fueled widespread suspensions of in-person services, and in many cases those suspensions lasted for months, upending parish life and forcing clergy and lay leaders and their congregations to get creative in how they celebrated Holy Week and Easter.

“They had to kind of reinvent everything they were used to doing, and nothing felt like it should,” said the Rev. Andrew Wright, canon to the ordinary in the Diocese of Newark. March and April were stressful months, he told ENS, but “we’re all more experienced with how we need to do this now than we were.”

The New York metro region, including New Jersey, was hit in April by one of the worst early outbreaks of the pandemic. Conditions later improved enough that the Diocese of Newark began allowing in-person worship services in July, but cases surged again in November.

Newark limited attendance on Nov. 29, the first Sunday in Advent, to 10 people indoors and 50 people outdoors. With the outbreak continuing to worsen this month, the diocese has further limited in-person worship to only those needed to produce livestream services.

As with Easter, the inability to gather in large numbers will make for an unprecedented Christmas, but congregations now are familiar with celebrating holidays online, Wright said. “We will have done it before, if we have to do something creative again.”

With that creativity, clergy and lay leaders across the church are sending the message this Advent that the coronavirus isn’t canceling Christmas. Pageants are going online this year. Digital Advent calendars and Zoom holiday trivia are helping to make the season bright. Virtual carols are taking the place of church sanctuaries filled with song.

And dioceses and congregations are inviting Episcopalians to celebrate Christmas Eve and Christmas Day together through their online services. With in-person worship suspended, the Diocese of Ohio announced this week that it was enlisting members of congregations across the diocese to contribute portions of the diocese’s holiday services, including a virtual choir.

“Every one of us will doubtless be disappointed not to be gathering in person with our parish companions as we make the Advent journey to the stable of the Incarnation and celebrate the birth of the Savior anew in our hearts, communities, and world,” Ohio Bishop Mark Hollingsworth said in a Dec. 4 message to the diocese. Yet even in this time of illness and loss, he said, “we will hear again the angels sing and proclaim joy to the world with unfailing confidence in the incarnate love of God.”

In the Diocese of Los Angeles, Bishop Suffragan Diane Bruce will join a virtual celebration of the feast of the Virgen de Guadalupe on Dec. 12, as well as a “Christmas Around the Creche” service on Christmas Day. Congregations in the diocese are planning their own online Christmas services, and Bishop John Harvey Taylor will lead an online “Festival of Lessons and Carols for Christmas” on Dec. 27.

Pennsylvania Bishop Daniel Gutiérrez advised his diocese on Dec. 8 that congregations should refrain from in-person worship services for the rest of Advent because of the recent increase in COVID-19 cases, but he made an exception for Christmas: Congregations may gather in person that day while limiting attendance to 25% of church capacity and following other precautions.

“This year our Christmas celebrations may not take the form we expected,” Gutiérrez said, “but none of that can limit the power of Jesus Christ that will come powerfully and beautifully into our hearts and shine a light into the darkness once more.”

– David Paulsen is an editor and reporter for Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at