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US churches canceling in-person Christmas services amid omicron surge

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Many churches across the U.S. are canceling some or all in-person Christmas services amid yet another surge in COVID cases that have put a damper on people’s holidays for a second year.  

Among those churches were Washington National Cathedral in the nation’s capital; St. John the Divine, the cathedral of the Episcopal Diocese of New York; and the historic Old South Church in Boston.

FILE: The Washington National Cathedral is seen at dawn in Washington on Friday, Nov. 5, 2021.

FILE: The Washington National Cathedral is seen at dawn in Washington on Friday, Nov. 5, 2021.
(AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

The Rev. Nancy Taylor, senior minister of Old South, said the church was shifting its popular Christmas Eve service to online-only.

“While we cherish these guests under normal circumstances, these are not normal circumstances. We are prioritizing the health and safety of our volunteers and staff,” Taylor told The Associated Press. “We know how disappointing this is.”

Leaders of Washington National Cathedral said all services would be offered only remotely until Jan. 9, with no worshippers or visitors allowed in the cathedral. 

“Given the spike in infections, I simply cannot justify gathering massive crowds as the public health situation worsens around us,” said the cathedral’s dean, the Very Rev. Randolph Marshall Hollerith. 

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The National City Christian Church in Washington also canceled its Christmas Eve service and will shift exclusively to online worship at least through mid-January.

In New York City, which is experiencing record numbers of positive tests for COVID-19, leaders at St. John Divine said they were shifting all Christmas services to online-only.

“The time has come once again to put the needs and concerns of our wider community first,” the cathedral said on its website.

Travelers wait in line to check in for flights at Logan Airport, Tuesday, Dec. 21, 2021, in Boston.

Travelers wait in line to check in for flights at Logan Airport, Tuesday, Dec. 21, 2021, in Boston.
(AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

In-person services are among the many casualties from the omicron variant of COVID, which has upended holiday plans for people not only in the U.S., but around the world. Thousands of holiday travelers have been stranded due to flight cancelations.   

Among other churches canceling in-person Christmas services were the Abraham Lincoln Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Springfield, Illinois, and the First Church of God in Columbus, Ohio.

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Bishop Timothy Clarke, First Church of God’s senior pastor, announced his decision live on the church’s website Thursday evening, noting that congregants and church leaders alike have tested positive for COVID. 

“As your pastor, as your under shepherd, as your spiritual leader, your health, your well-being, as well as the state of your soul, are my primary responsibilities,” Clarke said. “And so out of an abundance of care, concern, caution, we are making this decision.” 

Other churches are planning outdoor services or proposed a hybrid of online and in-person worship, often imposing tight restrictions for those in attendance. These included requirements to wear masks and show proof of COVID-19 vaccinations.

FILE: Senior Minister Rev. Jacqueline J. Lewis rings New York's Liberty Bell after a construction crew lowered it from Middle Collegiate Church's bell tower on Wednesday, June 16, 2021, in the East Village neighborhood of New York. 

FILE: Senior Minister Rev. Jacqueline J. Lewis rings New York’s Liberty Bell after a construction crew lowered it from Middle Collegiate Church’s bell tower on Wednesday, June 16, 2021, in the East Village neighborhood of New York. 
(AP Photo/Mary Altaffer, File)

Westchester County’s Bedford Presbyterian Church was among the churches planning to proceed with in-person Christmas services. 

The church said that although the omicron is highly contagious, “the infections seem to result in milder cases, especially for those who are vaccinated.” Therefore, it would go ahead with in-person services while practicing precautionary measures, like requiring masks indoors, maximized ventilation, and shorter sermons. 

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At All Saints’ Episcopal Church in Brooklyn, the Rev. Steven Paulikas made a similar decision. 

Paulikas told AP “We need to do what the congregation needs most — and what we need most right now is some beauty and hope.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report. 

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