Wary of omicron, churches move Christmas services online

WASHINGTON (RNS) – As the ruthlessly contagious variant of the omicron coronavirus has soared in the Washington, DC area, over the past week, Rev. Timothy Tutt hastily scheduled a series of conversations with leaders of the Westmoreland United Church of Christ.

Tutt, a senior minister at the church in Bethesda, Maryland, consulted with its COVID task force, an assembly of congregational members with medical expertise. He also contacted the leaders of the congregation to assess the feelings of the community and spoke with other local pastors about their plans.

“There was obviously sadness and frustration, a feeling of ‘Oh, no, here we go again,’ he said.

The church had already canceled its late-night Christmas Eve service and planned to convene its only remaining service that day outside – in part to accommodate the presence of children not yet eligible for vaccination, in party to allow live sheep to roam during the Christmas show. But as coronavirus cases in the city continued to rise, the congregation decided further action was needed: Wednesday morning (December 22), leaders announced Sunday services would be virtual for at least the next two. weeks.

Churches across the country have made similar decisions in the wake of the omicron variant, with pastors and congregations grappling with whether to continue in-person worship services during a major Christian holiday or revert to virtual services which were a feature of the onset of the pandemic.

“We want people to be safe, to feel safe and not to feel like they have to go to a place that puts their health at risk,” Tutt told Religion News Service. “We think it’s a way to show that we love God and love our neighbors by not exposing people to potential risks – risks that they can then put to others.”

Reverend Timothy Tutt preaches at the Westmoreland United Church of Christ on November 21, 2021 in Bethesda, Maryland. Video screenshot

The push for online services has been especially strong in and around Washington, where rates of COVID-19 cases are currently the highest in the country, according to the Washington Post. Although the region is heavily vaccinated compared to many states, and early evidence suggests that cases of COVID-19 caused by the omicron variant may be milder, experts still fear the lightning-fast spread of the virus. wreak havoc on unvaccinated or immunocompromised populations.

On Tuesday, the Washington National Cathedral – whose policies often set the tone for churches in the region – announced changes to a litany of scheduled services. The cathedral intended to shrink some, move a few in line, and cancel at least two in total.

But on Wednesday evening, officials said they were bringing all services online during the holiday season.

“As one of the largest churches in America, we regularly welcome over 15,000 people to celebrate the Christmas holidays,” read a statement from the Right Reverend Randolph Marshall Hollerith, Dean of the Cathedral. “However, given the spike in infections, I simply cannot justify assembling massive crowds as the public health situation worsens around us.”

The move follows a similar announcement from St. John the Divine, a New York episcopal cathedral, where cases are also skyrocketing. The church announced Tuesday that it will move Christmas services to a virtual format.

“As the cathedral has done before, it is crucial to prioritize the needs and concerns of the wider community,” read a statement on the cathedral’s website.

For Rev. Ashley Goff, pastor of Arlington Presbyterian Church in Virginia, the issue was resolved in a conversation she had with the church’s music minister earlier this week. Guided by what she calls a “good neighbor theology,” she said they looked at local health data, which showed a much higher COVID-19 test positivity rate than the church deems acceptable for collection. They also looked at the plight of local hospitals, which experts say may soon be overrun with patients as the virus continues to spread unprecedentedly.

In the end, they were left with the question, “Are we fighting omicron or are we allowing it?”

They decided to move the online services, she said, because “who we are, how we present ourselves in the world, has the well-being of the neighbor at the center”.

Washington National Cathedral, June 12, 2015. Religious Information Service photo by Sally Morrow

Washington National Cathedral in 2015. RNS Photo by Sally Morrow

Some churches made the switch even earlier. The Union Temple Baptist Church in Washington released an ad on Facebook on Saturday declaring that all services will be virtual for the remainder of the year “due to increasing cases of COVID and being overly cautious.”

However, other congregations are sticking to existing plans for in-person worship. The Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, a sprawling Catholic place of worship in Washington, told RNS it was demanding masks but also intended to hold an in-person mass the day before. Christmas and Christmas Day. The Archdiocese of Washington, which oversees the church, currently recommends following local mask guidelines, but has otherwise not suggested any drastic changes in worship.

Meanwhile, religious leaders such as Reverend Tony Suarez, who runs Revivalmakers and is COO of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, expressed resistance to suspending in-person worship. He insisted the virus is “real”, noting that he contracted COVID-19 in July 2020, and urged people who are feeling sick to stay at home. But as a traveling evangelist, he said he plans to preach Sunday in what he hopes will be a packed church in Kingsport, Tennessee.

“We worship together, we go shopping together, we go to sports matches together, we go to the mall together and in some political climates we walk, protest or rally together,” said Suarez, who was previously the ‘one of them. from the informal group of evangelical advisers to former President Donald Trump.

“For me, personally, I just don’t understand why there would be any problem worshiping together at this point.”

He recognized the differences between Christian traditions, saying that evangelical Christians and members of the “charismatic, Word of faith, Pentecostal” community operate in “a world very different from that of mainstream Christianity at this time” with regard to COVID-19 and in-person worship.

“Theologically speaking, I don’t see Jesus not entering a leper colony. I don’t see him not taking care of the sick and praying for them, ”he said. He took inspiration from famous evangelists of the past, saying, “I don’t see where Oral Roberts or AA Allen or Aimee Semple McPherson or RW Schambach ever canceled a tent revival or healing meeting because of tuberculosis. or any other type of epidemic. “

Other churches have taken a radically different approach. A representative from the Metropolitan AME, a historic black church in downtown Washington, told RNS the congregation did not have to switch to online services – as it had not resumed in-person meetings since March 2020, when the congregation first switched to virtual worship.

Likewise, Tutt noted that while many members of Westmoreland celebrated a return to worship in person earlier this year, the church has maintained an online component as part of a “hybrid” model. The result: a congregation that has found spiritual meaning in physical and virtual spaces, he said, a dynamic he hopes will soften the blow of a sudden return to virtual worship.

“There is a subset of congregations – and I would put Westmoreland in that list – that are like, ‘During the pandemic, we have learned very well how to connect online,’” he said. “We now have an online congregation that spans across the country and around the world. “

He added, “The people of this congregation – and so many other people of faith – have great reserves of patience, creativity, flexibility and grace. … What we remember is that these reservations continue to run deep.

As to the difficulty surrounding this season, Tutt said it reminded him of the story of Christmas, where Jesus was born into “a very troubled world” with “a lot of problems”.

“Into this world of problems and complications and difficulties came this little baby – this creature embodied by God, to live in the midst of these complications,” he said. “At those times when I’m like, ‘Oh, that’s terrible. I hate this,’ I have the privilege of pausing to remember: the story of God incarnate is a story of God incarnate in the midst of complications. , difficulties, pain and confusion. ”

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