- The Washington Times
Thursday, December 23, 2021

Your options for Christmas worship in the District of Columbia may depend on how the church of your choice responds to the latest spike in COVID-19 cases.

The Washington National Cathedral said Wednesday evening that it will shut its doors to tourists and worshippers until Jan. 9.

“As one of the largest churches in America, we routinely welcome more than 15,000 people to celebrate the Christmas holiday,” the Rev. Randolph Marshall Hollerith, the Episcopal congregation’s dean, wrote in an online message.

“However, given the spike in infections,” he added, “I simply cannot justify gathering massive crowds as the public health situation worsens around us.”

The Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception will hold seven Masses on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day “because Mass is still required,” a spokesman said.

The dichotomy between the two camps is echoing across the nation as churches try to figure out how to respond to the latest developments in the nearly 2-year-old pandemic alongside the traditional pull of Christmas worship.

The Episcopal Diocese of Washington, which oversees the Washington National Cathedral, is taking a middle ground.

“It’s clear that several churches have already decided to offer online services only for Christmas, and others are seriously considering it,” Episcopal Bishop Mariann Budde wrote in an email released Thursday afternoon.

“Please know that I support that decision and trust your judgment regarding what is best for you, those who lead worship, and the congregation you serve. Many congregations, however, are choosing to offer both live and online services, and I support that decision as well,” she added.

Bishop Budde said she would not “mandate” the physical closure of congregations in the diocese, “given the variety of our local contexts and sense of how best to serve our communities.”

Mr. Hollerith, who was appointed dean at the Washington National Cathedral in 2016, was more definitive in his approach.

“As the world shifts around us, I believe we need to be responsible and responsive. It is better to pause now and celebrate later than to celebrate now and be filled with regret later,” he wrote.

The Episcopal cathedral has hosted the state funerals of former Presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1969, Ronald Reagan in 2004, Gerald Ford in 2007 and George H.W. Bush in 2018.

Numerous other notable Americans have had their funerals there, most recently former Secretary of State Colin Powell in November and former Sen. Bob Dole on Dec. 10.

The omicron variant of the coronavirus accounts for 75% of new COVID-19 cases in the nation. First detected in South Africa, the variant doesn’t cause more severe illness than earlier strains of the novel coronavirus.

Last week, the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Washington said it was “continuing to prioritize policies to ensure that in-person participation in Mass safely reduces the risk of spreading the coronavirus.”

The archdiocese said it would follow local guidelines on masking and that “social distancing is still encouraged indoors.”

The Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, near the Catholic University of America’s campus in the District’s Brookland neighborhood, will offer two Masses on Christmas Eve, at 4:30 p.m. and 10:30 p.m. The latter will be livestreamed.

Of the five Christmas Day Masses to be celebrated at the basilica, the noon English-language and the 2:30 p.m. Spanish-language Masses will be livestreamed.

Basilica spokesman Joshua Maxey told The Times that the facility has been open for services “for the past year or so because Mass is still required.”

In New York City, a spokesperson for Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan said via email that “we will have Midnight Mass in Saint Patrick’s Cathedral with a congregation.”

The observance is a long-standing tradition in the heart of Manhattan.

A spokeswoman for Joel Osteen and Lakewood Church in Houston, which regularly draws 16,000, said the church will hold in-person worship for Christmas Eve and regular Sunday services on Dec. 26.

“As far as COVID-19, there have been no changes with regards to our services,” the spokeswoman said in a message to The Times.

Other congregations in the Washington metropolitan area are also divided between opening and closing.

The United Methodist Church’s Baltimore-Washington Conference, in Fulton, Maryland, said its churches “are continuing to monitor the spread of the virus and are in a continual process of discernment as they continue to prioritize people’s health and well-being. Some are limiting attendance in worship and encouraging people to worship online.”

In Silver Spring, Maryland, the Spencerville Seventh-day Adventist Church will hold in-person worship on Dec. 25, pastor Chad Stuart said in a video message.

He said the 11:30 a.m. service would be available online for those who prefer to worship from a distance.

Some congregations are skipping services, but not because of COVID-19.

After its 4 p.m. Christmas Eve service, Grace Hills Church in Bentonville, Arkansas, will not gather for worship again until Jan. 2 for 10 a.m. Sunday services.

Repeated attempts to reach the church and its pastor, Jared Lett, were unavailing.

Asked whether the 45,000-member Prestonwood Baptist Church in Plano, Texas, would skip the Sunday after Christmas, pastor Jack Graham said, “We are still celebrating Christmas on Sunday, Dec. 26! We recognize that many people are visiting family here and we are pleased to welcome them to worship with us. We also know some of our members might be alone this weekend and we want to provide the encouragement and fellowship of their church family. We look forward to gathering on campus and online.”

For more information, visit The Washington Times COVID-19 resource page.

• Mark A. Kellner can be reached at mkellner@washingtontimes.com.

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