Washington, Virginia dioceses cancel worship at all churches, including National Cathedral, over outbreak

By David Paulsen and Egan Millard
Posted Mar 11, 2020

The Washington National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., is the seat of the presiding bishop of The Episcopal Church. Photo: Episcopal News Service

[Episcopal News Service] The dioceses of Washington and Virginia announced March 11 that they are closing or canceling services at more than 250 churches in the nation’s capital and suburban Virginia and Maryland, including Washington National Cathedral, for at least two weeks, as a sweeping precaution to help stem the spread of the new coronavirus, or COVID-19, which earlier in the day was declared a global pandemic.

Washington Bishop Mariann Budde explained her decision in a letter to the diocese, first reported by The Washington Post. The “health, safety and well-being of our people” is her first concern, she said, and congregations will be encouraged to explore online worship alternatives.

“Two things are now clear: Social distance is needed to stop the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus, and the populations most at risk are highly represented among our congregations and clergy,” Budde’s letter says. All 88 congregations in her diocese will close effective March 12, and she hopes they will resume worship services by March 29.

In the Diocese of Virginia, one of three Episcopal dioceses in the state, Bishop Suffragan Susan Goff ordered all 179 of the diocese’s congregations to cancel worship services in response to the coronavirus, according to her letter to the diocese. Health officials in regions of the United States with high case counts have warned that large gatherings could fuel the virus’s spread.

“The coronavirus is now a pandemic and we are responsible for one another, especially for the most vulnerable among us,” said Goff, who became the diocese’s ecclesiastical authority after the retirement of Bishop Shannon Johnston.

The mass closings and cancellations at churches in the Washington area – and the potential for a domino effect of church closings across the United States – have amplified efforts to equip congregations with the tools and techniques to maintain worshipping communities, even when gathering in person isn’t possible. Leaders across The Episcopal Church, after focusing early in the outbreak on changes to liturgical practices such as suspending use of the common cup at communion, now are concentrating more intently on video streaming options so parishioners can remain connected without leaving home.

The latest developments add to the widespread disruptions to parish life at Episcopal congregations, and at least three congregations have canceled services because their rectors were found to have the virus.

Episcopal News Service’s complete coronavirus coverage can be found here.

The Episcopal Church online resource page for coronavirus response is here.

The Rev. Timothy Cole, rector at Christ Church Georgetown in Washington, D.C., was identified this week as the first confirmed COVID-19 case in the nation’s capital. An organist at the church also received a coronavirus diagnosis. Hundreds of parishioners who visited or attended services at the church on Feb. 24 or between Feb. 28 and March 3 were urged by city health officials to self-quarantine for 14 days due to possible exposure there to the coronavirus.

The Rev. Timothy Cole

The Rev. Timothy Cole, rector of Christ Church Georgetown. Photo: Christ Church, via Facebook

Among those advised to isolate themselves were a group of seminarians and two faculty members from Virginia Theological Seminary who had recently attended a Lenten series at Christ Church Georgetown. VTS and other Episcopal seminaries have canceled in-person classes and moved instruction online as a precaution.

On March 11, the Diocese of Fort Worth issued a statement reporting that the Rev. Robert Pace, rector at Trinity Episcopal Church in Fort Worth, Texas, has been hospitalized with the virus. It is the first reported case of COVID-19 in Tarrant County, Texas’ third-largest county, which includes Fort Worth.

Trinity is closed until further notice, and all services for Sunday, March 15 (along with a Lenten service scheduled for March 11) have been canceled. After consulting with health officials, the diocese said the only congregants who may have contracted the virus from Pace are about 45 people who attended a Lenten program he spoke at on March 4.

Trinity’s staff has notified those people, who should receive calls from the Tarrant County Public Health Department about next steps, the diocese said. Health officials do not believe there is any risk to the rest of the congregation. Trinity’s preschool is currently on spring break and the students were not exposed to the virus, the diocese says.

“Robert is improving,” Fort Worth Bishop Scott Mayer, who visited Pace in the hospital, told ENS by phone. “You can tell that he is gaining strength and is in improved spirits. … And he is very grateful for all the prayers and the concern.”

The Rev. Robert Pace

The Rev. Robert Pace. Photo: Diocese of Fort Worth

Trinity’s other clergy members are being evaluated but are not officially in quarantine as of March 11, Mayer told ENS. Mayer said he is not aware of any other cases of the virus in his diocese, including among the people who attended the March 4 service at Trinity. The parish and the diocese are working to set up some form of virtual worship for the congregation, he added.

“The main thing that I’m trying to convey is the reality that we’re all really connected,” Mayer said. “We really need to do what we can to protect those that are most vulnerable.”

According the diocese, Pace first started feeling sick several days after returning from the Consortium of Endowed Episcopal Parishes (CEEP) annual conference, which was held in Louisville, Kentucky, Feb. 19-22. Cole, the Christ Church Georgetown rector, also attended that conference.

A third priest who attended the conference, the Rev. Janet Broderick, also was reported March 11 to have the virus. Broderick, rector at All Saints’ Episcopal Church in Beverly Hills, California, has been hospitalized for treatment, the Diocese of Los Angeles said in an email newsletter. Worship services at All Saints’ are suspended while the congregation waits for further guidance from public health officials.

The Rev. Janet Broderick

The Rev. Janet Broderick. Photo: Diocese of Los Angeles

Los Angeles Bishop John Harvey Taylor was one of several bishops, including Budde, who urged congregations to stop using the common cup for wine while the outbreak is spreading.

“We’ll be following the best advice of health officials; supporting the leaders and people of All Saints’ Beverly Hills as they make decisions about their own health and safety, and discerning, together with all our 200 institutions in six counties, about the best way forward,” Taylor said in the diocese’s email.

No evidence has been released so far to suggest the three priests contracted the virus at the CEEP conference. CEEP on March 11 issued an update to conference attendees saying it was continuing to work with public health authorities.

“At this time the guidance we have received from health agencies has not changed,” CEEP Executive Director Joe Swimmer said in his email to attendees. “Simply being at the conference with someone not showing symptoms is not a risk factor.”

COVID-19, with symptoms similar to those of influenza, had been confirmed in 113 countries as of March 11, according to the World Health Organization. Although much remains unknown about the virus, early indications suggest that most cases – more than 80 percent, in one study – are mild and do not require hospitalization.

Even so, more than 110,000 cases and 4,000 deaths have been reported globally, most of them in China, though growing outbreaks in other countries have prompted escalating emergency measures to contain or slow its spread. German Chancellor Angela Merkel warned March 11 that up to 70 percent of Germans could contract the virus.

The entire nation of Italy is on lockdown, with curfews, travel restrictions and other measures in place to minimize public interaction. The Convocation of Episcopal Churches in Europe is adapting to the “unprecedented” cancellation of all religious services ordered by the Italian government as part of the lockdown – first in some of Italy’s northern provinces on March 8, then throughout the entire country on March 9 – according to the Rt. Rev. Mark Edington, bishop of the convocation. Two of the convocation’s nine parishes and two of its 12 missions are in Italy.

Edington and the bishops of the Church of England’s Diocese in Europe are coordinating their response to the pandemic, since their parishes operate side by side throughout the continent, sometimes in the same cities. Churches in Italy can remain open for private prayer as long as people remain three feet away from each other, but no services can be held until April 3, although that date may change, Edington and Bishop David Hamid of the Diocese in Europe wrote in a letter to their clergy. That includes everything from the Eucharist to funerals.

Asked whether he thought Italian authorities had gone too far, Edington told ENS it was a tough call.

“I cannot imagine what it would be like to be in their position,” Edington said. “This thing has so quickly moved in Italy from 200 cases to 10,000 cases. … What I can say is it’s extremely painful for our parishes and for our pastors. We have a natural instinct to want to be supportive to each other in a time of crisis, and it feels like that has been taken away from us, and that’s really hard. And we’re trying to find ways to be pastorally present to our communities and also the people who are just going to be affected by this economically.”

One of the convocation’s parishes – St. James Episcopal Church in Florence, Italy – livestreamed its regular Sunday service on March 8, before the national lockdown. In addition to those physically present, about 300 people watched the service on the livestream, Edington said. And as far as funerals, Edington said it is technically possible to have a small graveside service with just family members present.

Edington said his clergy and congregants are resilient and are finding new ways to foster community in the face of the crisis.

“We need to continue with work like that and find ways to be as present with each other as we can,” he said.

In the United States, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported 938 confirmed cases and at least 29 deaths as of March 11.

Some Episcopal congregations regularly stream their services online, including Washington National Cathedral. The cathedral is the seat of the presiding bishop of The Episcopal Church, and it boasts an estimated 418,000 visitors and worshippers each year. For the next two Sundays, Budde and Presiding Bishop Michael Curry will take turns presiding at services streamed from the cathedral without anyone in attendance, according to the Post.

With the coronavirus outbreak escalating, other congregations already have begun experimenting with those options, from Facebook Live to the video meeting tool Zoom. When coronavirus was diagnosed in a member of Emmanuel Episcopal Church on Mercer Island, just east of Seattle, Washington, the church chose to cancel its worship services. Its rector, the Rev. Elizabeth Riley, hosted a live video of a Morning Prayer service March 8 on Facebook. A “virtual coffee hour” followed on Zoom.

Budde told ENS in a phone interview March 10, before her announcement of church closings, that the diocese would begin ramping up its online worship efforts due to the coronavirus’s spread. “Even the smaller churches, they know how to do a Facebook Live,” she said.

Now that she has ordered in-person worship to cease, the diocese will be working with its congregations to ensure they have the resources and guidance to keep in contact with parishioners, including through online worship.

“I understand the spiritual and financial implications, the headaches and frustrations, and I share this disappointment that we, as worshipping communities, will not be able to gather,” Budde said in her letter announcing the closings.

“However, I am equally aware of the responsibilities we have as people of faith who follow the one who came among us as one who served. Not only do we have a moral, religious and civic obligation to take whatever steps are necessary to aid our communities in stemming the spread of this virus, we exist in order to love and serve our neighbors. It is what faith communities do best in times of need.”

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