Omicron surge has churches feeling pandemic whiplash, with some suspending in-person worship

By David Paulsen
Posted Jan 7, 2022
Christmas Eve at Holy Family

Worshippers gather outside for a Christmas Eve service at Church of the Holy Family in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Photo courtesy of Clarke French

[Episcopal News Service] Like many Episcopal congregations, Church of the Holy Family in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, was slowly returning to familiar worship routines, including in-person services, after nearly two years of pandemic-fueled cautiousness. And then an unwanted visitor arrived: Omicron.

The omicron variant swept across the United States in December to become the dominant strain of the coronavirus, and this month, it drove the number of new COVID-19 cases to record highs. The country is now averaging more than a half million cases a day, according to data tracked by The New York Times, and though there are indications that infections from this variant aren’t as severe, hospitalizations from the surge are again straining health care systems.

“I think it spooked a lot of people,” the Rev. Clarke French, Holy Family’s rector, told Episcopal News Service this week. The Diocese of North Carolina has recommended moving services online. For now, Holy Family is continuing with its hybrid model, offering both in-person and livestream options, but attendance at the church has dropped.

“In December, I’d say things were really humming along,” French said, citing the resumption of Sunday school and youth group meetings. About 200 people attended Sunday services during Advent – about two-thirds of the congregation’s pre-pandemic norm – and 250 came for Christmas Eve. Turnout on Jan. 2, however, barely topped 70.

It’s enough to give clergy and lay leaders whiplash. In-person worship, which was suspended nearly churchwide in March 2020, had resumed in many congregations by mid-2021. Vaccinations were widely available, and COVID-19 infections in the United States had plummeted to their lowest levels of the pandemic, fewer than 12,000 a day last June. Since then, communities have been hit by new coronavirus surges, first from the highly transmissible delta variant and now from the even more infectious omicron variant.

The new threats prompted many dioceses and congregations to resume or re-emphasize past public health precautions, like mask-wearing and physical distancing when attending worship services. Since the rise of omicron, some have gone as far as to halt congregational singing or suspend in-person gathering altogether to decrease the risk of virus transmission.

The Diocese of Southern Virginia issued an update to its churches on Jan. 4 that called for suspension of all public worship, though individual parishes can request exemptions. “As the pace of coronavirus transmission accelerates, driven by the omicron and delta variants, safeguarding public health and mitigating the risk of COVID transmission becomes a Christian imperative,” the diocese said.

In the Diocese of Central New York, Bishop DeDe Duncan-Probe has urged all congregations to arrange for hybrid worship options, and she is suspending her scheduled pastoral visitations for January in response to the omicron spike. Everyone is required to wear masks at all in-person church gatherings, though “parish leaders exercise local discretion in terms of holding in-person services and other events,” the Rev. Meredith Kadet Sanderson, communications director, told ENS.

Other dioceses issued updates last month encouraging renewed vigilance to reduce virus transmission as congregations prepared for Christmas services.

“We urge in the strongest possible terms renewed attention and strict adherence to the most recent COVID guidelines,” Massachusetts Bishop Alan Gates and Bishop Suffragan Gayle Harris said. “This includes mandatory mask-wearing by all worshippers; physical distancing between individuals or family units; restrictions on administration of the sacrament; and extreme caution at any fellowship gathering.”

The Diocese of Louisiana chose to reinstate a mask mandate at its worship services. “Once again we find ourselves at a crossroad. COVID cases are climbing at dangerous rates,” Louisiana Bishop Morris Thompson said in a Dec. 20 message to his New Orleans-based diocese before Christmas.

Some Episcopal congregations have responded by canceling in-person services. St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Smith’s Station, Alabama, announced on its Facebook page that there would be no worship at the church on Jan. 2, and alternatives are under consideration for the rest of the month.

“As your priest, if I am going to err, I want to do so on the side of caution,” said the Rev. Larry Williams, the church’s rector.

Another congregation, St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Kankakee, Illinois, canceled its Jan. 2 services because of COVID-19 exposure at its Christmas weekend services. “This decision has come after much reflection and consultation with other church leaders. Please understand that this is not permanent, it is only for this Sunday,” the rector, the Rev. Shane Spellmeyer, said in a Facebook update.

Emmanuel Episcopal Church in Orlando, Florida, is continuing to worship in person but suspending wine distribution and limiting Holy Eucharist to the bread alone. St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Houston, Texas, will keep in-person attendance to no more than 30 people. Abingdon Episcopal Church in White Marsh, Virginia, put its coffee hour and adult formation meetings on hold “until the rate of infections gets under control.”

“People continue to die from this disease, and many hospital systems are again overwhelmed by the number of cases,” Virginia Bishop Suffragan Susan Goff said in a Dec. 30 letter to the diocese. “The most vulnerable among us are more vulnerable than ever as people let down their guard out of exhaustion or false assumptions. Our responsibilities for each other in this human family remain, and the small sacrifices we make for the sake of others are blessed by God.”

Last month, when Washington, D.C., was recording some of the highest rates of infection in the country, Washington National Cathedral made a last-minute decision to move its Christmas service all online, and it closed its building to worshippers and visitors until Jan. 9. More than 4,000 people watched the online Jan. 2 service, according to the cathedral.

“Time and time again, this pandemic has required us to pivot quickly in order to keep our people safe, and the spike in omicron infections in D.C. forced us to change our Christmas plans in less than 24 hours,” Dean Randy Hollerith told ENS in an emailed statement. “Yet despite the whiplash, this pandemic has taught us how to be nimble and responsive, and enabled us to extend our ministry far beyond our walls.”

Online worship has become a mainstay of many congregations, even when pandemic conditions have improved.

“We encourage all our churches to offer some form of online worship every Sunday, so that individuals always have the option of worshipping from home if they don’t want to take the risk of an in-person gathering, or if they feel unwell and need to isolate,” Nina Nicholson, communications director of the Diocese of Newark, told ENS.

Newark’s continuing guidelines for congregations are synced with the public health risk level from COVID-19 in each county in its northern New Jersey diocese. All counties in the diocese are now classified as “severe risk,” which has prompted some congregations to suspend in-person worship and shift online.

The Diocese of Maryland put heightened precautions in place when the delta variant began driving case counts higher. Churches continue to emphasize mask mandates and hold coffee hours without food or beverages. “We’re not shutting down indoor worship, because we trust mask use and our high vaccination rate,” the Rev. Scott Slater, Maryland’s canon to the ordinary, told ENS this week.

The Diocese of Iowa issued updated regathering guidance in December in preparation for Christmas and the consecration of Bishop Betsey Monnot on Dec. 18. The consecration was attended by more than 400 people in a space large enough for 2,800, and the diocese has no evidence of COVID transmission tied to the gathering. the Rev. Meg Wagner, the diocese’s communications missioner, told ENS.

Iowa’s COVID-19 trends haven’t been as alarming as most other states’ outbreaks during the omicron surge, but residents and congregations are on guard, Wagner said. The diocese allows indoor worship with mandates masks and physical distancing, and singing is allowed if it meets certain conditions.

“We expect a disruptive wave of COVID infections in Iowa in January and that business operations across the state are likely to be interrupted due to staffing shortages and absences,” she said.

Holy Family, the Episcopal congregation in Chapel Hill, was eager to resume in-person worship as soon as it could back in 2020, said French, the rector. It began holding outdoor services that summer, and though it later moved services back into the church, Holy Family returned to an outdoor service last month for Christmas eve, to accommodate a larger crowd.

Even though he expects omicron to dampen turnout this month, he has been encouraged by the number of new worshippers who have found the church during the pandemic. They and the longtime parishioners who have returned to services understand the risks, French said.

“They still need to gather,” he said. “They still need to have the Eucharist.”

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