NEW YORK -- Amid the surge of coronavirus cases across the U.S., numerous churches have canceled in-person Christmas services, disappointing pastors and churchgoers who consider them an annual highlight.
Other churches planned 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.
Among the prominent churches canceling some or all of their in-person Christmas services 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.
The Rev. Nancy Taylor, senior minister of Old South, said the church -- affiliated with the United Church of Christ -- still hoped to hold in-person Christmas Day services on Saturday, but was shifting its popular Christmas Eve service to online-only.
"The Christmas Eve congregation tends to be larger with a lot of visitors, some of whom have come from parties, and many of whom are not used to Boston's mask mandate," she explained in her announcement.
"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," she said. "We know how disappointing this is."
Leaders of Washington National Cathedral, which traditionally welcomes more than 15,000 people to its Christmas services, announced that all its services until Jan. 9 would be offered only remotely, with no worshippers or visitors allowed in the cathedral.
"Unfortunately, as the omicron variant takes hold across the world, our city seems to be leading the nation in infections," said the cathedral's dean, the Very Rev. Randolph Marshall Hollerith. "Given the spike in infections, I simply cannot justify gathering massive crowds as the public health situation worsens around us."
Another major Washington church -- National City Christian Church -- also canceled its Christmas Eve service and will shift exclusively to online worship at least through Jan. 16.
Leaders of National City -- the national church of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) -- described their decision as one "we desperately did not want to make but feel we must." They noted that Washington's mayor, Murial Bowser, had declared a state of emergency in the District of Columbia.
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, using its Facebook page and YouTube channel.
"The time has come once again to put the needs and concerns of our wider community first," the cathedral said on its website.
Another historic New York City church -- Middle Collegiate -- was gutted by a fire in December 2020. After overseeing painstaking rebuilding efforts, the Rev. Jacqui Lewis -- the senior minister -- was eagerly anticipating an in-person Christmas Eve service, but it has now been canceled.
The decision "is one of the hardest choices I've had to make as a pastor," Lewis told The Associated Press via email. "This was going to be the magnificent Christmas worship we'd longed for. But I love my people too much to risk their lives."
"My fabulous team pivoted on a dime, and we'll be hosting a gorgeous online celebration," she added. "We'll have stunning music and fiery preaching. But most importantly, we'll be safe. And we'll be together."
Among other churches cancelling in-person Christmas services were the Abraham Lincoln Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Springfield, Illinois, and the First Church of God in Columbus, Ohio, home to a large, predominantly African American congregation.
Bishop Timothy Clarke, First Church of God's senior pastor, announced his decision live on the church's website Thursday evening.
"Blame me," he told congregation members who might be disappointed. "I am the one who will stand before God and give an account."
Just north of New York City, Westchester County's Bedford Presbyterian Church was among many churches nationwide planning to proceed with in-person Christmas services despite the spread of the omicron variant.
The Rev. Carol Howard Merritt -- the senior pastor -- said the decision was made by a group that included parents, a school administrator and a physician.
"It became clear that though the variant is highly contagious, the infections seem to result in milder cases, especially for those who are vaccinated and boosted," Merritt said via email. "In response, we decided to hold in-person services while making sure that we require masks, stagger seating, limit attendance, and shorten services."
At All Saints' Episcopal Church in the New York City borough of Brooklyn, the Rev. Steven Paulikas made a similar decision -- going ahead with in-person services while requiring masks for all those who attend. The Christmas Eve service was featuring music by the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra, led by a congregation member, Arturo O'Farrill.
"Arturo and I decided this week to go ahead with having the orchestra, who are all vaccinated and tested regularly," Paulikas said. "As Arturo put it, we need to do what the congregation needs most -- and what we need most right now is some beauty and hope."