WORSHIP may resume in Church of Ireland churches from 2 April in time for Easter services that weekend, including on Good Friday, the four Northern Ireland bishops have said in a letter to clergy this week. This plan will be reviewed later this month.
Public worship has been voluntarily suspended by several denominations in the country in response to the national lockdown, which has been extended to 1 April but under which church buildings have been exempt (News, 8 January).
In the letter, the bishops explain that they had recently met with the health minister and the chief medical officer, who had all advised against reopening for in-person gatherings for the time-being.
“In the light of the executive’s extension of current restrictions,” they write, “and on the basis of the continued and unequivocal public health message that people should continue to stay at home, we have agreed that all in–person Sunday gatherings for worship, along with all other in–person church gatherings, should remain voluntarily suspended for the time being in all church of Ireland parishes in Northern Ireland until Thursday April 1, with the exception of weddings, funerals, arrangements for recording and/or live-streaming, drive-in services and private prayer (as permitted by regulations).”
The bishops had also agreed to review the situation later this month, in the “cautious anticipation” that, from 2 April, Good Friday, onwards, parishioners could return to in-person gatherings for worship, “with all necessary precautions and mitigations in place. This recognises the importance of Easter.”
Places of worship remain closed in the Republic under government restrictions. The five-stage plan published by the government in Ireland last week, Covid-19 Resilience and Recovery 2021: The path ahead, does not relax the restrictions on churches and worship swiftly enough, the bishops of the six Roman Catholic dioceses of the Archdiocese of Tuam have said.
In an open letter to mark the first anniversary of the appearance of Covid-19 in Ireland, on Wednesday, the bishops write: “At level five, all funerals are still limited to 10 people. We believe that a modest increase to 25 would, without compromising safety, bring much consolation to grieving families.
“Our second concern is that public worship is still excluded even at level three. This would suggest that we may not have the opportunity to celebrate Mass together for months to come. It ignores the important contribution of communal worship to the mental and spiritual well-being of people of faith. The fundamental importance of Holy Week and Easter for all Christians makes the prohibition of public worship particularly painful.
“While, as Christians, we are obliged to obey these regulations, we believe that it is our responsibility as Church leaders to make the case for change. We will continue to make fair and reasonable representation and we encourage you to do likewise.”
The Bishops also express frustration at the lack of clarity from the government regarding the resumption of first communion and confirmation. While “delighted” that children are able to return to school, they conclude: “As of now, we have decided to defer the Sacrament of Confirmation for the 2021 class until the Autumn, and we encourage our parishes to consider doing the same in relation to First Holy Communion.”
Places of Worship in England have remained open throughout the lockdown since January, and it remains up to incumbents to decide whether to reopen or to remain closed, if permission has been sought from the bishop. No changes have made to the government guidance on places of worship since the four-stage “roadmap” to lifting restrictions across England was announced last week (News, 22 February).
The Church of England has updated its guidance, however, with its own graphic of the roadmap, and stated: “We will provide more advice about how this will affect worship and other church activities as we receive information from government. These pages will be reviewed and updated as the changes come into effect.”