BISHOPS in the Church of Ireland have ruled that communal worship in Northern Ireland should cease for the next month owing to the coronavirus pandemic. Leaders of the other main denominations have followed suit.
Although government guidance in Northern Ireland continues to allow churches to open for public worship, a statement by the Bishops late on Thursday says that “in light of the current serious and worsening situation and in line with clear public health guidance that people should stay at home . . . all public gatherings for worship and all other in-person church activities should cease” until Saturday 6 February. Reopening will be subject to a review in late January.
Exceptions are: weddings, funerals, arrangements for recording and/or live-streaming, drive-in services and private prayer, all to be carried out in accordance with existing guidelines.
Since 26 December, the Bishops have already suspended public worship in the Republic of Ireland, also in line with public health guidance from the Irish Government.
In their latest statement, the Bishops acknowledge the efforts made by clergy and congregations in Northern Ireland to make public worship as safe as possible, after buildings were allowed to reopen after the first national lockdown last year.
They say, however, that information given to them in a briefing on Thursday by the Chief Medical Officer, Dr Michael McBride, and the Chief Scientific Advisor, Professor Ian Young, made it clear that the situation in hospitals, already under immense pressure, was likely to worsen significantly in the days ahead.
The Bishops acknowledge that: “In making this decision for the ‘greater good’ of all within our community, we continue to remember in our prayers the sick and bereaved, all who are suffering, and those whose lives have been directly impacted by Covid-19, praying, too, for those in positions of responsibility who are faced with making difficult decisions at this challenging time.”
A statement issued on behalf of the Roman Catholic Bishops used similar language, advising that “the celebration of the eucharist and other liturgies should take place without the physical presence of the faithful. The RC Bishops encourage parishes, “where possible, to continue to broadcast the celebration of mass — and other devotions and prayer services — online and on other media, knowing that faith and prayer can be a tremendous support to individuals and society during these difficult times.”
Similar pronouncements have been made by the Methodist and Presbyterian leadership. They follow a ban on public worship imposed on churches in Scotland on Monday. Clergy in England have expressed unease about continuing public worship now that the new, more contagious variant of the coronavirus has become widespread.