By Tim Wyatt, 5 May 2020
Churches in Northern Ireland have rejected suggestions that they could be among the first buildings to reopen as the coronavirus lockdown is gradually eased.
Last week, Edwin Poots, the province’s environment minister, floated the idea of a phased reopening of some churches alongside continued social distancing.
But after an online meeting between the leaders of the four largest denominations, the churches said they did not think it would be “appropriate” to return to collective public worship.
“In loving our neighbours, it is important that we all look out for one another and continue to adhere to government advice on social distancing and other measures,” said leaders of Ireland’s Catholic, Anglican, Methodist and Presbyterian denominations in a joint statement.
“The current restrictions are challenging, but are for the common good and the protection of everyone across our island.”
The one exception should be allowing small numbers of believers to congregate for funerals, the statement added. Furthermore, allowing individuals to visit churches for private prayer — as opposed to larger services of worship — could be arranged if the scientific advice suggested it was safe, the leaders wrote.
Northern Ireland has registered 3,836 positive Covid-19 cases and 387 deaths, but this does not take into account those who have not died in hospital. The Republic of Ireland, meanwhile, has had 21,772 confirmed cases and 1,319 deaths.
Edwin Poots, environment minister, said last week: “If you have a church where you can’t facilitate social distancing but people want to come together, could you have a drive-in church so people don’t get out of their cars but can still come together? I believe we can keep people with us if we have a graduated response, ensuring we do not put at risk a further rise of the virus, while giving people a little more latitude to engage in some of the activities they prefer to engage in.”
The joint church statement was made by
Rt Rev Dr William Henry, moderator of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland
Most Rev Eamon Martin, Roman Catholic Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of all Ireland
Most Rev John McDowell, Church of Ireland Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of all Ireland
Rev Sam McGuffin, president of the Methodist Church in Ireland
Very Rev Dr Ivan Patterson, president of the Irish Council of Churches:
“We recognise that Christians across our land long for the day when we can all gather again inside our church buildings for fellowship and collective worship. While we all look forward to the day when we can again gather together for collective worship in our churches, we accept that at this time it would not be appropriate to consider a full return to such gatherings, apart from the limited number of people who are able to meet for funeral services. The issue of church buildings being permitted to open for individual visits and private prayer, where this is desired locally and can be done so safely with appropriate social distancing in place is, however, a different matter. Where the medical and scientific advice indicates that this limited step is possible, we would urge the Northern Ireland Executive to consider easing this particular restriction sooner rather than later.”