Northern Ireland's Church leaders suspend public worship over rising Covid cases

Belfast City Hall. Churches have suspended public worship until February 6 after the Province imposed a stay at home order.(Photo: Unsplash/Dimitry Anikin)

Church leaders in Northern Ireland have suspended public worship after a new stay at home order came into force in the province on Friday.

The decision was taken jointly by the four main denominations - the Church of Ireland, Roman Catholic, Presbyterian and Methodist Church. 

The suspension will be reviewed at the end of January but the denominations have already stated that public worship will not resume before February 6 at the earliest.

In a statement, bishops in the Church of Ireland said the decision had been taken in consultation with the Executive Office and health officials, who gave the "very clear warning" that "the situation is going to worsen significantly".

They expressed "grave concern" over the "extremely high level of transmission" in the Province and the "immense pressure" on healthcare staff and services after a jump in hospital admissions since the start of the New Year.

"We recognise that clergy and parishioners have together worked steadily to implement protocols which have ensured that public gatherings for worship have been as safe as possible since the re-opening of our buildings in early summer," they said.

"We also appreciate that the Northern Ireland Executive has acknowledged over the last 10 months the importance of people being able to gather in person for worship.

"The ongoing engagement between faith communities and the Northern Ireland Executive is warmly welcomed and is something which we believe has been, and continues to be, of benefit to wider society.

"However, in light of the current serious and worsening situation and in line with clear public health guidance that people should stay at home, we have decided that all public gatherings for worship and all other in-person church activities should cease for our particular denomination, until Saturday, 6th February 2021, subject to review in late January, with the exception of weddings, funerals, arrangements for recording and/or live-streaming, drive-in services and private prayer (as permitted by regulations)."

They concluded by saying that the decision had been taken "for the 'greater good' of all within our community", and by asking for prayer for the sick and bereaved, as well as those tasked with "making difficult decisions at this challenging time".

The Catholic Church echoed the concerns in its own statement saying that it supported "the unequivocal message from public health authorities that the movement and gathering of people should be minimised and that as many people as possible stay at home for the sake of health, life and the Common Good".

"We make this decision reluctantly, conscious that not being able to gather for public worship can cause pain for all the faithful, but in the hope that this limited period of sacrifice will be for the protection of life and health and for the greater good of all," it said. 

"We once more ask for prayers for the sick, the bereaved and all those whose livelihoods have been particularly impacted by the pandemic.

"We keep in our prayers all health workers, carers, chaplains and other essential workers.

"We welcome the announcement that a similar position is being taken by the leaders of the Church of Ireland, the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, the Methodist Church in Ireland and many other denominations and faith communities in response to the unequivocal message from public health authorities that as many people as possible stay at home at this time."

Rev Trevor Gribben, Clerk of the General Assembly and General Secretary of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, said that while the decision to suspend in-person worship was "regrettable and disappointing", it was necessary because of the "alarming" rise in Covid-19 cases and the "very serious situation that Northern Ireland finds itself in today".

"This is the right decision to take, both for the safety and protection of people and also to contribute to the overall reduction of inter-person contact in line with the government's 'stay at home' message," he said. 

"In these difficult days, as we continue to look to God, and encourage others to find their hope in Him, let us help and pray for one another, lifting up all those on the frontline, those in authority making difficult decisions and especially all who mourn and miss loved ones."