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Church leaders welcome first step in reopening NI’s churches

By Sarah Mac Donald - 19 May, 2020

The leaders of Northern Ireland’s main Christian Churches have welcomed the commencement of the First Step of the Executive’s pathway out of lockdown allowing churches and places of worship to open for private individual prayer.

In a statement on Monday, Church leaders expressed their appreciation of the Executive’s consultation with them about issues relating to the reopening of places of worship and the Churches’ engagement with the wider community.

“The announcement that we are moving to Step 1 of the pathway is an important and much-needed sign of hope,” the five churchmen said in their letter.

They also welcomed the “cautious approach” adopted by the North’s Executive, prioritising the protection of health and wellbeing, particularly of those who are most vulnerable.

The letter was signed by the Primate of All Ireland, Archbishop Eamon Martin of Armagh along with Archbishop John McDowell, the Church of Ireland Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of all Ireland; Rt Rev Dr William Henry, Moderator of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland; Rev Sam McGuffin, President of the Methodist Church in Ireland, and Very Rev Dr Ivan Patterson, President of the Irish Council of Churches.

“As Church Leaders, we appreciate the recognition in this recovery plan of the importance of the local church, and public worship, in the lives of many people. A great flourishing of creativity and a strong community spirit has enabled local churches to continue to provide pastoral care and social outreach in spite of the restrictions, but there is a strong desire to increase the level of pastoral contact where that can be done safely,” they stressed.

They added that they are keen to respond to the appeals from those who find great comfort in visiting their church for private prayer, as well as to couples who are anxious to proceed with their marriage ceremony and to parents who wish to have their child baptised.

“At the same time, we are conscious that the Christian call to be good neighbours is a call to civic responsibility in the protection of public health. As outlined in the Executive’s recovery plan, partnership across all sectors of society, in solidarity with the most vulnerable, will be critical to minimising the threat of Covid-19, which is likely to be with us for some time.”

The five Church leaders explained that in their churches, they are currently undertaking risk assessments and putting in place response plans to meet the challenges.

Separately, Bishop Noel Treanor of Down and Connor has welcomed the Executive’s phased recovery plan as “a sign of hope and progression in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic”.

In a statement, Dr Treanor said the tentative steps outlined by the Executive’s five-step recovery plan for the gradual and phased easing of restrictions on movement and public gatherings are possible only because of the “ongoing heroic and professional efforts of healthcare workers to safeguard public health and save lives”.

He paid tribute to “all those who are keeping our families and friends safe”.

However, Bishop Treanor underlined that the “pandemic has not passed” and that people need to be “vigilant and maintain good hygienic practices”.

“It is necessary and incumbent upon all of us to maintain the social distancing measures that have allowed us to keep the infection rate down. In protecting those around us, we protect ourselves and those we love,” he said.

The Bishop of Down and Connor said his diocese warmly welcomed the Executive’s decision, as part of step 1, to allow some churches and places of worship to open for private individual prayer.

“I know it will bring tremendous consolation to all people of faith throughout the North of Ireland. Over the past few weeks, parishioners and clergy have voiced to me the sacrifice of not being able to gather within the sanctuary of the Church to offer personal prayer. It has been particularly difficult for families who continue to grieve the loss of loved ones. They desire to gain consolation in offering prayer to God as they remember their loved one before the altar of God,” Bishop Treanor said.

He said that churches within the Diocese of Down and Connor, following a full risk assessment, will reopen for private prayer according to the capacity of each parish to do so safely and in accordance with public health guidance and best practice.

“Each Church will open only when it is safe to do so and this may vary from place to place. The support and patience of parishioners while these measures are put in place is greatly appreciated.”

He stressed that organised gatherings for prayer or devotions are not permitted at this stage and the public celebration of Mass and the other sacraments remain suspended.

Live streaming of Masses and Services from churches in Ireland and the UK can be found here: http://churchservices.tv

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