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Drive-through church services the new norm as restrictions ease?

By Ann Marie Foley - 13 May, 2020

A return to even small gatherings for worship will require close observance of social distancing and hygiene requirements, as laid down by the public health authorities.

Stormont buildings, Belfast. Photo: WikiCommons

Drive-through church services are part of the plan the Northern Ireland Executive has announced for the easing of COVID-19 restrictions.

Published yesterday, Tuesday 12 May, the plan sets no dates for its five steps. Drive-through church services will be possible and churches will open for private prayer at an early stage, the plan states. It comes under the ‘family and community’ section on step one of the plan.

Separately, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales has stated that the British Government’s plans for easing COVID-19 restrictions fails to recognise the sensitivities and spiritual needs around the opening of churches.

“The timing and the manner of the opening of churches touches profound sensitivities and spiritual needs. The Government’s document and statements fail to recognise this,” said a spokesperson for the Bishops’ Conference.

In the document, churches – which come under the same category as pubs and leisure facilities – are included in stage three for reopening, which starts on 4 July.

The Bishops’ spokesperson explained that the Government’s steps for opening churches as soon as possible include: the establishment of a task force for places of worship; working closely with ‘stakeholders’ to ensure that premises are COVID-19 secure; and heeding the experience of other countries in which churches are already open for worship.

“In dialogue with the Government, the Catholic Church will continue its engagement in this process and has already submitted a detailed plan, in full accordance with public health guidelines, for churches to be opened for private prayer,” said the spokesperson.

“The Church is ready to play its full part in the task force, understanding that this includes the possible earlier use of churches for private prayer, as a first safe step towards their use for public worship,” the spokesperson added.

A statement from the Church of Ireland Archbishops of Armagh and Dublin, the Most Revd John McDowell and the Most Revd Dr Michael Jackson, addresses the plans for all three areas. Referring to An Taoiseach, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, and the devolved administration in Northern Ireland, they say that their three ‘roadmaps’ to guide people out of the current severe COVID-19 restrictions are different but all aim for a gradual and graduated easing. They acknowledge that each stage requires satisfactory progress before moving on to the next, and that there may be setbacks.

“As progress is made, there is an inevitable eagerness to return to our old patterns of worship. That is our hope too in the long run,” they stated. They said that as with any other gatherings which have the potential to spread COVID-19, progress will be gradual.

“A return to even small gatherings for worship will require close observance of both social distancing and hygiene requirements as laid down by the public health authorities. Even where such gathering for worship is permitted, it may well require each parish to carry out an evaluation and risk assessment,” they said.

They thanked the Church of Ireland community for their sacrifice, and commended those who have reached out to maintain the work and witness of the Church – with online worship services, through parish initiatives to maintain a sense of togetherness, and through other group actions and projects.

They singled out those who work in care homes for special thanks and thanked other workers on the front line in hospitals and in the community. They prayed for all who are ill and those who have been bereaved at a time when funerals and grieving cannot follow their usual patterns.

In a statement on Monday 11 May, Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of the Dublin Archdiocese said that the reopening of churches for public worship will require detailed preparation and each church community should have its own clear plan to allow for safe opening.

He added that the reopening of churches in a number of European countries has been accompanied by strict norms of public health. The Irish public health authorities will be influenced by the measures taken in other European countries.

The UK Government’s document ‘Our plan to rebuild: The UK Government’s COVID-19 recovery strategy’, released on 11 May, can be found here.

The Northern Ireland Executive’s document ‘Coronavirus: Our Approach to Decision-Making’ can be found here.

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