CHURCHES have decided that all in person Sunday gatherings for worship, along with most other in person church gatherings, should cease from midnight tonight until Saturday, February 6, 2021.
The Church of Ireland, Presbyterian Church, Methodist Church in Ireland and Roman Catholic Church made similar statements this afternoon.
It follows a meeting this afternoon of the Northern Ireland Executive’s ‘Faith Leaders’ Forum’, which was convened by Junior Ministers, Gordon Lyons MLA and Declan Kearney MLA.
Church leaders and other faith leaders received advice during the meeting from Dr Michael McBride, the Chief Medical Officer (CMO), and Professor Ian Young, Chief Scientific Advisor (CSA), regarding the worsening Coronavirus situation.
Speaking on behalf of the Presbyterian Church, the Clerk of the General Assembly and General Secretary of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, said, “Our churches are part of the local community and we recognise the very serious situation that Northern Ireland finds itself in today. With the extremely high level of transmission of the Covid-19 virus, combined with the numbers in hospital and intensive care, the very clear warning from the CMO and CSA this afternoon was that over the next number of weeks this situation is going to worsen significantly.”
Mr Gribben continued, “In light of our ongoing consultations and the current serious and worsening situation, and in line with unequivocal public health guidance that people should stay at home, we have written to our congregations in Northern Ireland, informing them that all in person Sunday gatherings for worship, along with most other in person church gatherings, should cease in all PCI congregations from midnight tonight until Saturday, 6 February 2021.
“It is of course regrettable and disappointing that over these next few weeks our congregations will no longer be physically gathering for worship. However, because of the alarming rise of Covid-19 infections in the community, 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.”
The Clerk concluded by saying, “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.”
Church of Ireland Archbishop of Armagh, John McDowell, said in a statement with his fellow bishops that the "escalation of numbers in hospital and intensive care is placing immense pressure on our healthcare staff".
He added that the number of deaths and warnings from officials is of "grave concern".
"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," said their statement.
"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). We note and welcome the fact that the same position has been adopted by the Presbyterian Church, Roman Catholic Church, Methodist Church and others in Northern Ireland.
"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, 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 Archbishop of Armagh, Eamon Martin, said the Catholic Church was "very concerned at the current serious public health position in which Northern Ireland finds itself: with the extremely high level of transmission of the Covid-19 virus; the continuing escalation of numbers in hospital and intensive care; the number of associated deaths; and, the increasingly unsustainable pressure on our healthcare staff.
The statement, which was also signed by the other Catholic bishops from dioceses within Northern Ireland, added: "The clear message from health officials is that this situation is going to worsen significantly over the coming weeks.
"We recognise the efforts of so many in our parishes who have been working to ensure that our gatherings for public worship are as safe as possible and we welcome the continuing engagement between the faith communities and the NI Executive which has led to consensus between us on the importance of people being able to gather in person for worship. At this time, however, we acknowledge and support 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.
"In light of our ongoing consultations and 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 for a limited period (from midnight on Thursday 7 January until Saturday 6 February 2021, subject to review in late January), the celebration of the Eucharist and other liturgies should take place without the physical presence of the faithful - with the exception of marriage, funeral, baptismal liturgies and drive-in services (subject to regulations).
"Arrangements for recording and/or livestreaming, and making individual visits for private prayer are also permissible in accordance with regulations. We 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.
"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. 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."
President of the Methodist Church, Rev Dr Tom McKnight, commented, “We made this decision in light of the clear advice from health officials that this action would be of benefit to public health and for the sake of the ‘Common Good’.
"As this Pandemic continues we are particularly mindful of those here and around the world whose lives are most profoundly impacted, people who are isolated, who are suffering or worried because of economic concerns, young people who carry a particular burden, those who are ill, and those who have lost loved ones. The church continues to be committed to doing all we can to support and stand with those in most need.
"As a church we continue to pray for those leading our country at this time."