LEICESTER, United Kingdom – According to the leaders of Ireland’s main Christian denominations, “at this time it would not be appropriate to consider a full return” to regular worship services.
The statement was made after a May 1 videoconference between the leaders of the Catholic Church, the Church of Ireland, the Methodist Church in Ireland, the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, and the Irish Council of Churches. Most denominations in Ireland are all-island, and cover both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland.
The Republic of Ireland went into lockdown on March 13, while Northern Ireland has been under lockdown since March 23, with the rest of the UK.
The Irish Christian leaders said in a May 4 statement that they recognized the desire of the their flock to join in collective worship, and commended Irish clergy “for their prayerful and creative use of various online platforms and other means that have brought encouragement, through God’s word and through prayer, to His scattered people.”
“We recognize, however, as we have said previously, that to be a community in the real sense of the word, means that as individuals we acknowledge our interdependence. 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. The current restrictions are challenging but are for the common good and the protection of everyone across our island,” the statement continued.
So far, 1,286 people have been reported to have died of COVID-19 in the Republic of Ireland, with 381 people dying of the disease in Northern Ireland.
On May 1, Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar announced a 5-stage reopening process for the country beginning May 18. Churches will be allowed to reopen during phase 4, on July 20 – assuming a second spike in COVID-19 infections doesn’t take place.
The Northern Ireland Executive is scheduled to discuss the issue this week.
“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 Christian leaders said.
“At this time, we are not calling on the Northern Ireland Executive to remove the current general restrictions on gathering together for church services, but we are asking that the issue is kept under regular review, so that when it is safe to do so there can be an easing of these restrictions,” the statement continued.
However, the denominational leaders said that the issue of opening church buildings for individual visits and private prayer “where this is desired locally and can be done so safely with appropriate social distancing in place” – as has been allowed in the Republic of Ireland and other countries – is “a different and a separate matter.”
Churches were ordered closed in the United Kingdom under the lockdown order, although the Northern Ireland Executive has leeway in this area.
“Where the medical and scientific advice indicates that this limited step is possible, we would urge the Executive to consider easing this particular restriction sooner rather than later,” the statement by the heads of Churches said.
“Over the past number of weeks, we have seen the vast majority of the people embracing these challenging, but very necessary, restrictions – working together for the benefit and good of all. We give thanks for this demonstration of love and concern for all in our community. As we enter into the second full month of this emergency on our island, we urge everyone to remain resolute and vigilant, encouraging one another on, so that we can come through this together,” the statement continued.
The Irish Christian leaders statement comes just days after both the Scottish and English and Welsh bishops revealed they were in talks with the government about opening churches as lockdown restrictions are eventually eased.
On April 30, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson – who himself had been hospitalized with a life-threatening case of COVID-19 – announced Britain had passed the peak of the coronavirus outbreak and said “we can now see the sunlight and the pasture ahead of us.” However, the UK government has not announced a plan for lifting lockdown restrictions, although it is legally required to review the matter later this week.
Follow Charles Collins on Twitter: @CharlesinRome