Coronavirus: Impact on churches ‘not seen since Spanish flu’ pandemic of 1918, says priest of COVID-19

A notice for Sunday service at Crumlin Presbyterian Church in Co Antrim, as the coronavirus outbreak continuesA notice for Sunday service at Crumlin Presbyterian Church in Co Antrim, as the coronavirus outbreak continues
A notice for Sunday service at Crumlin Presbyterian Church in Co Antrim, as the coronavirus outbreak continues
The number of church services cancelled across the island of Ireland due to coronavirus has not been seen since the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918, a Catholic Church spokesman has said.

The main Protestant denominations – which also organise on an all-Island basis – also urged southern congregations to observe Irish government guidance to refrain from any gatherings of over 100 people, which was also thought to have a significant impact on the Presbyterian, Methodist and Church of Ireland services in that jurisdiction.

Despite no official restrictions on church services in Northern Ireland, anecdotal evidence suggests numbers of people attending may have been down significantly – with many churches promoting the risk-free alternative of following services by web-cam or radio.

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Fr Edward McGee, spokesman for the Catholic Diocese of Down and Connor, said his church had not been this level of disruption to services since the Spanish flu in 1918.

Four out of six dioceses in Northern Ireland cancelled all masses, he said. Those that cancelled were cross-jurisdictional, following southern government guidance on gatherings of over 100 people. Only Down and Connor and Derry Diocese held masses as normal but Dromore, Armagh, Clogher and Kilmore cancelled all services.

“Down and Connor is entirely in northern jurisdiction and did not cancel, but we have said there is absolutely no obligation on anyone to attend the liturgies,” he said. “In fact we have strongly advised anyone with any concerns to stay at home.

“These are extraordinary times. This has never happened before, certainly in my lifetime. I think the last time for such an incidence would have been during the Spanish flu.”

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‘Spanish flu’ swept around the world in 1918 infecting about a third of the global population and causing some 50 million deaths. In Ireland it was linked to some 23,000 fatalities.

Even though there are no restrictions on churches in Northern Ireland as yet, there were reports of churches of various denominations here either closing yesterday or suffering significant drops in attendance.

At Drumbeg Church of Ireland in Dunmurry, the morning service would normally have seen up to 150 people attending, but only just over a third of the normal numbers turned up – 55.

A Church of Ireland spokesman said: “Many Church of Ireland parishes in the Republic will have cancelled or rearranged services ordinarily attended by 100 or more people.”

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Bishop Michael Burrows, the bishop of Cashel, Ferns and Ossory, requested that all normally scheduled services in his diocese would be cancelled, which covers 146 places of worship.

Methodist Church spokesman, Rev Roy Cooper, said they had been similarly impacted.

“In those southern congregations which would exceed the 100 people, they did not open for worship; instead they endeavoured to find alternatives for Sunday worship,” he said.

“One church which did not open offered a prayer walk in the area of the church; other churches whose numbers exceeded the 100 worshippers were encouraging members to watch or listen to a religious service on the radio or television.”

The Presbyterian Church in Ireland said it too had advised southern congregations not to assemble in numbers of over 100 people, in line with government guidance.