Billy Kennedy: The eerie spectre of redundant church buildings in NI cannot continue

Northern Ireland churchgoers are becoming increasingly frustrated that they are unable to gain access to their places of worship for services.

Worshippers attend a drive-in church service at Dunseverick Baptist Church following lifting of lockdown restrictions. 
Photo Pacemaker Press
Worshippers attend a drive-in church service at Dunseverick Baptist Church following lifting of lockdown restrictions. Photo Pacemaker Press

In an apparent easing of the pandemic lockdown, the Stormont Executive recently permitted churches to open for individual prayer and reflection. The concept of drive-in services also got official approval.

Now, many in our various Ulster denominations believe that Stormont ministers may not be giving the same priority or consideration to the re-emergence of church services as they have done for the re-opening of shops, hotels, pubs and sporting amenities.

Mainstream Northern Ireland religious leaders (Presbyterian, Church of Ireland, Roman Catholic and Methodist) may be in private consultation with Stormont ministers about the dilemma they face through abandonment of normal service in parishes and congregations, and the spiritual and financial difficulties this has created.

The Reverend Dame Sarah Mullally

Should the church leaders also be explaining to their flocks in detail when they believe a return to church service participation is going to happen and how it can be managed through reasonable personal safety measures? Medical advice from the experts is essential, but restoration of church services would, in the view of many, have a positive impact on worshippers’ health and well-being.

In England, meanwhile, Her Majesty’s government faces mounting calls from scores of MPs and hundreds of clergy to re-open churches closed since March.

Churches there are due to open under step three of the government’s recovery plan on July 4 at the earliest, with requirement of social distancing and frequent cleaning of buildings and sharing of hymn books and prayer mats.

Some clergy say Church of England bishops should press the government more forceably to open places of worship much quicker.

Half the UK public say churches should be allowed to open as long as they maintain social distancing, with almost a third disagreeing, according to a National Churches Trust poll. In a separate survey, 75 per cent of clergy say closing churches has had a negative effect on local communities.

Anglican Bishop of London, Rev Sarah Mullally, said: “With shops re-opening and some people appearing to return to a degree of normality, it is understandable questions are asked as to how and where lockdown is relaxed. Churchgoers are among those feeling real disappointment and hurt, as places of worship remain closed.”

Cardinal Vincent Nichols, most senior Roman Catholic prelate in England and Wales, said churches should be allowed to open in phases.

“With shops opening, why are churches excluded from the decision-making?” he asked? “What is the risk to a person who sits quietly in a church thoroughly cleaned, properly supervised and where social distancing is maintained? Benefits of access to places of prayer is profound, on individual and family stability.”

In late March, the archbishops of Canterbury and York, Justin Welby and John Sentamu, banned vicars from churches when the country went into lockdown, an unpopular move which went beyond government guidance and provoked furious clergy protests.

Now, some CoE vicars want their church hierarchy to argue more forcefully that the government should accelerate church re-opening.

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