Billy Kennedy: Churches in Northern Ireland chart the path to normal activities

Most churches in Northern Ireland are gradually getting back to a near normal situation at congregational and parish level, after the difficult challenges faced over the past two years by restrictive regulations imposed to counter the covid pandemic.

Bishop of Connor, the Rev George Davison
Bishop of Connor, the Rev George Davison

Two lockdowns at the beginning of of the pandemic in 2020 and in the first months of 2021 had a damaging effect for churches of all faiths, both spiritually and financially, and in recent past weeks, clergy have been preparing and advising their flocks on a return to full participation in Sunday services and mid-week activity.

A recent meeting of the general council of the Presbyterian Church agreed that the best way forward, in line with normalisation of society, would be to remove remaining covid mitigations and measures that were in place in its 500-plus congregations.

As covid legal restrictions have moved to formal government guidance, the Presbyterian church replaced its own mitigations with guidance to congregational kirk sessions to assist them to make individual decisions, with regards to their local situation.

Presbyterian general secretary the Rev Trevor Gribben said: “Along with others in society, we welcome steps taken by administrations in Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic to move from covid legal restrictions to guidance. In working through the implications of these changes, centrally and locally, we met with senior government officials, including the chief medical officer and chief scientific advisor.

“In making our own recommendations, it is important for us as a church to balance the natural desire to move towards more normal church life, while at the same time, keeping our members and those who also worship with us safe, particularly the most vulnerable.”

Mr Gribben explained that the church recommended that while social distancing was no longer required in church buildings and halls, where possible an area of seating should be set aside, where one or two-metre social distancing is maintained, for those who wish to avail of it.

It was recommended that while face coverings are no longer required in church buildings or halls, including when singing, those who prefer to continue to use them should be free to do so.

At the same time, kirk sessions can decide to enhance the church recommendations and continue to require additional measures depending on their local situation.

In the Church of Ireland, meanwhile covid restrictions as they applied to parishes in all 11 dioceses north and south of the border, were officially lifted last Monday.

In a letter to clergy and select vestries, the bishop of Connor, the Rev George Davison, whose sprawling diocese takes in 70 parishes in Belfast and Co Antrim, said his church had taken the decision to ease any remaining restrictions after discussions with with other Northern Ireland bishops and leaders in other denominations.

The bishop stressed that each parish should decide at what pace they moved forward, adding: “There is no expectation that all parishes will make the changes at the same time.”

He warned that the covid pandemic remains a reality, and hard work was still needed to limit the spread of the virus and protect the most vulnerable in society.

“I am extremely grateful to everyone in our parishes for playing their part in caring for the whole community in the most difficult of times and am also acutely aware of the hardship, pain and sorrow that has been endured.

“Church buildings should continue to be as well ventilated as possible,” he added.

Bishop Davison outlined the covid guidelines for parishes as follows:

- Social distancing will no longer be required in church buildings and parish halls.

- Face coverings will also no longer be required in church buildings or parish halls (including when singing), with those who prefer to continue to use face coverings clearly being free to do so.

- Restrictions relating to catering on church premises will no longer be required, though it is recommended that sensible precautions should continue to be taken.

- Previous restrictions on aspects of youth and children’s ministry will also no longer apply.

- Pastoral visiting in private homes may continue to move towards a more normal and sensible pattern of regular in-person visitation.