Return of congregations to NI churches is huge emotional and spiritual leap

Exactly 100 days since it last welcomed a congregation into the building, Stormont Presbyterian Church opened its doors once again yesterday.

Sunday, 4th April 2021, 5:09 pm
Updated Monday, 5th April 2021, 10:17 am
St Anne's Cathedral in Belfast reopens for an Easter Sunday service. Picture By: Arthur Allison/Pacemaker.

It was one of a number of churches across Northern Ireland to return to in-person services having independently decided to close at the beginning of the year in the interests of public safety.

Rev Albin Rankin was overjoyed to see his flock return to Stormont Presbyterian: “It’s been 100 days exactly since we were last together on Christmas morning.

“Folks were just really excited to be back, some of them hadn’t seen each other for all of that period. Some of them much longer because they’ve been shielding.”

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Methodist, Presbyterian and Church of Ireland congregations have resumed in-person services across Northern Ireland. Picture By: Arthur Allison/Pacemaker.

Given Covid regulations the church was almost full: “We had about 75 people which is getting very near our capacity. When have a big building but when you factor in two-metre distancing that radically reduces the numbers you can have.

“You want to set a good example for the community, you want to be as safe and responsible as you can, you don’t want to be seen to be flouting things.”

Although he couldn’t see any smiles because the congregation were all wearing masks, Rev Rankin said it was clear people were happy to be back: “You can pick up a vibe in a room even with their masks on. Some people smile with their eyes, and the body language tells you that they’re happy to be back.

“It may seem like a small step but emotionally and spiritually it’s a huge leap. This was getting back to that sense of community and being in the one space together.

St Anne's Cathedral in Belfast opens for sunday service. Picture By: Arthur Allison/Pacemaker.

“Easter is all about hope and this was another indicator of hopes being fulfilled.”

In terms of singing, less than half a dozen singers at the front of the church hall were able to lift their voices with the congregation silently following the words on the screen.

Over at Regent Street Methodist Church in Newtownards the entire congregation joined in, but without any of the gusto normally associated with songs of praise.

Roy Cooper, a former minister at the church, was in attendance for the morning service yesterday.

He said: “We had to have our masks on and we could only sing in our speaking voice. We couldn’t let it rip. That was strange, singing in a very low voice.”

He said there were around 50 people at the service: “You had to phone ahead to say you would be there, you came in, had your hand sanitiser, you had your name ticked off and then you were taken by a steward to an assigned seat.

“We had communion in an interesting way. There was a little communion pack in the hymn book rack where we were sitting.

“It was an interesting experience, but a very special one.”

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