While acknowledging the significant benefits to people of faith of gathering for worship, it was their clear advice that in light of the very difficult situation in which we find ourselves, there would be significant public health benefit for churches and the wider community if services were to return to online-only for the coming weeks.
This afternoon (7 January) the Northern Ireland Executive’s ‘Faith Leaders’ Forum’ was convened by Junior Ministers, Gordon Lyons MLA and Declan Kearney MLA. In light of the advice that church leaders and other faith leaders received during the meeting from Dr Michael McBride, the Chief Medical Officer (CMO), and Professor Ian Young, Chief Scientific Advisor (CSA), regarding the worsening Coronavirus situation, the Presbyterian Church in Ireland (PCI) has decided that all in person Sunday gatherings for worship, along with most other in person church gatherings, should cease in all PCI congregations from midnight tonight until Saturday, 6 February 2021.
Speaking on behalf of the denomination, the Clerk of the General Assembly and General Secretary of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, said, “Our churches are part of the local community and we recognise the very serious situation that Northern Ireland finds itself in today. With the extremely high level of transmission of the Covid-19 virus, combined with the numbers in hospital and intensive care, the very clear warning from the CMO and CSA this afternoon was that over the next number of weeks this situation is going to worsen significantly.”
Mr Gribben continued, “In light of our ongoing consultations and the current serious and worsening situation, and in line with unequivocal public health guidance that people should stay at home, we have written to our congregations in Northern Ireland, informing them that all in person Sunday gatherings for worship, along with most other in person church gatherings, should cease in all PCI congregations from midnight tonight until Saturday, 6 February 2021.
“It is of course regrettable and disappointing that over these next few weeks our congregations will no longer be physically gathering for worship. However, because of the alarming rise of Covid-19 infections in the community, this is the right decision to take, both for the safety and protection of people and also to contribute to the overall reduction of inter-person contact in line with the government’s ‘stay at home’ message.”
The Clerk concluded by saying, “In these difficult days, as we continue to look to God, and encourage others to find their hope in Him, let us help and pray for one another, lifting up all those on the frontline, those in authority making difficult decisions and especially all who mourn and miss loved ones.”
Colleagues in the Church of Ireland, Methodist Church in Ireland, and Roman Catholic Church, are making similar statements at this time.
Following further briefing today by the Chief Medical Officer, Dr Michael McBride, and the Chief Scientific Advisor, Professor Ian Young, and in consultation with the Executive Office, as Church Leaders we fully recognise the very serious position that Northern Ireland finds itself in at this time with the extremely high level of transmission of the Covid-19 virus. The escalation of numbers in hospital and intensive care is placing immense pressure on our healthcare staff; the number of deaths, and the very clear warning from health officials that over the next weeks, the situation is going to worsen significantly, is of grave concern to us all.
We recognise the efforts of so many in our parishes who have been working to ensure that our gatherings for public worship are as safe as possible and we welcome the continuing engagement between the faith communities and the NI Executive which has led to consensus between us on the importance of people being able to gather in person for worship. At this time, however, we acknowledge and support the unequivocal message from public health authorities that the movement and gathering of people should be minimised and that as many people as possible stay at home for the sake of health, life and the Common Good.
In light of our ongoing consultations and of the current serious and worsening situation, and in line with clear public health guidance that people should stay at home, we have decided that for a limited period (from midnight on Thursday 7 January until Saturday 6 February 2021, subject to review in late January), the celebration of the Eucharist and other liturgies should take place without the physical presence of the faithful - with the exception of marriage, funeral, baptismal liturgies and drive-in services (subject to regulations). Arrangements for recording and/or livestreaming, and making individual visits for private prayer are also permissible in accordance with regulations. We encourage parishes, where possible, to continue to broadcast the celebration of Mass - and other devotions and prayer services - online and on other media, knowing that faith and prayer can be a tremendous support to individuals and society during these difficult times.
We make this decision reluctantly, conscious that not being able to gather for public worship can cause pain for all the faithful, but in the hope that this limited period of sacrifice will be for the protection of life and health and for the greater good of all. We once more ask for prayers for the sick, the bereaved and all those whose livelihoods have been particularly impacted by the pandemic. We keep in our prayers all health workers, carers, chaplains and other essential workers. We welcome the announcement that a similar position is being taken by the leaders of the Church of Ireland, the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, the Methodist Church in Ireland and many other denominations and faith communities in response to the unequivocal message from public health authorities that as many people as possible stay at home at this time.