Two closures at the start of the pandemic in 2020 and in the early months of 2021 have had a detrimental effect on churches of all denominations, both spiritually and financially, and in recent weeks clergy have prepared and counseled their congregants on a return to full participation in Sunday services and mid-week activities.
A recent meeting of the General Council of the Presbyterian Church agreed that the best way forward, in line with the normalization of society, would be to remove the remaining covid mitigations and measures that were in place in its more than 500 congregations.
As covid legal restrictions have moved to official government guidelines, the Presbyterian Church has replaced its own mitigation measures with guidance to congregational kirk sessions to help them make individual decisions, regarding their local situation.
Presbyterian General Secretary Reverend Trevor Gribben said: “Along with others in society, we welcome the steps taken by the administrations of Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland to move from covid legal restrictions to tips. While working on the implications of these changes, at central and local level, we met senior officials, including the Chief Medical Officer and the Chief Scientific Adviser.
“In making our own recommendations, it is important for us as a church to balance the natural desire to move towards a more normal church life, while ensuring the safety of our members and those who worship. also with us, especially the most vulnerable.”
Mr Gribben explained that the church has recommended that, although social distancing is no longer required in church buildings and halls, where possible a seating area should be reserved, where a distance social of one or two meters is maintained, for those who wish to take advantage of this.
It was recommended that although face coverings are no longer required in church buildings or halls, including for singing, those who prefer to continue to use them be free to do so.
At the same time, kirk sessions may decide to enhance the church’s recommendations and continue to require additional action based on their local situation.
In the Church of Ireland, meanwhile, the covid restrictions as they applied to parishes in the 11 dioceses north and south of the border, were officially lifted last Monday.
In a letter to clergy and some vestries, the Bishop of Connor, the Reverend George Davison, whose sprawling diocese includes 70 parishes in Belfast and County Antrim, said his church had taken the decision to relax any remaining restrictions after discussions with other northerners. Bishops of Ireland and leaders of other denominations.
The Bishop stressed that each parish should decide how fast it moves forward, adding, “It is not expected that all parishes will make the changes at the same time.”
He warned that the covid pandemic remains a reality and that hard work still needs to be done 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 their most difficult times and I am also acutely aware of the difficulties, pain and grief that have been endured.
“Church buildings should continue to be as well ventilated as possible,” he added.
Bishop Davison described the covid guidelines for parishes as follows:
– Social distancing will no longer be required in religious buildings and parish halls.
– Face coverings will also no longer be required in churches or church halls (including for singing), with those who prefer to continue using face coverings clearly being free to do so.
– Restrictions on dining on church premises will no longer be necessary, but it is recommended that reasonable precautions continue to be taken.
– Previous restrictions on certain aspects of ministry to youth and children will also no longer apply.
– Pastoral visitation to private homes can continue to evolve into a more normal and reasonable pattern of regular in-person visitation.