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Acts of faith in lockdown as NI churches remain closed for Easter

For the first time in living memory, all churches in NI will be closed on Easter Sunday. Linda Stewart and Alf McCreary talk to leading ministers about coping with lockdown

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Churches have closed their doors as part of the lockdown against the spread of coronavirus

Churches have closed their doors as part of the lockdown against the spread of coronavirus

Churches have closed their doors as part of the lockdown against the spread of coronavirus

Churches across Northern Ireland lie shuttered this Easter weekend; their pews empty, their gates locked against the threat of coronavirus.

And yet the life of congregations the length and breadth of the province goes on, with ministers keen to maintain as much of a sense of normality as possible in these unprecedented times.

We spoke to well-known clergymen about how a combination of cutting-edge technology and people power is keeping Church life going against all the odds.

‘It’s encouraging people are pulling together’

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Rev David Campton

Rev David Campton

Rev David Campton

Rev David Campton (54) is superintendent of Methodist Circuit of South and Central Belfast, with responsibility for five churches and Belfast Central Mission. He is married to Sally and has two sons, Ciaran (19), who lives at home, and Owain (25), who is in lockdown in Glasgow. He is formerly a hospital chaplain at the South Eastern Trust and was part of their preparedness team for the bird flu pandemic.

When I saw things going pear-shaped in Wuhan, I began to feel, even at that stage, that there was the prospect of major disruption here," Rev Campton says. "A lot of preparedness work that was put in place at that point seems to be the pattern that they are following now."

An insulin-dependent diabetic, Rev Campton and his family have been self-isolating for the last two weeks after a couple of his wife's colleagues developed symptoms and she developed a cough.

He has been co-ordinating the work of his churches across Belfast from home.

"Like many other ministers, I, in co-ordination with others, have been trying to master all sorts of technology to deliver limited services of worship online," he explains.

He has been using a combination of Facebook and YouTube to stream services and is circulating resources by email.

"A lot of our congregation are older and wouldn't necessarily have all been computer-literate. Some of them aren't online at all, so we had to produce some physical resources to post to people as well," he says.

"Just this week, I've done an email for Holy Week and Easter and the whole of April, which we hope will help to sustain those who will not necessarily be able to go online."

On the pastoral side, the Church has been cascading support, grouping congregations so that they will support each other.

"The message coming in seems to be that people are pulling together and that is encouraging to hear and to witness," he says.

Tight restrictions for funerals have been brought in, allowing no more than six people to be present and, if anyone has had any contact with the deceased ahead of time, they cannot be at the funeral.

"It's very, very difficult for those who lost loved ones and we are trying to be proactive and plan ahead of time, talking about counselling and supporting those who may be bereaved."

Part of that is discussing suitable dates in the future for holding memorial services, rather than having a surge of services immediately after lockdown is lifted.

Weddings and baptisms have stopped, but the Methodist Church has granted temporary dispensation to conduct remote communion by live-link only.

"It's very much a temporary solution. Within the Methodist Church, we are used to being relatively pragmatic about our theology - (John) Wesley was renowned for being prepared to bend the rules when he had to," Rev Campton says.

"But it must be a live-link and it cannot be a recorded service to have a DIY communion when you want to."

The Church is encouraging people to switch their donations online, but Rev Campton says many older people are keeping their collection envelopes until they can give them in person.

"I would be careful to say, if you are keeping your envelopes, keep them secure and don't advertise the fact. We wouldn't want anybody being taken advantage of in all of this - there are always people out there who will make a bad situation worse."

He is keen to see the new and more systematic support networks continue after the crisis.

"It's probably reinforced something that we're talking about in the past and it hasn't always happened."

But he doubts he will continue to be a devotee of online services.

"My feeling about worship and preaching has always been that it's not a spectator sport - it's participatory and of the moment.

"It's okay as long as there is some sense of buy-in and engagement in what is going on - it's not like watching EastEnders, or a concert online.

"We've tried to encourage as many people as possible across the circuit to be faces on the screen, to make it seem as if it's not something that just ministers do.

"We want people involved and that means people in their own homes."

'We have become a church without walls'

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Rev Mervyn Jamison

Rev Mervyn Jamison

Rev Mervyn Jamison

Rev Mervyn Jamison (53), of Holy Trinity Church in Ballylesson, Drumbo, is in lockdown with his wife, Rosemary, sons David (22) and Rory (20), and daughter Rosalind (16).

In the first week of the lockdown, Rev Mervyn Jamison says, a food collection had been planned and, instead, the doors of the churches were opened so people could drop off their donations. The community gathered a quarter of a tonne of food, which was donated to a food bank.

"I can think of one local business that donated stuff because they had to close and couldn't make use of it," Rev Jamison says. "They gave it to others, even though they were facing financial constraints themselves."

For the first few Sundays, he broadcast services from church, but last Sunday it was broadcast from his home.

"I strapped an iPhone to one of the old lampstands in the church and beamed out our own service. It went out to an amazing diaspora from Ballylesson and Drumbo, with people from America watching it. The (viewing) figures on that were just phenomenal.

"We usually average about 100 people on a Sunday, but on March 22 there were something like 285 viewers. What is frustrating is not being able to see your people face-to-face, but we really have moved to a church without walls. Never before have we been able to get our message into so many homes - Facebook has proven its worth."

Rev Jamison has also been making a lot of phone calls to members of the congregation as part of his pastoral care. He has posted a number of videos on the church's Facebook page and is also using text-messaging to keep in touch. He printed out a reading plan for the congregation for Holy Week as well.

"We sent out a reading plan so that people could go through Holy Week chronologically. As this develops, we're going to have to look at more creative ways of trying to teach people.

"We're struggling with people who don't have technology, but most have mobile phones and we decided to text them the orders of service to keep them in the loop."

As many families and congregation members have lost income, they haven't been asked for a virtual collection.

"Quite a few folk have direct debit, which helps. If this is prolonged, we will look at it again. However, people continue to be generous towards their church, which has amazed me during this time."

Baptism and weddings have been postponed, but burials linked to Covid-19 are expected in the days to come.

Rev Jamison says they hope to continue with communion, but without people having to leave their homes.

"On Maundy Thursday, where we celebrate the Last Supper, where Jesus had that time with his disciples, we had a little meal in our house and shared communion with each other," he says.

He has suggested that people serve up Ribena, or wine, and bread and join his family online for a virtual Holy Communion service, so that everyone feels they are taking part.

For Palm Sunday, his plan was to preach from the palm tree in his garden instead of his office.

"We encouraged the children to try to make crosses out of anything they could find in the house."

'People are surprisingly well ... stoic, in good form'

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Fr Martin Magill

Fr Martin Magill

Fr Martin Magill

Fr Martin Magill is parish priest at St John the Evangelist on the Falls Road in Belfast.

One of the things I'm finding is that more and more of the older parishioners are getting into the Facebook page," says Fr Martin Magill. "I came up with a bit of a timetable. Every morning will be a thought for the day and I ask people I know from across the Christian denominations to video a thought for the day, which I ask them to send the day before and I put it up for 9am the following morning.

"At 12 noon, from Sunday to Saturday, I celebrate a streamed Mass from the Facebook page and, at 3pm, is Good Afternoon St John's - I go on Zoom (the online conferencing platform) for about 10 minutes and chat with people from the parish. In the evening, we have the Angelus and, at 9pm, a late Compline and that lasts 15 minutes."

A number of people, including members of the pastoral council, are phoning parishioners to keep in contact, particularly older people, who don't have access to the internet.

"From some of the direct contact I've had, people are doing surprisingly well. I've phoned a number of parishioners - these are people who can't get out - and every single one was very stoic and, at this stage, was in a very good form," Fr Magill says.

"I am just holding this one lightly, but the fact that these people have had to endure the Troubles and have been through a lot in their lives, there's a certain resilience there."

Fr Magill mentions one parishioner who was dying in one of the nursing homes and they made an exception so that he could pray with her.

"We will not be visiting if a person is dying with Covid-19, or if there is someone in the house with it as well. In those circumstances, I would use the phone and say prayers at some distance.

"Baptisms and marriages have all been postponed and funerals are simplified, with a small number of immediate family members present at the graveside."

Services in Holy Week were much the same, only with some parts omitted, such as the washing of the feet and the procession on Holy Tuesday.

So far, Mass has been broadcast from the parochial house and Fr Magill takes communion as part of that. "I'm hoping I can figure out how to film in the church. I've been doing these streaming events from the parish house, but I want to do them from the church."

Fr Magill says he hasn't had any major technology problems, like the Italian priest who accidentally broadcast himself celebrating Mass with virtual bear ears appearing on his head.

"I haven't quite gone as far as that, but I've had a few wee moments here and there where it hasn't gone quite right for me, but people have been very understanding."

He says he could see himself adopting some of the technology when the crisis is over - not every day, but possibly once a week. It's a useful way to keep in contact with parishioners and I'm probably getting to know parishioners in a different way and that has been useful."

Rev David Cupples (62), of Enniskillen Presbyterian Church, is married to Rosie and has two children, Ellen (23) and Peter (19).

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Rev David Cupples

Rev David Cupples

Rev David Cupples

Rev David Cupples says the realisation of what was coming probably hit around March 15.

"We had a service in church and I think we all realised that it was going to be the last time we would be meeting for a while," he says.

"The churches hadn't been closed formally at that time, but we knew in our hearts that we wouldn't be meeting for the foreseeable future. I opened the service up to share thoughts and feelings and also to ask for names of people who had underlying health conditions and we prayed for them publicly."

Several days later, all church meetings ceased and the challenge was how to keep in contact with the congregation and keep ministries going.

"We have a system of practical help in place for those who are self-isolating, arranged by two ladies in the church - shopping, prescriptions, post, that sort of thing - for anyone who requests it," Rev Cupples says.

"Our elders have all been phoning around each family in their district, asking how everybody is. I think it's probably increased our level of pastoral care and sense of caring in the church.

"For myself, I write lots of letters to healthcare professionals in the church, business people and people with underlying health conditions. I've phoned lots and lots of people.

"I also have most of the congregation on email and have seen them sending messages very regularly with songs, thoughts and prayer topics. We have a very good communication system in the church."

On the first Sunday of lockdown, Rev Cupples broadcast a service via webcam from his home.

"We have a student who is home from university and, last week, we upped our game immensely - he recorded me doing a service in church on Saturday afternoon. It broadcast online and on the YouTube channel from 11am on Sunday.

"In our church, there are 170 families, with probably 140 online, but last Sunday service was viewed 550 times. It's obviously reaching a whole lot of people who are not in church on Sunday morning, but we don't know who they are.

"We have been asking people to post their offering to the church office in the meantime, but we will look at this more thoroughly after Easter."

Rev Cupples says they have received guidance from the Presbyterian Church that communion, baptism and weddings must stop until the crisis is over and there are particularly strict instructions around funerals.

"No clergy are allowed anywhere near South West Acute Hospital (in Enniskillen). I am a hospital chaplain, but I'm not allowed on the premises and, sadly, anyone who goes into hospital is not allowed to be visited. There are people who are really suffering and it's going to be a time of great hardship."

Overall, the pace of Church life has been slower and less frantic then normal.

"It's good for Church life to be simpler and for people to ask what it is all about, actually. It's about worship, it's about studying God's Word and caring for one another and we are still able to do all these things," Rev Cupples explains.

"I'm really looking forward to the first Sunday back in church. People will really appreciate being together.

"I think when we are able to come back together, face each other, shake hands and see each other, people will appreciate one another more.

"I personally believe our Church will be more united and stronger at the end of it, even if we are not back until September. I hope the same will be true of society.

"If we look at volunteering, caring between neighbours, appreciating the NHS workers, use of food banks, I'm really hoping that this good neighbourliness will rise to a higher level - and remain at that level."

'Services online are a great way to reach out'


The lockdown has impacted deeply on everyday life and will mean many Easter traditions, so often taken for granted in the past, do not happen this year.

It underlines the challenges now facing clergy in these turbulent times. Many report difficulty with the lockdown, especially with funerals and also keeping online church services going.

But they hope the Easter message can still resonate strongly, even as the pandemic puts normal life on hold.

The Rev Mairisine Stanfield, of First Presbyterian Church in Bangor, says: "I have never worked so hard. We put a lot of effort into producing our online services for YouTube and these are greatly appreciated.

"We have also set up two helplines for anyone in Bangor who needs assistance and we have fully-trained volunteers to provide help."

She describes the lockdown as "a bewildering and surreal situation", but believes Easter Sunday can also be a time of hope.

"I hate the church being closed, but our services online are a wonderful opportunity to reach people who may not be able to attend church physically and those who may not have attended recently.

"Our Easter Sunday online service will have the Easter message of hope for everyone."

Fr Patrick McCafferty, parish priest of Corpus Christi in west Belfast, also touches on the theme of hope amid the gloom this Easter.

He says: "People are sick and are dying and you have to get on with bringing help and comfort as best you can.

"It is particularly challenging to officiate at funerals. You have to maintain social distancing and you can't offer physical comfort to a relative by putting your arm around his or her shoulder."

During emergencies, like delivering the Last Rites, the priest is allowed to be present.

"You have to wear surgical gloves, or use cotton wool, when anointing the person and that is difficult. But we have to take safety measures as much as we can."

Fr McCafferty said online church services are a challenging experience.

"It takes some getting used to, speaking to a webcam in an empty building, but I address the people beyond the walls who are sharing with me.

"Sadly, we cannot hold our Easter Sunday services in the church, but we still have our faith and we will be very much celebrating the Easter message of hope."

The Church of Ireland Archdeacon of Raphoe, the Venerable David Huss, originally from Lisburn, is the rector of four parishes in Co Donegal. "It will be difficult not to have the churches open on Easter Morning," he says.

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The Church of Ireland Archdeacon of Raphoe, the Venerable David Huss

The Church of Ireland Archdeacon of Raphoe, the Venerable David Huss

The Church of Ireland Archdeacon of Raphoe, the Venerable David Huss

"We also have an annual yearly Easter sunrise interdenominational service near Donegal Old Abbey, which dates from around 1474 and is now a ruin. More than 100 people usually take part, but sadly we won't be able to do that this year."

Rev David Turtle, the Methodist minister in Lisburn, says he tries to reach out through the internet.

"I am aware that some are not able to use the technology and we try to connect with them by phone.

"I have officiated at two funerals in two weeks and that has been difficult. One was in a funeral parlour and the other in a graveyard and both had only a few people present.

"This is very hard for families and I try to bring them as much comfort as I can.

"People develop a close attachment to a place. You have to rethink what you have been doing and try to do it differently."

Rev Carmen Hayes, the Church of Ireland rector in several Garvagh parishes, says this Easter will be different - and difficult.

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Rev Carmen Hayes

Rev Carmen Hayes

Rev Carmen Hayes

"People are missing terribly not being in church and the fellowship, but we are online and there will be a YouTube service on Easter Sunday with the message of hope."

Belfast Telegraph