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Coronavirus: Churches in Northern Ireland split over when worshippers can safely return


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Rev Steve Stockman

Rev Steve Stockman

Pastor Mark McClurg

Pastor Mark McClurg

Fr Michael Canny

Fr Michael Canny

Rev Steve Stockman

Clergy are divided on the issue of easing the current lockdown to allow places of worship to reopen.

It followed Stormont Minister Edwin Poots' suggestion that churches, garden centres and forest parks should be allowed to open while maintaining social distancing.

Some Church leaders expressed concern about rushing to ease restrictions while others believe it could be done slowly and safely.

Rev Steve Stockman from Fitzroy Presbyterian Church in south Belfast said he understands that people have "hit a wall" after six weeks of lockdown and are becoming frustrated at having to stay at home.

While he knows people want to go and worship, Rev Stockman believes the key message now is to "love your neighbour by being sensible and staying in" to protect the elderly and NHS staff.

"This is a time when we have to sacrifice those rights that we would like in order to keep our neighbours alive by being patient," he said.

In our own church we would have to consider holding a couple of Sunday services to ensure social distancing can be met, with people having to leave quickly afterwards with none of the normal socialising being possible Rev Steve Stockman

"Currently there is a lot of good worship going on online that means people can be together.

"While it's not ideal, many churches seem to be well enough equipped that they don't need to be rushing back to normal and I have a slight fear about how we would make this a reality.

"In our own church we would have to consider holding a couple of Sunday services to ensure social distancing can be met, with people having to leave quickly afterwards with none of the normal socialising being possible."

However Pastor Mark McClurg, of Newtownards Elim Church, said consideration should be given for the controlled opening of church buildings, particularly in terms of people's mental wellbeing.

Pastor McClurg - who spent several days in the intensive care unit at the Ulster Hospital battling coronavirus and is now recovering at home - said: "I feel that we need to have this conversation and I'm not asking for this to happen immediately but for us to think about what markers need to be put in place.

"I'm hearing from people who are feeling anxious, lonely and fearful for the future and it's clear that the current situation is affecting their mental health.

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Pastor Mark McClurg

Pastor Mark McClurg

Pastor Mark McClurg

"At the same time we don't want to open up too early and while it has been great to see that happening in New Zealand, you have to balance it with what happened in Germany where there has been a recurrence of Covid-19 cases," he added.

I am very conscious that some members of my congregation have been in self-isolation since early March and I don't really see why they can't come to the church for solitary prayer Fr Michael Canny

Fr Michael Canny, a Catholic priest in the Waterside area of Londonderry, believes churches could reopen for solitary prayer only rather than full worship.

"At this point in time I am not advocating that we should have all churches open for all of the many rituals we normally have, such as the Eucharist. The issue is how to we tip-toe out of this situation gently.

"I am very conscious that some members of my congregation have been in self-isolation since early March and I don't really see why they can't come to the church for solitary prayer."

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Fr Michael Canny

Fr Michael Canny

Fr Michael Canny

That view was echoed by Fr Gary Donegan from the Passionist Community in Crossgar.

He said social distancing measures could be implemented with the help of volunteers to ensure safe access to churches for prayer and reflection.

"People could be offered a sacred space where they could sit apart from each other in line with the guidelines, with the seats marked up to indicate safe distances and with the correct hand sanitisation," he said.

"There are many people out of work at the moment who desperately want to do something and one of the ways around this issue could be seeking volunteers to ensure that only a limited number of people are allowed into churches at any one time."

Belfast Telegraph