| 8.1°C Belfast

Prayers answered as faithful return to reopened NI churches for Sunday worship


Parishioners of St Philip and St James in Holywood yesterday

Parishioners of St Philip and St James in Holywood yesterday

Parishioners of St Philip and St James in Holywood yesterday

Clergy have welcomed the return of parishioners through their doors as many gathered for Sunday worship in churches across Northern Ireland for the first time in almost four months.

Since last Monday, people have been able to return to church services after 15 weeks of lockdown and many reopened their doors yesterday to resume Sunday services.

Congregations were smaller than usual because of new attendance restrictions and government guidelines concerning hygiene and physical distancing.

There was strict social distancing in and between pews, no hymn-singing - only a band or an organist to provide sacred music - while people had to 'sign in' as they arrived, to facilitate track and trace measures.

Many churches say they will continue to stream online services, which has become the 'norm' since mid-March, for those still unable to return to church for the moment.

Parishioners of St Philip and St James in Holywood, Co Down were among those back to worshipping in church buildings and halls on Sunday.

Rev Gareth Harron, rector of Holywood, welcomed 90 people, ranging in ages from tiny tots to those in their 90s.

"We can't put an age limit on those coming through our doors but I was delighted to see a full range of people represented.

"Some of our older parishioners really enjoyed being back as they have been a bit more isolated at home," he said.

"I think anyone who came along and saw how we kept to social distancing guidelines would have felt that they were in a safe place and we had those within family support bubbles sitting together which worked well.

"In general, the atmosphere was really good and I've had a few lovely messages from people who appreciated being together once more.

"While services have been continuing online for the past few months it was very emotional for people to see members of their church family in person again.

"There was a lot of work going on behind the scenes to prepare for this day and it was something that we didn't want to rush into without doing everything safely.

"We normally have five Sunday services but we have reduced this to two for the moment.

"We had stewards in high-viz vests to help set the tone as people came in and everyone did a great job," Rev Harron added.

"We are lucky to have the benefit of large scale buildings and a staff team but I appreciate that not all churches have the infrastructure to be able to open up again just yet.

"We are also in the fortunate position of being able to have one service in the church and the other in the parish centre which helps in terms of cleaning."

Elsewhere 65 worshippers gathered once again and at a safe distance at Willowfield Parish Church in east Belfast.

Parish curate, Rev Karen Salmon, said it was an exciting day and one that marked a step in the right direction.

"Normally we would have four services on a Sunday but we just had one at 10am which was broadcast later on Facebook and YouTube as well as continuing to record our evening service.

"Everybody came in excited, smiling and just glad to be allowed to be together again and that's how they left.

"The feedback from them was that it was really good to be able to see each other again.

"At the beginning of the service we got everyone to wave at each other across the church because they couldn't get up and mingle as they usually would.

"We had contact tracing cards for people to complete, two metre floor markers, automatic hand sanitiser machines, and when people arrived, they were shown where to sit rather than choosing a seat themselves so that they weren't passing other people.

"For me all these things were important in order to make people feel safe and confident about coming back to church," Rev Karen added.

"I think once those who didn't come along today watch the service back online, see how separated out everyone was, and speak to those who were there, that will help encourage them to return also because we had space for many more people."

Rev Colin Morrison from Eglinton Presbyterian Church in north Belfast was equally glad to see 100 people back in the Ballysillan Road building.

"We had a good congregation of regulars and a few visitors too with a good balance of ages - from a three week old baby through to a few healthy senior citizens who took the risk.

"Once everyone had safely filed out of the church afterwards they were able to chat to each other in the car park at a safe distance which they did for a while.

"While there was some nervousness beforehand, we were happy that all the plans we had put in place in terms of stewarding, sanitisation and social distancing worked very well but a few tweaks will still be needed here and there," he added.

Speaking as churches reopened in the Diocese of Derry and Raphoe, Bishop Andrew Forster said the coronavirus had exacted an enormous toll.

"It's changed everything - how we act, how we think, how we live our daily lives," he said.

Belfast Telegraph