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Coronavirus poses huge challenges for the Churches, but also great opportunities

Martin O'Brien

Congregations face a steep drop in income due to the halt in weekly collections, but for now, rightly, the pastoral takes priority over the pecuniary, writes Martin O'Brien


Pope Francis addressing an empty St Peter's Square in Rome

Pope Francis addressing an empty St Peter's Square in Rome


Presbyterian Moderator, Rev Dr William Henry

Presbyterian Moderator, Rev Dr William Henry

CoI Bishop David McClay

CoI Bishop David McClay

Pope Francis addressing an empty St Peter's Square in Rome

It is hard to take in the scale and potential impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. With so much to absorb, perhaps the perspective of one significant sector has been overlooked. What about the Christian Churches, whose raison d'etre is the building up of Christ's kingdom of love, peace and justice in the world, and the saving of souls? We may live in an increasingly secular society, but both parts of Ireland still self-identify as being predominantly Christian to a greater extent than in most of Europe.

There is still a strong, vibrant body of intentional Christians across the denominations in Northern Ireland, and the practice of their faith has been dramatically affected by the draconian social distancing measures that have had to be introduced to combat the spread of the coronavirus. Churches have been closed. Wakes have been forbidden and funeral services must take place at gravesides, or in our only crematorium, at Roselawn, on the outskirts of Belfast. Weddings, baptisms and confirmations have been postponed indefinitely.

Church and religious-type gatherings, from the Anglican Communion's Lambeth Conference at Canterbury, to a synod to discern the future of the Irish Augustinian Order in Kilkenny, to the world-famous Passion Play at Oberammergau in southern Germany, have all been postponed. The image of Pope Francis giving his blessing over an eerily empty St Peter's Square in Rome said it all.

Life for the faithful, who attend church regularly and for whom Sunday worship is a central part of their lives, has changed utterly, echoing the all-consuming change that comes when a country goes to war, in this case a worldwide war against an invisible enemy.

It is difficult to overstate the challenges (and opportunities) the Covid-19 pandemic poses for the Churches, whose ministers are called to pastor people at their most vulnerable, underlined by reports that up to 60 priests have died in Italy. How are our Churches appearing to measure up to this unprecedented challenge?

I say "appearing", because, like everyone, they are responding to an incredibly fast-moving situation, a national and international emergency, with no emergency manual to lift from the shelf on how to deal with it. And it is early days. The peak of the epidemic is still believed to be some weeks away, probably some time after Easter.

In passing, one cannot but note that any objective reading of the situation suggests that President Donald Trump - worried, no doubt, that a prolonged crisis and recession may imperil his re-election in November - is deluded in thinking that America, where unemployment has just jumped massively, can be reopened for business by Easter, in just 16 days' time.

However, it would appear that the Churches here are, generally speaking, responding with urgency, civic responsibility and imagination. No one I spoke to this week raised what will become a pressing issue not far down the line: the steep drop in income from the halt to weekly church collections. The sense is, correctly, that for now, the pastoral takes priority over the pecuniary.

First and foremost, Churches have responded instantly and positively to the advice from the health authorities. As Bishop Noel Treanor, of Down and Connor, said in a pastoral letter this week: "The sole aim of these measures is to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, to save lives and to enable us all to protect each other." He accepted that these measures had caused some pain and were difficult for some to accept.

This echoed the words of the Presbyterian Moderator, Rev Dr William Henry, in an online service on Sunday: "These really are exceptional days. There is a real sense of fear and we can recognise that in the people we speak to. And it is now that we want God to be able to speak into our lives and into our situations."

A look at the various denominations' websites reveals that everyone who wishes to can participate in a Sunday religious service via the internet, if not from their own parish then from elsewhere.

One was struck by the speed of some individual church responses. I looked at random at the Facebook page of Helen's Bay Presbyterian Church in north Down to find that a young man called Josh is conducting their usual Sunday evening youth fellowship meeting from his home, in a most engaging manner. Josh tells those watching and listening at home: "God is not done. We have to be creative in how we communicate with one another and study God's Word together."

Other examples of creativity on Facebook include Fr Martin Magill and Rev Brendan Dowd, a priest and a permanent deacon respectively in Down and Connor, also conducting prayer services from their homes in Belfast, complementing the daily mass and other prayers that are available from countless churches at various times via, for example, Church Services TV and MCN Media.

On Wednesday, the Feast of the Annunciation, Archbishop Eamon Martin, in an online service from St Patrick's Cathedral in Armagh, joined bishops and the rest of the faithful throughout the island in consecrating the Irish people to the Immaculate Heart of Mary for protection from the coronavirus.

The Church of Ireland has also responded with energy and a sense of urgency; for example, in the Diocese of Armagh, a diocesan morning service was recorded at St Swithin's, Magherafelt and broadcast last Sunday on the diocesan website (www.armagh.anglican.org).

The new bishop of Down and Dromore, Bishop David McClay, encouraged Church members to support local businesses, where possible, to gift a Bible to those without one and encourage the use of the Book of Common Prayer as a resource for worship at home. In the adjoining diocese of Connor, Lisburn Cathedral's youth group is sharing videos about identity and Christianity that can be accessed online (www.connor.anglican.org).

Bishop John McDowell of Clogher and Archbishop-elect of Armagh spoke for all when he urged parishes to "look out for one another".

We may be living in worrying times and the worst is yet to come. We are heading for an Eastertide like no other in history, with the celebration of the Resurrection observed by the faithful in their homes online.

And while it is natural and human to be fearful, at the heart of the Christian story is the reality that there are always grounds for hope, rooted in the fact of the Resurrection and in God's message "Be not afraid", repeated 21 times in the Bible from Deuteronomy to the First Epistle of Peter (according to my Cruden's Complete Concordance to the Bible).

Seamus Heaney's last message to his wife, Maire, sent by text just minutes before his death, read "Noli timere", the Latin phrase meaning "Do not be afraid". It was Heaney who also wrote, in 1972, the worst year of the Troubles: "If we can winter this one out, we can summer anywhere."

Martin O'Brien is a journalist and award-winning broadcaster

Belfast Telegraph