Northern Ireland news

Churches still hopeful for Easter public worship

Fr Timothy Bartlett prepares for the reopening of St Mary's in Chapel Lane - Belfast's oldest Catholic Church - as last spring's lockdown came to an end in May. Picture by Liam McBurney/PA Wire

THE lack of certainty inherent in the Executive's 'Pathway out of Restrictions' plan extends to those hoping for an early assurance that public worship will be able to resume for Easter.

It says that services will be able to resume "with a risk assessment" in the "cautious first steps" stage which immediately follows lockdown.

Places of worship have already conducted risk assessments to be able to open in earlier stages of the pandemic, with measures including limits on congregations, the wearing of face coverings and stringent cleaning regimes.

Churches voluntarily agreed to suspend in-person services when the current lockdown period began as part of their support for the stay at home message.

Following the announcement that lockdown will be extended until at least April 1, Church representatives met last week with health minister Robin Swann and chief medical officer Dr Michael McBride and agreed to continue to suspend public gatherings until then.

At that stage, there was cautious optimism that the Executive's meeting scheduled for March 18 would indicate that churches would be able to welcome congregations from Good Friday on April 2.

The new plan doesn't challenge that expectation, and several Church sources last night remained hopeful that the Easter celebrations that couldn't happen last year would go ahead, even in a limited form, next month.

The lockdown limit of 25 for mourners at funerals and for guests at weddings and civil partnerships is raised to "increased numbers" - perhaps raised according to the socially distanced capacity of a particular venue, though there is no detail in the document - in the second step.

In the 'gradual easing' phase, wedding receptions of an unspecified number and with mitigations can go ahead, while pre- and post-funeral gatherings can go ahead, albeit with "limited numbers".

Moving to 'further easing' means no limits on numbers at weddings or funerals other than that "determined by venue risk assessment". Some "limited" live music, such as a soloist, is also permitted at this stage.

Live music and dancing don't resume until the final 'preparing for the future' stage of the plan.


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