Coronavirus: Northern Ireland churches reopen for Easter services

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St Anne's Cathedral, Church of Ireland, prepares to open for Good Friday serviceImage source, PAcemaker
Image caption,
St Anne's Cathedral in Belfast held a three-hour service on Friday afternoon

Methodist, Presbyterian and Church of Ireland congregations have resumed in-person services across Northern Ireland.

It comes a week after the return of Catholic church services on 26 March.

It means churches will be able to hold Easter services, with Easter Sunday falling on 4 April.

Northern Ireland's four main churches voluntarily suspended in-person gatherings in January of this year due to the Covid-19 lockdown.

All four of the denominations said they would continue to take measures to ensure compliance with Covid-19 regulations.

Most services are taking place on Friday evening, but some were held on the afternoon of Good Friday, including at St Anne's Cathedral in Belfast, where a three-hour devotional service began at midday.

On Thursday, the executive relaxed some of the regulations, allowing for the return of certain sport and limited numbers of people meeting outdoors in a person's garden.

'Cautious and careful'

The Church of Ireland outlined its plan for reopening in a letter to bishops on St Patrick's Day, saying it was taking a "cautious and careful" return to services for Good Friday.

"This news will be warmly welcomed, but is simply permissive rather than instructive," the Church said.

It said the return was simply guidance to its member churches, and that many would prefer to continue with alternative provisions, such as drive-in or online services.

Image source, PAcemaker
Image caption,
Catholic Bishop Noel Treanor at Good Friday Mass in Belfast

Speaking to BBC News NI, a spokesperson for the Church confirmed the plans and said there would be in-person services across the Easter weekend, although congregants should consult their local church ahead of time.

The Church said the Easter dawn service, which involves a gathering outside at dawn to mark the resurrection of Jesus Christ, would not be allowed under current Covid-19 restrictions.

Rev Roy Cooper, from the Methodist Church, said services would return on Friday, but he was aware many of its members were still taking a cautious approach.

He said in-person numbers would be limited, and he was aware of congregations where elderly people were waiting to have their second dose of the Covid-19 vaccination before returning to in-person services.

"I suspect that some churches that are going back will be asking people to indicate that they are going to go on Sunday, because there are quite a lot of people who will want to go back on Sunday," he said.

He said he foresaw online services continuing into the future.

Rev Cooper added the reopening over the Easter weekend was "to let people know that this is the forward journey" towards a reopening, as long as there were no further resurgences in Covid-19 case numbers - and that preparations for social distancing and hand sanitising were being taken.

'A lot are returning'

Rev Trevor Gribben, general secretary of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, said the Church's congregations were "really looking forward to gathering again for in-person worship".

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"While live-streaming and online services have continued, and these have been greatly appreciated, they are no real substitute for gathering in person to worship the Lord together with fellow believers," he said.

He said while a small number of congregations had decided for local reasons to continue with online services, in Northern Ireland most would be able to meet for in-person worship on Sunday.

Rev Gribben added the Church was "also very conscious of the fact that our brother and sisters in Christ in the Republic of Ireland will not be able to meet together".

"With them we very much lament that fact and look to the day, in the not too distant future, when they also will know again the joy and blessing of worshipping together," he said.