Yesterday, the UK Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, said “drastic action” was needed to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic. He called for an end to “non-essential contact with others”.
The Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, said he anticipated a 30% increase in cases of the coronavirus every day.
There is no denying the gravity of the present situation.
At this time of not only international but global crisis, everyone in society has a duty to do what he or she can to protect people’s lives and minimise suffering.
We, in the Churches, are no exception.
Consequently, and with immediate effect, I am announcing the suspension of all public acts of worship in the United Dioceses of Derry and Raphoe.
This includes Sunday services and regular midweek services. Baptisms, weddings and funerals will still be permitted as long as they comply with the guidance of the appropriate public health authority.
I have taken this decision with a heavy heart but with the firm conviction that it is the right thing to do.
Often, at times of great crisis, parishioners can be comforted by participation in acts of communal worship. However, the COVID-19 crisis poses an unprecedented danger to public health.
Communal worship at this time would present a heightened risk of harm to all who took part, especially older and more vulnerable parishioners. That is something I, as Bishop, will not countenance.
However, I want to reassure parishioners that while we, as a Church, are responding to the two governments’ call for social distancing, there will be no spiritual distancing. We will still be there for you.
Our church buildings will be open at service times for those who wish to pray privately. Clergy who are well enough will ensure that they are available to parishioners for pastoral support – if necessary by telephone or online.
We are also investigating options for non-traditional forms of worship, such as radio and online religious services.
The Diocese of Derry and Raphoe is more than just a territory: it is a community – a caring, compassionate community. Now, in the midst of crisis, we have an opportunity to show what real Christian community is all about. And we all have a role to play in this.
Stay in touch with one another. Think of the people you usually sit beside in church. Pick up the phone and call them. Use online opportunities if you can. Keep an eye on your neighbours, especially those who are older, those who are more vulnerable and those who are lonely. Look after them. Don’t do anything that puts their health at risk. Make sure they’re okay.
Soon, some in our Church family and in the wider community will be experiencing financial hardship. Be generous. Give to charities. Support local foodbanks. Let us show what real community is all about.
As Christians, we have a moral obligation to observe social distancing protocols, but we should never distance ourselves from God. In fact, let us draw closer to Him now. Let us walk with Him. Let us pray without ceasing. Let us choose faith, not fear.
This is a rapidly evolving situation and we, at diocesan level, will be in regular communication with parishioners. The advice of governments and health authorities can change from one moment to the next, but the love of God remains constant.
No bishop wants to suspend services – especially not a Church of Ireland bishop on the Feast Day of St Patrick. But it is done for the right reasons and with people’s best interests at heart.
On this difficult day, at this difficult time, I commend to you the words of our patron saint, Patrick.
Christ with me,
Christ before me,
Christ behind me,
Christ in me,
Christ beneath me,
Christ above me,
Christ on my right,
Christ on my left,
Christ when I lie down,
Christ when I sit down,
Christ when I arise,
Christ in the heart of every man who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me,
Christ in every eye that sees me,
Christ in every ear that hears me.
I arise today
Through a mighty strength, the invocation of the Trinity,
Through belief in the Threeness,
Through confession of the Oneness
of the Creator of creation.