Belfast bishop suspends public worship

Bishop David McClay has written to clergy with guidance and encouragement for the extraordinary times we are living in.

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Dear Friends

In recent weeks I have sought to give guidelines to clergy and churches in our Diocese that were both in line with the government health guidelines and at the same time pointed all of us to look to God and gain our wisdom and courage from Him.

In these days our world needs a church that is awake, that is servant–hearted, that is diligent in prayer and that continues to find ways to make Christ known. A W Tozer said that when the world is gripped by fear the world needs a fearless church.

In the light of current government requests and how the church across these islands is speaking I am writing to clergy and people asking that from midday tomorrow, 18 March:

  1. No Sunday services or mid–week services take place in the normal way. These are to be replaced by a clergy person or licensed officiant along with 2 or maximum 3 others recording an act of worship that can be transmitted live or sent out later and made available as widely as possible to as many as local resources allow. I am aware that this will vary from parish to parish but all of us can make something happen, however simple. What we make available may be simple but should always contain a) the scriptures being read, b) the scriptures being carefully and clearly expounded, c) intercession led by one or more people. Where possible a solo could follow the preaching of God’s word. I would prefer that these services are for the most part recorded / streamed from consecrated church buildings and that they are sent out at least weekly, but more regularly even daily in some contexts. Please make use of all the modern means of communication that you can access at this time.
  2. Please be creative in using written materials including prayers, bible study materials that can be used by individuals and families in their homes, and making this material available via email, websites and social media. Avail of gifts and skills of others in your congregation and beyond to assist with this. With children at home from school this could prove a useful evangelistic and teaching resource.
  3. Please put in place a plan to help alleviate the sense of isolation, fear and need for practical help that many in our church families and in our wider communities are likely to experience. Be aware of the most vulnerable, those who have to self–isolate, those with physical and mental health issues, those with little family support, the homeless, the elderly, pregnant women and those on low incomes. Please use contact by telephone creatively and involve people to help with this ministry who are caring, have gifts that encourage and have a faith in Jesus Christ to share. I would like to think that phone calls would include an invitation to pray with people over the phone as well as on an ongoing way.
  4. Please don’t step back from Evangelism. People will most certainly be seeking answers to some of the biggest questions of life – find creative ways of ensuring that they can find the help they will be seeking. Alpha talks, Christianity Explored talks, people’s faith stories and personal testimonies and written biblical resources can all be posted on Parish websites and made available through social media. Be intentional like never before in doing the work of Evangelism.
  5. I’m aware that people will need resources they can use in prayer. Post these on websites and point people towards using the daily offices of morning and evening prayer that are already accessible on the Church of Ireland website (I will forward some other prayer resources and links to others over the next few days).
  6. Regarding Funerals and Weddings; clearer government guidelines may follow but my expectation is that numbers will be to be greatly reduced in both categories to close family members. Meanwhile the advice from central church is “Until further notice, steps should be taken to ensure that numbers attending funeral services and weddings are kept as low as possible. Consideration should be given to all funerals being private (for close family and friends only) with no public announcement of the funeral arrangements.” I will provide clearer guidance as this unfolds. However please offer all families who are faced with a bereavement and a funeral in these times the opportunity of a memorial service when the crisis has passed. In the case of weddings we can also offer a service of Renewal Of Marriage Vows at a later date. 
  7. Regarding mid–week activities and Easter Vestries there should also be postponed, as the Constitution permits, as we await further guidance from central church.

In all our parishes let’s together follow the example of the Good Shepherd as we take the love of God in Jesus Christ to the people in the parishes where God has placed each of us. Together let’s be unlike the shepherds in Ezekiel 34 and ensure that the weak are strengthened, the sick are healed, the injured are bound up, those who have strayed are brought back and the lost are found.

(Ezekiel 34:4 and Luke 15:7)

Ongoing resources to assist local parishes will be forthcoming from our diocesan staff team and I would encourage parishes to share what expertise they have with other parishes in their local Area Deanery and in the Diocese.

Tomorrow there will be some practical guidelines from the Diocese on digital communication including how to stream services as outlined above with only 2–3 people involved.

Personally please be assured of my focussed prayer for all of our clergy, staff teams, parishes, people and communities at this time.

‘So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love’. 1 Corinthians 13 v 13

Further regular communication from me and from the Diocese will continue in the days and weeks ahead.

Yours in Christ,

+David McClay