Coronavirus is spreading quickly throughout Ireland and we have all had to take major steps to protect ourselves and others. The indications are that this virus will be with us for some months and I urge all in our Diocese to take the necessary precautions as directed by the Chief Medical Officer and the HSE. Our Roman Catholic neighbours and today, the Presbyterian Church and the Methodist Church, have also issued their own guidelines to their members.
In response to An Taoiseach’s statement last Friday, I issued preliminary guidance to the clergy of Tuam, Killala and Achonry. I asked them to adhere to the Government Guidelines and also to reflect carefully on whether or not to hold any services and meetings, regardless of size, until the 29th March, the date the Government indicated when further guidelines would be issued.
The situation has changed rapidly and like most other bishops, with a heavy heart, I am cancelling all normal church services until further notice. This includes Mid-week services, Home Communions, Baptisms and Confirmations. For Weddings and Funerals see below.
Difficult decisions are being demanded of us all at this time. I ask you to look after yourselves and your loved ones. Also, as brothers and sisters in the Lord, members of the Christian Family, please give due care and concern to those in your communities who are isolated and alone. There is a range of practical supports that all of us can offer those who are particularly vulnerable and for whom this is a frightening time.
The Archbishop-elect of Armagh has issued the following guidance in his present Diocese of Clogher and, with his consent, I offer them to the people of Tuam, Killala and Achonry as the guidelines to be observed in this Diocese.
1. Public Worship
Services – All public acts of worship, including Sunday services, Lenten services, Baptisms and Confirmations (including preparation), should cease from 17th March 2020 until further notice. Parishes, where possible, may consider providing access to Churches for private prayer and reflection, should this be the case then hygiene and physical distancing guidance must be observed.
Online & Media Resources – Resources for worshipping from home will shortly be made available online. If your parish intends to co-ordinate worship resources that can be accessed online, please inform the Diocesan Communications Officer so that information of such can be circulated.
Innovate – Clergy and parishes are encouraged to consider alternative ways to offer worship and spiritual support to individuals and your community. Anxiety levels will rise and people will be looking for spiritual resources accessible at home to help them. Parishes should give consideration to the preparation of resources for parishioners, including those without Internet access.
Daily prayers – Daily prayers can help give structure to our days for those who are housebound with more time for thinking and reflecting. You may wish to consider signposting people to the online resources at https://www.ireland.anglican.org/prayer-worship/book-of-common-prayer/2004-texts/texts and to produce local booklets to offer as personal copies only (please do not pass these around).
Prayer times – Setting up regular prayer times and using the church bell to sound the times of prayer, use of online conferencing facilities such as Skype, Facetime, Zoom, telephone prayer partners, could positively help to establish a sense of corporate prayer and the strengthening of the praying community.
2. Pastoral Care
Clergy, Lay Readers and Diocesan Pastoral Assistants – The health and well-being of parish and diocesan clergy together with support staff and volunteers is of paramount importance, both for their own protection and for those they minister to. Those with underlying health conditions, those that develop symptoms, and those over 70 years of age should adhere to government guidance concerning self-isolation and should inform a neighboring member of the clergy or supervising member of clergy of their availability / unavailability in order to enable the continuation of pastoral ministry in the parish. Clergy are asked to co-ordinate the provision of pastoral care in their parishes in cooperation with neighbouring clergy.
Home Communions – All Home Communions should cease from 17th March 2020 until further notice.
Visitation Protocols – All pastoral visitations should cease from 17th March 2020 until further notice. Instead Clergy and/or Diocesan Pastoral Assistants should contact those needing pastoral care in parishes by telephoning them. The hospital chaplains are no longer permitted to carry out hospital visits unless expressly invited to do so by hospital staff. Clergy who are asked to visit parishioners in hospital or residential care should only do so if permitted by the hospital/residential facility and with the consent of the individual’s family. Hygiene and physical distancing measures must be observed.
Pastoral and practical support – Develop a plan for the pastoral and practical support of those who are vulnerable or housebound in the parish (the plan must of course adhere to safeguarding policies and hygiene practices). Consider developing a ‘Love thy Neighbour’ scheme for those in self-isolation with a team of volunteers to: Regularly contact by phone to alleviate loneliness; Report concerns as to their health; Collect urgent supplies & shopping; Post mail. You may want to consider offering to hold next of kin details for parishioners who live alone, but make sure any such personal information is stored securely and you have the individual’s permission to have these details in keeping with General Data Protection regulations. Identify and brief lay people who can provide telephone support and prayer for those who are fearful or otherwise distressed.
Self-isolated – For those who need to self-isolate, consider how people can be supported with phone calls and via social media, and help with the delivery of shopping and / or medication. It is very important that all church members involved in such support are very clear on and committed to adhering to the Government’s isolation and general hygiene advice.
Funerals – Funerals should ideally be attended by family members and close friends only in order to keep numbers in attendance low, it is advisable that funerals are not publicly advertised in order to avoid large gatherings. Congregational singing should be avoided, hygiene advice and physical distancing should be adhered to, physical contact, including handshaking, and funeral teas should not take place. Copies of prayers for the sick and the dying and also a copy of the funeral service could be helpfully sent to those unable to attend the funeral of a friend or relative. Thanksgiving Services could be considered appropriate by those bereaved at a future date when possible.
Weddings – Weddings can take place under very restrictive circumstances in accordance with Government guidance, therefore it is preferable that weddings should be postponed.
Mental Health and Hardship – Efforts should be made to support those who may be struggling with mental health issues and/or hardship. It will be important to take measures, such as regular phone communication, to help alleviate loneliness and despair.
3. Community Response
Volunteer Mobilisation – In time volunteer support may be necessary for medical staff and for individuals in the community. Churches are well placed to channel information, particularly on requests for volunteers. Information will be circulated to clergy and parishes when available.
Public Reassurance – Clergy can offer an important public reassurance through “the sacrament of presence” and being seen to be “present” and available. This does not include physically visiting those diagnosed with COVID-19 or those who are self-isolating: clergy need to protect themselves and others, making sure they adhere to hygiene precautions. Clergy can also be a trusted voice in a community and help with the distribution of government advice ensuring isolated members of the community are aware of the precautions they can take. Network as appropriate with local health, welfare, safety networks, funeral directors and other service providers. Ensure contact details for these service providers are held by key parish leadership. Be aware of local information and peculiarities eg changes in public utilities or services that affect your community specifically.
4. Parish Administration
Premises – All public parish premises should be closed from 17th March 2020 until further notice, this includes Churches and Church Halls. Parishes, where possible, may consider providing access to Churches for private prayer and reflection, should this be the case then hygiene and physical distancing guidance must be observed. In due course there may be need for church premises to be made available for civic response purposes, these can be considered compassionately as they arise.
Easter Vestries – All Easter Vestry meetings should be deferred until further notice and existing officers should remain in post until circumstances allow. Legal advice concerning rescheduling is being sought.
Select Vestries – All Select Vestry meetings should be deferred until further notice. Matters requiring urgent consideration by a Select Vestry should be considered using electronic means such a teleconferencing, email circulation.
Parish Organisations – All parish organisations, including Sunday School, Youth Organisations, Senior Citizen Activities, External Groups that utilize parish facilities etc should be cancelled from 17th March 2020 until further notice.
Charity Returns and Annual Accounts – Further guidance is being sought concerning submission of charity returns and approval of annual accounts.
Continuation of Ministry – A template document to facilitate the continuation of ministry in parishes will be issued shortly.