For the last month, since the publication by the Irish Government of the Return to Work Safely Protocol, consultations have been taking place in the Church of Ireland United Dioceses of Cork, Cloyne and Ross about the implementation of the Protocol in readiness for the reopening of church buildings. Clergy have been busy evaluating church buildings in terms of the implications of social/physical distancing. They’ve also initiated discussions informally with select vestries (parish committees) and parishioners.
Throughout the CoronaVirus Crisis parishes, chaplaincies and clergy have been finding new and innovative ways, alongside traditional communication methods, of keeping the worship of the Church faithful and vibrant. During this time too, in parallel, Bishop Paul Colton and the clergy have been keeping in touch with regular coffee and chat meetings using ZOOM when, inevitably, the discussion would orientate towards planning for the future and for reopening.
The publication of the Government’s Protocol, public discourse about when church buildings might reopen and then, last week, the publication of the Church of Ireland’s Return to In-Church Worship Protocols have focussed minds on the process. The Government’s announcement on Friday, 5th June contracting the phases in the ‘Roadmap’ has really spurred everyone on.
In his letter to the Diocese published at the start of June, but written on 13th May, Bishop Colton wrote:
The Roadmap for Reopening Society and Business signals that places of worship can re-open from 20th July, subject to the public health situation between now and then. Re-opening isn’t as straightforward as it sounds because ‘the new normal’ will be different. It will include social distancing, hand hygiene and respiratory hygiene – in Church too!
‘It just shows how things change rapidly in these times,’ says Bishop Colton. ‘On Friday last 5th June the timetable changed and we are now aiming for reopening on 29th June where that is possible in local situations.’
Two clergy meetings were held on Friday, 5th June to look in a preliminary way at the Church of Ireland Protocol and follow-up questions were identified. Bishop Colton has consolidated the Protocol into a checklist with suggestions for parishes.
Bishop Colton said:
This is now with local parishes for collaboration and implementation by local communities working together. The announcement of a new timetable is something that should bring us joy; joy that Government tells us that the public health indicators to date justify this change of approach, and joy that we will be able to meet in Church together again as the people of God.
When the Taoiseach made his announcement he said ‘We also want places of worship to resume services again, with precautions.’ These precautions are embodied in the Protocol the Church of Ireland has now published. We need to be attentive to them for everyone’s well-being and safety. It is not a race between parishes to get buildings open. In some parts of the Diocese this may need more time to get ready and that is fine. Also, practicalities and logistics mean that when buildings do reopen it will not be ‘business as usual’. There are a host of things to put in place and to get used to, and this means it may be wise, in parishes where there are many church buildings, to open them step by step, progressively.
Online induction training is currently being organised, in the first instance, under the Bishop’s Continuing Ministerial Education programme, in partnership with an outside provider, for Covid-19 ‘Back to Work’ induction training for clergy, readers, and employees of parishes. Training for volunteers will follow. The Church of Ireland Protocol also signals that further guidance is in preparation concerning Holy Communion, Holy Baptism, Funerals, and the weekday opening of churches for private prayer.