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Platform by Gordon Lyons MLA, Junior Minister to the First Minister

The Covid-19 pandemic has forced us all to adapt to a new way of living. Many of the activities and certainties that we took for granted have been upended and life changed in a way that would have been unimaginable only a few months ago.

One of the most striking changes in the lives of many people of faith, including my own, has been the inability to go to our place of worship. The closure of churches is unprecedented in our lifetimes. Indeed, there are churches that have been open for worship every Sunday for hundreds of years that have now remained empty for months.

However, churches are not solely places where people gather for corporate worship one day a week. Across all traditions in Northern Ireland, they are part of the daily, not just weekly, lives of people. Prayer meetings, bible studies, children’s meetings, youth fellowships and a whole range of other activities and events take place in them that bring people together for fellowship and as a family.

Many people have had to do without this community and the support that comes with it and this prolonged closure has had a significant impact on the spiritual and mental wellbeing of many.

As our economy begins to open up, I fully appreciate and understand the frustration that was expressed by those who could not fathom why restaurants and shops were preparing to open, while churches had to remain closed. However, there are particular difficulties with people coming together in a church setting for a prolonged period of time, such as the greater possibility of the mingling of congregants and the risk that it could pose to the spread of the disease. However, that risk can be managed and the benefits of reopening the churches would be hugely significant.

That’s why last week the First Minister announced the establishment of a Churches Working Group incorporating Executive Ministers and representatives of different faith groups across Northern Ireland, with the objective of charting a pathway to re-opening in a safe and controlled manner. The first meeting of that group took place on Wednesday. It was a really useful engagement and it demonstrated that churches had already put a lot of time and effort into creating comprehensive plans on how they could reopen.

As a result of their work and the engagement we had with the Chief Medical Officer, the Executive have been able to give an indicative date of 29th June for churches to reopen, subject to the spread of the virus remaining under control.

I know that churches and faith groups across Northern Ireland will have a lot of questions about what their services will look like, how many can attend meetings and what measures they will need to have in place. The Churches Working Group will meet again next week to work on these issues so congregations will have clear guidance and time to prepare. This meeting will be attended by the Chief Medical Officer. It’s obvious though that we will not immediately go back to the way things were when we last met.

There will be a new normal, it will require us to adapt and there will be a phased approach as we move away from the shadow of this virus. Life has changed immensely over the last few months, but I am pleased that people will soon be able to meet again with their church families and participate in public worship once more.