Statement from the Church of Ireland Bishops in Northern Ireland in relation to Public Worship

 

Following further briefing today by the Chief Medical Officer, Dr Michael McBride, and the Chief Scientific Advisor, Professor Ian Young, and in consultation with the Executive Office, as Church Leaders we fully recognise the very serious position that Northern Ireland finds itself in at this time with the extremely high level of transmission of the Covid-19 virus.  The escalation of numbers in hospital and intensive care is placing immense pressure on our healthcare staff; the number of deaths, and the very clear warning from health officials that over the next weeks, the situation is going to worsen significantly, is of grave concern to us all.

We recognise that clergy and parishioners have together worked steadily to implement protocols which have ensured that public gatherings for worship have been as safe as possible since the re-opening of our buildings in early summer. We also appreciate that the Northern Ireland Executive has acknowledged over the last 10 months the importance of people being able to gather in person for worship.  The ongoing engagement between faith communities and the Northern Ireland Executive is warmly welcomed and is something which we believe has been, and continues to be, of benefit to wider society.

However, in light of the current serious and worsening situation and in line with clear public health guidance that people should stay at home, we have decided that all public gatherings for worship and all other in-person church activities should cease for our particular denomination, until Saturday, 6th February 2021, subject to review in late January, with the exception of weddings, funerals, arrangements for recording and/or live-streaming, drive-in services and private prayer (as permitted by regulations). We note and welcome the fact that the same position has been adopted by the Presbyterian Church, Roman Catholic Church, Methodist Church and others in Northern Ireland.

In making this decision for the ‘greater good’ of all within our community, we continue to remember in our prayers the sick and bereaved, all who are suffering, and those whose lives have been directly impacted by Covid-19, praying too for those in positions of responsibility who are faced with making difficult decisions at this challenging time.

+John Armagh

+Andrew Derry and Raphoe

+David Down and Dromore

+George Connor

ENDS

Christmas Message from Bishop Andrew

A Christmas Message from the Bishop of Derry and Raphoe, Rt Rev Andrew Forster

 

Christmas will soon be upon us and then, just as quickly, it’ll be gone and we’ll be into the New Year, with all its uncertainty.

For as long as I can remember, Christmas has been an exciting time: a time for gathering as family, exchanging gifts and celebrating the birth of Jesus. There was a sameness to our celebrations – what we call ‘tradition’ – which made it all very comforting and reassuring and uplifting.

This year, though, and certainly for the first time in my lifetime, things are going to be different. They have to be different.

The coronavirus has made 2020 a harrowing year for so many people, especially those who lost loved ones during the year and were unable to grieve for them or bury them in the customary way. Those were particularly hard crosses to bear.

The virus is still with us, spreading fear in the community, and leaving anguish and heartache in its wake. So, Christmas 2020 is going to be quite unlike any other Christmas in living memory.

We can look at this two ways. We can decide that this is going to be the worst Christmas ever – after all, what is there to celebrate? Or we can decide to make this one of the most memorable Christmases ever – certainly in our lifetimes.

If 2020 has taught us anything, it is to recognise and appreciate what really matters in life: being with those we love, looking out for one another; caring for each other; worshipping together. Things that we once took for granted are now, we realise, the most precious things.

So, this Christmas – if we’re able to gather in our small groups – we should be extra thankful for the company of those around us. Thankful for what we have. Thankful for those who have provided the food we’re going to enjoy. Thankful for those working in our shops, or who’ve delivered cards and parcels to our doors. Thankful for those wonderful people in our health services – doctors, nurses, porters, ambulance drivers, carers, ancillary staff; staff in our pharmacy shops. Thankful for our scientists who are pitting their wits against the coronavirus. Thankful for our emergency services workers. Thankful for our teachers. We should be thankful, too, for those who will be giving up their Christmas so that we can enjoy ours. And we should pray God’s discernment for our leaders who have complex problems to deal with and difficult decisions to make.

Last weekend, the headline in one of the Sunday papers proclaimed, ‘Christmas cancelled for millions’. Christmas has not been cancelled. Yes, it will be very different this year, but it hasn’t been cancelled. The name given to Jesus at his birth, Emmanuel, means ’God with us’. In 2020, the significance of that name became obvious to many people. My prayer is that the truth of God’s presence may become evident to each and every one of us.

So, this Christmas and in the New Year, we can be thankful to God. As we celebrate the coming of Jesus into the world, we remember that humble stable where he was born. A place of isolation, vulnerability and uncertainty became a place of hope, hope that can become the foundation stone for a better future for each one of us.

I wish you all the peace of Christ this Christmas.

+Andrew Derry and Raphoe

 

Churches Trust Grant for Clanabogan Parish Church

Clanabogan Parish Church near Omagh is one of seven much-loved Northern Ireland churches to share £30,000 of funding from the National Churches Trust. Its award is part of the Treasure Ireland project funded by The National Lottery Heritage Fund, the Pilgrim Trust and the Department of Communities.

Clanabogan Parish Church is over 150 years old, having been built in 1863 in a Gothic Revival style. Inside the church unique features including memorials, ornately detailed marble and mosaic tiles. The church has been awardeda grant of £3,406 to repoint the Chanel gable exterior wall with lime mortar to counter the effects of damp seeping through the walls.

Claire Walker, Chief Executive Officer of the National Churches Trust said: “Northern Ireland’s historic churches and chapels play a vital part in its national heritage and have done so much to help local people during the COVID-19 lockdown. But to survive, many need to carry out urgent repairs and install modern facilities. The cost of this work is far beyond what most congregations can pay for themselves.

“So, I’m delighted that the Treasure Ireland project is able to support seven churches and chapels, with funding that will help secure the future of these historic buildings.”

Paul Mullan, the National Lottery Heritage Fund Director for Northern Ireland, added: “We’re delighted to support these seven churches to carry out urgent repairs and help preserve the heritage of these historic buildings. We’re grateful to National Lottery players for making it possible and ensuring they are able to continue engaging with a wide range of audiences.”

Other churches to receive grants are: St Macartan’s (Forth Chapel), Augher; St Peter’s Parish Church, Belfast; Newtownbreda Baptist Church; St Patrick’s Parish Church, Gortin Village, Omagh; the Church of the Immaculate Conception, Strabane; and Waringstown Presbyterian Church.

A Joint Christmas Message from the Archbishops of Armagh

 

‘So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in a manger.’
Luke chapter 2 verse 16

There is an old prayer sometimes used around this time of year which talks about the time when Jesus Christ “came to visit us in great humility”. In one of St Paul’s letters, he talks about “Jesus not counting his equality with God something to be taken advantage of but taking the form of a servant …”

Could one of the positive consequences of this Christmas be that we have had to relearn how to approach it with humility and also how to celebrate it as servants of one another, rather than as lords of all we survey? For that is what we have been doing these past months. The face coverings and the empty streets have not been signs of fear and desolation. Instead, they are the evidences of love and of a resolve to secure the future.

They say that St Francis created the first Christmas crib back in 1223 because he wanted to capture the humility of the incarnation.  When the time was right God humbled himself. He became part of his own creation in a particular way and in a particular place. His Mother was one of the “poor ones” who prayed daily in the Temple for the redemption of Israel. Palestine was an out of the way place and the “Holy Family” of Jesus, Mary and Joseph attracted little attention at the time. That was to be the pattern of his life. He ate his bread in quietness for thirty years, working at his father’s trade as the means whereby he was prepared by his Father for the public vocation had been laid out for him. Apart from the occasion of his finding in the temple, we have no words of his as he grew up in that workman’s family – perhaps he came to speak with such power because he had learned to love silence.

He was not the citizen of a great Empire like St Paul, and throughout his life he held no office or position of religious dignity or civic standing. What has survived of his teaching is usually expressed in simple pictorial speech. Like most people of his time, he seems to have had little or no formal education, yet he was never at the mercy of the subtle question, and he was able to cut straight through the pedantry of the scribes.

We are now celebrating the beginning of this life, quietly and perhaps still with some trepidation. We have had to concede that we do not really understand the world and acknowledge that we cannot “manage it”. But Christmas is the time when we call to mind the coming into the world of God himself. And he came, not to manage it, but to redeem it. He came not to dominate it and to exploit if, but to serve it and to bring it to its intended fruition.

He came and he lived (and died) in great humility as the servant of all.

+Eamon  Roman Catholic Archbishop of Armagh

+John  Church of Ireland Archbishop of Armagh

 

Soap means hope for some of world’s poorest people

A potential new festive tradition has begun in Londonderry where a humble bar of soap has been added to the decorations adorning the Christmas tree in St Columb’s Cathedral.

The Bishop of Derry and Raphoe, the Rt Rev Andrew Forster, hung a bar of soap on the tree as part of Christian Aid Ireland’s campaign to celebrate the life-saving power of soap and to raise awareness of the millions who still lack easy access to soap and water at home.

Bishop Forster explained why he was backing the campaign: “For us, soap is commonplace. Most of us take it for granted. Nowadays, though, soap can literally be the difference between life and death. Regular handwashing with soap is one of the best ways of preventing coronavirus from spreading. Almost half the world’s population don’t have that option, though. Christian Aid estimates that 3 billion people worldwide – 40% of the world’s population – don’t have soap and water in their homes. For them, soap is a luxury. I’m delighted to support Christian Aid Ireland’s ‘Soap Builds Hope’ campaign. If we can raise awareness and raise money, we can save lives and bring hope to many of our poorest brothers and sisters.”

As part of its global coronavirus response, Christian Aid has so far managed to distribute soap to around 250,000 people in 18 countries as part of their effort to prevent the virus spreading in some of the most vulnerable communities in the world.

Soap plays an important role in helping fight poverty too. In Ethiopia, as well as the impact of coronavirus, the climate crisis is increasing the risk of drought and famine, which is pushing farming communities further into poverty. Christian Aid is providing women with the tools they need to run a successful soap-making business. Mother-of-three Kumana Kurasho (26) has been trained in soap-making by Christian Aid using the drought-resistant aloe vera plant native to the area which thrives where other crops fail.

Christian Aid Ireland is asking people to take a photo of their soap Christmas tree decoration and share it on social media with the hashtag #SoapBuildsHope to encourage others to take part.

This year, Christian Aid has expanded its virtual gift selection to include a Charity Gift priced at £15/€15 enabling supporters to help train more women to make soap. To support Christian Aid and help other mothers like Kumana, visit http://caid.ie/SoapMaker

(Photograph: Lorcan Doherty)

Perfect timing for opening of St Canice’s new thrift shop

St Canice’s Church has opened its new thrift shop in the centre of Eglinton just in time for Christmas. ‘New Beginnings’, on Main Street, between the village chemist and the local supermarket, is described as “a place of caring and sharing for the whole community”.

The COVID-compliant formal opening was performed by the Bishop of Derry and Raphoe, Rt Rev Andrew Forster. Bishop Andrew prayed for the success of the venture, thanking God for the vision behind the project and the seed that was growing in the village.

The Rector of St Canice’s, Rev Canon Paul Hoey, recited ‘The New Beginnings Prayer’, which asks God’s blessing for the shop, the volunteers who staff it and everyone who comes through its door.

Bishop Andrew pored over some of the items on sale in the shop, including books and bric-a-brac, and bought two autobiographies by rugby internationals Dodie Weir and Paul O’Connell. He chatted to two of the main drivers behind the venture, coordinator Roberta Sinclair and churchwarden Elaine Way.

The shop has many items for sale, including giftware, jewellery, clothing, handbags, crafts, books and lots and lots of decorations. All have been donated by local people.

Monies raised by the thrift shop will go towards the St Canice’s Hall Restoration Appeal –  which aims to replace the hall destroyed in the August 2017 flood – and to local charities.

Photo shows (l-r): Rev Canon Paul Hoey (Rector), Elaine Way (Churchwarden), Roberta Sinclair (Coordinator) and Rt Rev Andrew Forster (Bishop of Derry and Raphoe).

Daybreak Service at Gartan marks start of Columban year of celebration

Church leaders in the North West gathered at St Colmcille’s Abbey near Church Hill in Donegal, early this morning, for a Service marking the beginning of a year of celebrations of Saint Columba, his life and legacy.

The lakes at Gartan provided an icy but stunning backdrop for the service, which began shortly after daybreak, just a few hundred metres from where the saint is reputed to have been born.

The Church of Ireland, Roman Catholic and Presbyterian Churches were represented at today’s service, which was recorded for broadcast on the Colmcille 1500 website.

The Bishop of Derry and Raphoe, Rt Rev Andrew Forster, the Bishop of Raphoe, Rev Alan McGuckian, the Moderator of the Donegal and Derry Presbytery, Rev Thomas Bruce, the Curate at St Colmcille’s Church, Glendowan, Fr Micheal McKeever, the Rector of Conwal with Gartan, Rev David Houlton and Associate Minister, Rev Heather Houlton, prayed together in an outdoor service that complied with public health guidelines. Music was provided by Donegal singer Maggie McAteer.

After the service, the two bishops and the two Church of Ireland ministers visited Gartan National School, near Church Hill, where senior pupils performed a hymn they had written about St Columba.

 

The world needs good news, Bishop tells new Diocesan Reader

Rt Rev Andrew Forster braved sub-zero temperatures on Sunday evening to pay his first visit to All Saints Church in Newtowncunningham for the commissioning of Sean McClafferty as a Diocesan Reader for the Diocese of Derry and Raphoe. The Service was led by the Rector of the Grouped Parishes of Taughboyne with Craigadooish, All Saints and Killea, Rev Canon David Crooks.

Mr McClafferty had originally been scheduled to be commissioned in the first week of November but the Service fell victim to the closure of churches under the Republic of Ireland’s new lockdown rules. The new reader’s wife, Jennifer, and their daughter, Zara, were in All Saints for the Service, on Sunday, for a rearranged service that was fully compliant with public health guidelines.

Welcoming Bishop Andrew to the church, Canon Crooks described it as a very special evening for the parish and said he was delighted the Bishop had joined them in All Saints for the Commissioning Service.

In his sermon, Bishop Andrew said it was great to be back in church, and said they were thankful there was light at the end of the tunnel, and that the light was getting a little brighter with the news about the vaccine being celebrated over recent days. “We look forward, then, to next year and things returning to some degree of normality. We know that that will take quite a bit of time but we are so thankful for positive news, when things have been so difficult.”

The Bishop told the congregation that at the height of the lockdown, and again in recent weeks, he had rationed his news intake because all the news was bad. “We were hearing about this pandemic and this second wave, and the growth in infections, more deaths – the news was bad. And whenever you’re bombarded with bad news all the time it actually pulls us down, doesn’t it?

“Mark’s Gospel begins with these words: ‘The beginning of the Gospel about Jesus Christ the son of God.’ Now, the word ‘gospel’ is a word we use so often. We use it to describe the first four books of the New Testament. We use it whenever we take a reading from those books. But what does gospel mean? It simply means this: ‘good news’.

“And in a world that has been filled with bad news, the people of Jesus Christ are people of good news. And I believe these opening verses of Mark’s Gospel tell Sean what his ministry as a reader is to do. It also speaks to all of us about what it means to be followers of Jesus Christ – the beginning of the Good News about Jesus Christ. And Jesus Christ is good news in the world.

“This evening as I drove out the road, whenever I came round the corner, around the bend, what did I see? The lights on in this church. It’s a dark night but the light was shining from this church. And, for you and me, we say that the light shines in the darkness and that is good news. The light is Christ.

“And in the darkness of this world, in the darkness of this pandemic, in the fear and uncertainty of that the good news is that the light of Christ shines, and that light can guide us through the pandemic and through life, and the light of Christ can comfort us just as the light brings comfort and security whenever we find the storm overwhelming. This is good news, it’s good news, and our world needs the Good News of Jesus Christ, the son of God.

“The good news is that he comes into the world. The good news is that he promises never to leave us or forsake us. The good news is that he promises forgiveness of sin whenever guilt clings onto us – he offers another chance. The good news is that he gives us purpose in life and vision for life. And the good news is he gives us hope through life and death. This is good news.

“Sean, your message – your words – must be words of good news because the world needs good news.”

Mr McClafferty – who was previously a parish reader – is now allowed to preach and conduct Morning and Evening Prayer in any church in Derry and Raphoe.

Black Santa offers online option ahead of 2020 ‘sit-out’ at St Anne’s Cathedral

Belfast’s Black Santa is going digital this year to allow people to contribute online as well as in person.

The Dean of Belfast, Very Rev Stephen Forde, will begin his third sit-out – and the 44th in all – on the steps of St Anne’s Cathedral on Thursday 17th December. For the first time, though – and in partnership with Price Waterhouse Cooper – the Dean has developed a new website for Black Santa –  www.belfastblacksanta.org – where people are able to donate directly to the Appeal (and even to buy a famous Black Santa beanie hat!).

This year’s Appeal will support charities working with the elderly and the young; people affected by unemployment, homelessness and mental ill-health; and the Arts. There will be a particular focus on projects hit by the pandemic.

The ‘Charities’ section of the new website provides testimony to the impact of the Black Santa Appeal, including a powerful piece from the Derry Well Woman charity.

The Black Santa Appeal has become a Christmas tradition in Belfast since being started by Dean Sammy Crooks in 1976.

Bishop Andrew offers General Synod grounds for hope during the pandemic

The Bishop of Derry and Raphoe has told the General Synod of the Church of Ireland that those seeking grounds for hope during the Coronavirus pandemic should look at the response of the Representative Body, clergy and parishioners to the challenges of COVID-19. Rt Rev Andrew Forster was seconding the Report of the Representative Church Body, which had been proposed by Canon Graham Richards and presented by Henry Saville.

Bishop Forster said there was no hiding the fact that things had been difficult since March, when “COVID” happened and Ireland went into lockdown, eventually forcing the postponement of General Synod 2020. “We wouldn’t be human if we didn’t become discouraged at times,” Bishop Andrew said, “after all, where are we to find grounds for hope in this pandemic?

“Well, towards the beginning of lockdown, the Irish Times published a letter entitled ‘Something to look forward to’. The letter read:

“’Sir, – My grandson rang to see how I was getting on with being cocooned. To cheer me up, he said, ‘Think of the lovely butterfly you will be when the cocooning time is over.’ What a picture of colour and freedom and joy. It is something that is worth waiting for. – Yours, etc. Monica Gray, Cabinteely, Dublin 18.’

“Many of you might struggle to see ‘a picture of colour and freedom and joy’, as we travel through our new reality of a world battling to contain COVID,” Bishop Andrew said, “And yet…..

“Think of how the RCB adjusted to its new circumstances this year – committee meetings moving online; people working from home; staff working with bishops to prepare the ‘In-Church Worship’ protocols; developing guidance in relation to managing property during COVID; guidance in relation to parish finances; and offering loans to cathedrals that had suffered a significant loss of tourist income. The provision of information and financial support was consistent with what we expect from the RCB, as it lives its mission, as noted in the Book of Reports: “to inform, to support and to manage resources for the advancement of the mission and ministry of the Church of Ireland.”

“The RCB may be doing things differently, but its mission remains the same. And we’re enormously grateful to its committees and staff for helping us through these difficult times.

“Think of the way our clergy and parishioners responded to the pandemic with large numbers attending church online; parishes offering drive-in services; and clergy reaching out to maintain community and fellowship. Some things may be changing, but some things never change. We have been innovating to serve, and yet we hold onto that which is good.” (1 Thessalonians 5:21)

“We keep reminding ourselves in Derry and Raphoe that we are people of faith, not of fear. There are grounds for hope. The RCB and its staff are evidence of that. Our clergy, our select vestries and our parishioners are evidence of that. The gospel that we preach is being preached in new ways – hopefully to new listeners – but the message remains the same: the message of hope in the person and promises of Jesus.

“Isaiah reminds us: ’So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed for I am your God.’” (Isaiah 41:10)

 

Bishop Andrew’s speech in full

I don’t know how many of you saw this but last week, Oxford Languages – the publishers of the Oxford English Dictionary – estimated that use of the word ‘pandemic’ increased by more than 57,000 percent this year.

Such has been the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on our lives that the publishers abandoned their usual quest for a ‘Word of the Year’ for 2020 and opted instead for a series of what they called “words of an unprecedented year”.

You could probably guess most of them: Covid-19, coronavirus, lockdown, circuit-breaker, support bubble, keyworker.

Well, ‘unprecedented’ is certainly what 2020 has been – or, at least, unprecedented in living memory. The coronavirus has left its mark on our language and its mark on our lives. But words don’t convey the full horror. Numbers tell us far more than words.

In 1972 – the worst year of the Troubles – almost 500 people lost their lives to violence (an almost unimaginable death toll) – but already this year, there have been twice as many deaths – around 1,000 – from coronavirus in Northern Ireland, and another 2,000 in the Republic of Ireland.

Think about that: three thousand lives lost on this small island. 2020 has certainly been unprecedented. And 2019 seems like such a distant memory.

2019 was a good year. The RCB built on the strong foundations that had been laid for supporting parishes and dioceses. It busied itself making new resources available on the ‘Parish Resources’ section of the Church of Ireland website to deliver training and develop expertise. There was a particular focus on the development of safeguarding policy, further development of data protection policy, and the RCB Library offered online presentations, lectures and exhibitions of interest beyond our church.

2019 was also a year of significant change for our Church. It was to be the last year in which Archbishop Richard Clarke would chair the RB. And with your permission, chair, I’d like to acknowledge with deep gratitude his leadership, guidance and friendship during my years of ministry.

There were staff changes, too, with the retirement of Trevor Stacey after many years of faithful service as Head of Property & Trusts; and there were appointments in safeguarding, property and legal – all aimed at extending the services offered by the RCB.

Things were going swimmingly as we moved into 2020. We were looking forward to the General Synod in Croke Park until suddenly, in March this year, COVID happened.

There’s no hiding the fact that things have been difficult ever since. We wouldn’t be human if we didn’t become discouraged at times, after all, where are we to find grounds for hope in this pandemic?

Well, towards the beginning of lockdown, the Irish Times published a letter entitled ‘Something to look forward to’. The letter read:

“Sir, – My grandson rang to see how I was getting on with being cocooned. To cheer me up, he said, ‘Think of the lovely butterfly you will be when the cocooning time is over.’ What a picture of colour and freedom and joy. It is something that is worth waiting for. – Yours, etc. Monica Gray, Cabinteely, Dublin 18.”

Many of you might struggle to see ‘a picture of colour and freedom and joy’, as we travel through our new reality of a world battling to contain COVID.

And yet…..

Think of how the RCB adjusted to its new circumstances this year: committee meetings moving online; people working from home; staff working with bishops to prepare the ‘In-Church Worship’ protocols; developing guidelines in relation to managing property during COVID; guidance in relation to parish finances; and offering loans to cathedrals that had suffered significant loss of tourist income. The provision of information and financial support was consistent with what we expect from the RCB, as it lives its mission, as noted in the Book of Reports: “to inform, to support and to manage resources for the advancement of the mission and ministry of the Church of Ireland.”

The RCB may be doing things differently, but its mission remains the same. And we’re enormously grateful to its committees and staff for helping us through these difficult times.

Think of the way our clergy and parishioners responded to the pandemic with large numbers attending church online; parishes offering drive-in services; and clergy reaching out to maintain community and fellowship. Some things may be changing, but some things never change. We have been innovating to serve, and yet hold onto that which is good (1 Thessalonians 5:21).

We keep reminding ourselves in Derry and Raphoe that we are people of faith, not of fear. There are grounds for hope. The RCB and its staff are evidence of that. Our clergy, our select vestries and our parishioners are evidence of that. The gospel that we preach is being preached in new ways – hopefully to new listeners – but the message remains the same: the message of hope in the person and promises of Jesus.

Isaiah reminds us: “So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed for I am your God.” (Isaiah 41:10)

Archbishop, it is my pleasure to second the report of the Representative Church Body.