Statement from Rt Rev’d Andrew Forster, Bishop of Derry and Raphoe, on the COVID-19 outbreak

The COVID-19 (Coronavirus) pandemic poses an unprecedented risk to the lives and wellbeing of people all around the world, and requires specific responses from all walks of life – the Churches included.

The Coronavirus outbreak will have severe implications right across our United Dioceses of Derry and Raphoe: older people; those with underlying health conditions; health service workers; carers; and ministers – lay and ordained.

I am mindful of the fact that at a time of such grave concern on a global scale, there is a need for Churches to be there for people. We must also act responsibly.

As your Bishop, I believe our response should be pastoral, protective and prayerful.

I commend to you the following prayer which has been written by the Archbishop of Dublin, Most Rev’d Dr Michael Jackson.

A Prayer in the Time of the Coronavirus

Almighty and All–loving God,
Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
we pray to you through Christ the Healer
for those who suffer from the Coronavirus Covid–19
in Ireland and across the world.
We pray too for all who reach out to those who mourn the loss
of each and every person who has died as a result of contracting the disease.
Give wisdom to policymakers,
skill to healthcare professionals and researchers,
comfort to everyone in distress
and a sense of calm to us all in these days of uncertainty and distress.
This we ask in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord
who showed compassion to the outcast,
acceptance to the rejected
and love to those to whom no love was shown.

The Coronavirus outbreak has enormous implications for life and worship in our parishes, and I pray that people will be understanding.

There are things that all of us can do in this situation.

I would ask our parishioners to support the vulnerable and those who are self-isolating, and to do so in a way consistent with public health advice.

Those who feel unwell or suspect they are exhibiting symptoms of the COVID-19 virus should self-isolate in line with the guidance from both governments. This means staying away from church. Alternative pastoral support can be arranged.

For the moment, I do not intend to suspend Sunday services in our churches. However, as well as following Church and state guidelines, there are sensible and practical things that parishes and clergy can and should do. These include:

The use of retiring offerings instead of passing collection plates

Standing to receive Communion so as to stop potential transmission from touching the communion rail

Observe social distancing (by sitting at least 2 metres apart in church)

No gathering for refreshments before or after Services

In the current climate it will be difficult for the whole parish family to take part in significant celebratory occasions such as Confirmation services. As a Diocese we have no desire to exclude the most vulnerable and the most isolated from such joyful occasions. Therefore, in line with government guidelines in the Diocese of Raphoe, celebrations of Confirmation are suspended until further notice. In the Diocese of Derry, where parishes choose to postpone such celebrations until a more opportune time, we will facilitate that.

Where weddings and baptisms go ahead, services should be consistent with the appropriate governmental advice.

Funerals are particularly sensitive. Clergy will be available to conduct services and provide pastoral support to the bereaved, but once again this will be done in a manner consistent with the most up-to-date health advice for the parish concerned.

Pastoral visits – and especially home communions – are immensely important to those believers who, for whatever reason, are unable to get to church. These visits will continue at the discretion of clergy and in consultation with the individuals concerned and their families, and will be consistent with the appropriate health guidance. Visits to hospitals, hospices, nursing and residential homes should also follow guidance.

I would ask parishioners to support and pray for those who lead services. I would appeal to clergy who find themselves in vulnerable categories to contact their Rural Deans, either of the Archdeacons or myself. We may well find ourselves having to introduce contingency measures in areas where numbers of ministers become depleted.

I implore you to pray for the scientists who are searching for a vaccine for the COVID-19 virus and for policymakers who are working to keep us all safe.

This is a fast-moving situation and there will be ongoing communication from the Diocese. I again encourage all worshippers and clergy to familiarise themselves with the advisory guidelines issued by the Church of Ireland regarding the novel Coronavirus (Covid–19). They should also be aware of the latest advices given by the British and Irish governments for their respective jurisdictions.

Finally, let us encourage each other with these words from Verse One of the 46th Psalm:

“God is our refuge and strength,
an ever-present help in trouble.”

+ Andrew Derry and Raphoe