The Church of Ireland, Presbyterian, Roman Catholic and Methodist churches across Northern Ireland have said they hope to be back in their buildings by Good Friday.
In a statement, the Church of Ireland bishops said they would be continuing to suspend in-person services until at least Thursday, 1st April, and would be reviewing the situation immediately following the Stormont Executive’s review on Thursday, 18th March.
Northern Ireland has been under lockdown restrictions since 26th December, with most churches agreeing to close from 7th January.
The review will discuss the lifting of restrictions with the anticipation that worshippers will be able to return in-person, with all the Covid-secure precautions in place, by Good Friday, 2nd April.
The most recent bishops' letter, which was sent with the approval of Archbishop John McDowell (pictured) and bishops David McClay, Andrew Forster and George Davison, reads: “Following the Northern Ireland Executive’s decision to extend the current Covid–19 restrictions to Thursday 11th April, church representatives met with ministers, health minister and the chief medical officer.
“At that meeting the chief medical officer stressed that it would make a significant difference and be of huge benefit to public health and safety, if churches were willing to continue, for the time being, not to gather in–person for services and other meetings.
“In the light of the executive’s extension of current restrictions, and on the basis of the continued and unequivocal public health message that people should continue to stay at home, we have agreed that all in–person Sunday gatherings for worship, along with all other in–person church gatherings, should remain voluntarily suspended for the time being in all church of Ireland parishes in Northern Ireland until Thursday 1st April, with the exception of weddings, funerals, arrangements for recording and/or live–streaming, drive– in services and private prayer (as permitted by regulations).
“We have also agreed to further assess the situation immediately after the next Northern Ireland Executive review of current lock-down provisions on Thursday 18th March, in the cautious anticipation that, from Friday, 2nd April (Good Friday) onwards, our parishioners in Northern Ireland could return to in–person gatherings for worship, with all necessary precautions and mitigations in place.
"This recognises the importance of Easter, the significance of which was acknowledged by the health minister and chief medical officer at their most recent meeting with church representatives."
The Presbyterian, Roman Catholic, and Methodist churches have all expressed support for the plan. The denominations have worked in unison throughout the Covid-19 pandemic to help protect their congregations from the virus.