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'We're on the frontline': NI pastor keeps church open despite leaders of main denominations suspending religious gatherings

by Chantalle Edmunds

A pastor in Belfast's keeping his church doors open even though leaders of the main denominations in Northern Ireland have suspended communal religious worship until next month.

The decision to stop public worship was taken by leaders of the Catholic, Church of Ireland, Presbyterian and Methodist congregations on Friday due to an "alarming" rise in Covid-19 infections.

Reverend Paul Burns from Kings Christian Fellowship Church told Premier that the church is on the frontline when it comes to mental health and other concerns during the pandemic.

"In response to the government, we're basically saying we have voluntarily decided that it is the best option for us, to stay open inside the communities and continue to be what we have been doing, to work with those mental health issues. 

"I myself, I have to take blood pressure tablets, I've suffered from chronic asthma since I was a child. So I have to be very careful myself. I still put myself out there and doing the work of God… I believe that if we follow inside the church, we follow the regulations, I myself and other smaller churches in the community of desired citizens have precautions in place, people come in and tell me 'Paul, keep the church open.'"

"Basically, we are the frontline to help those with mental health problems. I'm not against what the government is saying, what I'm saying to the government is work with the church, and we can work together to make sure we can stabilize everything to get through this, because that's what the church is, there for, to work for the people and help the people, we have to take them through and to give them hope and together life."

Faith leaders of the main denominations met Stormont's chief medical officer Dr Michael McBride and chief scientific adviser Professor Ian Young on Thursday to discuss the pandemic.

Northern Ireland is entering full lockdown again in an effort to stem the rapid rise of coronavirus spread.

On Thursday afternoon the Northern Ireland Executive’s Faith Leaders' Forum was convened by Stormont junior ministers, Gordon Lyons and Declan Kearney, to discuss the emergency. 

Rev Trevor Gribben, representing Presbyterians, said: "It is of course regrettable and disappointing that over these next few weeks our congregations will no longer be physically gathering for worship.

"However, because of the alarming rise of Covid-19 infections in the community, this is the right decision to take, both for the safety and protection of people and also to contribute to the overall reduction of inter-person contact in line with the Government's 'stay at home' message."

Private prayer can continue.

Ireland's Catholic primate Archbishop Eamon Martin and other bishops said: "We make this decision reluctantly, conscious that not being able to gather for public worship can cause pain for all the faithful, but in the hope that this limited period of sacrifice will be for the protection of life and health and for the greater good of all.

"We once more ask for prayers for the sick, the bereaved and all those whose livelihoods have been particularly impacted by the pandemic."

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