Dear Friends of CFO
It is stating the obvious that we are living through extraordinary days, unprecedented in all our lifetimes. It is clearly a time for much prayer, and for working out in our own situations the paradoxical truth that we best look after each other by meticulously practicing the concept of social distancing. Indeed living out that very concept has become a real civic duty for us all. Yet this must never obscure our determination, often in imaginative and novel ways, to demonstrate practical care for those who may feel particularly vulnerable or lonely in this situation.
The unprecedented suspension of normal public worship is a huge deprivation in terms of seeking weekly nourishment for our faith, and doing so in the visible presence of others. Fellowship and hospitality are concepts at the heart of Christian experience, and our present privations in these areas are becoming a true Lenten wilderness experience, where under God we are thrown back on our own inner spiritual resources. Losing the very sociability of normal worship is very painful for us. We can but hope that the liturgical phrase often used in this season – ‘in the wilderness we find your strength’ may be true for us as never before.
Some may wonder about my decision, painfully made, to suspend all normal public worship for the present. The Government after all mentioned cancelling indoor gatherings of over 100 people, and our congregations tend to be rather smaller in most places. BUT, and here I received some wise counsel from others, it is perhaps wise in present circumstances to regard the tolerance of gatherings of up to a hundred persons as being for exceptional and specific purposes ( notably funerals) as opposed to for regular weekly services. Furthermore, maintaining ‘normal’ worship would put undue pressure on older and more vulnerable people who are the backbone of many congregations, and indeed many of those who actually and kindly lead our services would have to be seen as in the vulnerable category as well. All around us our Roman Catholic friends are cancelling public masses, and it would seem to me strange for us to be trying to go on normally simply because we are smaller. Having said all this, matters are in a constant state of flux and all guidelines from me and other bishops will be frequently reviewed as this situation becomes ever more demanding .
So how do we maintain our life of prayer and spiritual solidarity in the midst of it all – especially at a time when prayer is so vital …. For the anxious and suffering, for healthcare workers and medical researchers, for those who must make difficult decisions in public health and in government. I offer but a few suggestions
– it is hoped that, particularly on Sundays but on other days too, church buildings would be very
visibly ‘open’ to be used as places of prayer and peace. Subject to good practice surrounding social distancing and hygiene, resources for prayer might be provided, whether on paper or on screens, reflective music played, etc. And buildings which welcome people in this way should if possible be heated. – People should be encouraged to use the worship opportunities provided by national and local broadcasters. On Sunday March 15 for example RTE televise at 1110 a pre recorded bilingual Church of Ireland Eucharist suitable for St Patrick’s tide – Many parish clergy will use social media as a means of sharing short acts of worship, reflection and prayer amongst parishioners. This is to be encouraged and our Diocesan Communications Officer Margaret Hawkins is striving to form an overview of initiatives in this area – From next weekend and for as long as this situation continues, I intend to offer personally via YouTube and our own diocesan online platforms a short time of reflection and prayer for each Sunday that may be of some modest value around the diocese – Parishioners who seek individual ministry of care and prayer must never hesitate to contact their local clergy. In the midst of prevailing circumstances, appropriate ways will always be found to help people realise that they are being prayed for and cared for, that they are never on their own and that definite pastoral need will never be left unaddressed.
No doubt further reflections and ideas will be offered as the situation unfolds. Meanwhile we can but strive to mull over those familiar words which are at the heart of our faith –
‘in nothing be anxious, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God which passes all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus’. ( Philippians 4.6,7)