19 May 2020
Pandemic cancels Saint Patrick’s Day in
Ireland and postpones bishops’ moves
This has been an Easter like none other for the churches in Ireland, including the Church of Ireland, the member church of the Anglican Communion. Churches have been closed, church-run schools remain closed, funerals have been severely restricted, baptisms and weddings have been delayed or postponed, and the bells, choirs and organs are silent.
The first warning that this was going to be a silent Easter came with the decision to cancel all church and public celebrations of Saint Patrick’s Day (17 March), a national day celebrated by all communities on a divided island.
Saint Patrick’s Day parades in cities, towns and villages across the island, and the national ecumenical service in Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin, the capital of the Republic of Ireland, was cancelled just a few days before they were due to take place. At Saint Patrick’s grave in the churchyard at Downpatrick Cathedral, a small service was conducted by Bishop David McClay of Down Dromore, with only a minimal attendance.
The Church of Ireland is marking the 150th anniversary of its disestablishment in 1869-1871, but the church traces its roots back to Saint Patrick’s mission in the fifth century. The Church of Ireland is one church, but its members live in two distinct political jurisdictions. The most recent census figures show 126,000 people in the Republic of Ireland are affiliated to the Church of Ireland, and almost 250,000 people in Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom.
The church has 12 dioceses, 12 bishops, 448 parish units, 1,078 places of worship, and around 500 active clergy. The Archbishops of Armagh is the Primate of All-Ireland and the Archbishop of Dublin is the Primate of Ireland.
A quarter of Church of Ireland members in the Republic live in the capital city, Dublin, and its surrounding area, and Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin, is the National Cathedral.
The Church of Ireland is unique in the islands of Britain and Ireland: while the Church of England, the Church in Wales and the Scottish Episcopal Church work within clearly-defined political units in the United Kingdom, the Church of Ireland works across two jurisdictions – the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland; four of the 12 dioceses are cross-border dioceses, with many cross-border parishes.
Until the Covid-19 pandemic began to impact life on both sides of the border, the main concern throughout Ireland was the impact of ‘Brexit’ as the United Kingdom leaves the European Union, while the Republic of Ireland remains deeply committed to EU membership.
The Dublin government’s firm approach to the pandemic has been praised as a model throughout Europe, while the power-sharing executive in Belfast has been following a path taken by Boris Johnson’s government in London that has been seen as risk-taking.
Many parishes and dioceses are now making use of online services and resources, bringing their services to parishioners through Facebook, Zoom and other social media platforms, and posting their sermons online.
The Bishop of Clogher, Bishop John McDowell, was recently elected Archbishop of Armagh. He is due to be translated to Armagh on 28 April, but his enthronement in Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Armagh, has been delayed. Similarly, the consecration on 1 May of Archdeacon George Davison as Bishop of Connor – a diocese that includes much of Belfast – has been postponed.
The General Synod – the ‘parliament’ of the Church – meets annually, and includes all 12 bishops, and 432 lay members and 216 clerical members. However, this year’s General Synod, on 7-9 May in Dublin, has been cancelled and any possible rescheduling will be guided by public health advice.
Easter vestries, the annual meetings of parishes, and diocesan synods have been cancelled, and church-run schools have been closed. The Presbyterian Church has also cancelled its General Assembly and the Methodist Church has called off its annual conference, both due to take place in June.
The annual Chrism Eucharist on Maundy Thursday was cancelled in most dioceses, although Bishop Paul Colton of Cork recorded the service in his chapel, inviting remote participation from around his diocese.
The April editions of both the Church of Ireland Gazette, the church’s national magazine, and the Church Review, the Dublin diocesan magazine, were made available free online. But many church magazines have been hit by printers’ working restrictions and are not publishing in May.
During the pandemic, a page collating resources in the Church of Ireland is updated regularly with guidance documents: www.ireland.anglican.org/COVID–19
The leaders of the four main Churches – the Church of Ireland, Methodist Church, Roman Catholic Church, Presbyterian Church and the Irish Council of Churches – continue to hold weekly video conferences, and have expressed their deep appreciation and thanks for people working on the frontline during the pandemic, commending them for ‘their work, courage and compassion.’
They hope that when the pandemic abates, ‘we will also have a renewed and strengthened sense of community on this island and a new understanding and deeper appreciation of one another.’
But on social media forums, clergy are already asking questions about the future financing of parishes and dioceses.
(Revd Canon Professor) Patrick Comerford is a priest in the Diocese of Limerick and blogs at www.patrickcomerford.com
This feature was published in the Summer 2020 edition of ‘The Anglican Digest’ (Vol 62, No 2), pp 53-56. The ‘Anglican Digest’ is published quarterly in Eureka Springs, Arizona, by the Society for Promoting and Encouraging Arts and Knowledge of the Church, editor the Revd Frederick Robinson, assistant editor the Right Revd Anthony FM Clavier.