Churchgoers warned not to criticise those not wearing masks during services

Ireland’s four main church leaders issue the call as they endorse wearing of face coverings

People who have trouble breathing, have special needs, or are somehow incapacitated will be exempt from wearing a mask at church services from Sunday, August 30th, as are all children under 13.

The exemption was confirmed by Ireland’s four main church leaders in a statement on Wednesday, which called on people to wear face coverings at all religious services from the last Sunday of this month, or sooner if possible.

The leaders also pointed out that people accompanying someone who relies on lip reading to communicate will be exempted, as are those for whom wearing a mask causes severe distress.

It was acknowledged that wearing a mask may not be appropriate for priests, ministers or deacons leading services, but the statement added that they “should at all times continue to maintain at least 2m physical distancing from one another, and 4m physical distancing from the front row of the congregation”.

Due to the exemptions from mask-wearing, the church leaders appealed to people attending services to refrain from criticising or judging others in attendance who may not be wearing a face covering.

Encouraging people to wear masks while in all church buildings during the Covid-19 pandemic, Catholic Bishop of Ferns Denis Brennan commented that "since March the virus has put the life of the church under great stress".

He expressed his deep gratitude to parish councils and church stewards “for their patience and perseverance, as well as for their selfless overseeing of the safe return to public Masses and services” during the pandemic.

“I strongly recommend the wearing of face coverings as public Masses and services continue, in addition to the continuation of social distancing and sanitising in all of our diocesan churches and buildings,” he said.

The bishop also asked people “to remember in your prayers those who have been affected by the virus and our frontline workers, including priests”.

‘Not mandatory’

In the statement on Wednesday, the four church leaders, Catholic Primate of All Ireland and Archbishop of Armagh Eamon Martin, Church of Ireland Primate of All Ireland and Archbishop of Armagh John McDowell, Presbyterian Moderator Rev Dr David Bruce and Methodist president Rev Dr Tom McKnight noted how governments in both jurisdictions on the island "have not formally made mandatory the wearing of face coverings at services of worship".

They felt this was because “as churches we are committed to maintaining 2m physical distancing between household groups and strict adherence to all government guidance on hand hygiene, cleaning, ventilation etc”.

They, however, believed it “remains our responsibility to ensure that our services of worship are safe places for all who join with us”. They felt therefore that “one way in which we can evidence protection for the most vulnerable, support for our health workers, and practical love for our neighbours” was by wearing masks at church services.

Following recent consultations with health authorities, they had joined “Christian church leaders all over this island in formally recommending and encouraging the use of face coverings at all services of worship, along with the ongoing maintenance of 2m physical distancing, from Sunday, August 30th, 2020, and earlier if practicable”.

Patsy McGarry

Patsy McGarry

Patsy McGarry is Religious Affairs Correspondent of The Irish Times