It is a truism rarely acknowledged that whereas Catholics don’t sing, Protestants can hardly be stopped when it comes to worship.
At least, that was until public health restrictions put a halt to congregational hymns.
While Protestants in Northern Ireland can sing during worship – as long as masks are used and people adopt "reduced level of loudness" – it remains prohibited in the Republic.
Updated HSE guidance on religious services this week says: “Members of the congregation should avoid singing, shouting, chanting and raising of voices, as this may increase the risk of airborne transmission of the virus; if possible, encourage the use of microphones or similar equipment to minimise voice volume.”
It adds: “It is important that the congregation is made aware that they should not sing along with the singers or other instrumental music.”
Small choir numbers, however, may sing if two metres apart and four metres from the non-singing congregation.
In the great space that is St Patrick's Cathedral in Dublin, upwards of eight choristers may sing whereas, for instance, at the smaller St Philip and St James's church in Booterstown, that number is four.
Church of Ireland Archbishop of Dublin Michael Jackson has circulated a message to parishes informing them of this advice, following queries.
Dean of St Patrick's William Morton said that, throughout the pandemic, the cathedral had held strictly to the varying guidelines agreed by Government and with no singing when congregations were allowed.
To help ease the loss being felt by worshippers as a result it had, for instance, broadcast archival recordings of Evensong via webcam. The dean hoped the restriction on singing will be lifted for such events as St Patrick's popular Christmas Eve Service of Nine Lessons and Carols.
“Singing is very much part of the tradition,” he said, and “people are becoming frustrated” with the current situation, while respecting what the Government is trying to do.
“But in recent pronouncements by the Taoiseach and the Minister for the Arts and Culture there had been no mention of singing,” he said. “They have spoken about increased numbers at religious services, Confirmations, Communions, but nothing about singing.”
Canon Gillian Wharton, rector of Booterstown and Mount Merrion parishes in Dublin, hoped that after October 22nd – the date identified by the Government for a further easing of societal restrictions – singing at services would be allowed.
“We really appreciate what the Government is trying to do and we have to be patient,” she said, but members of her congregation were “feeling frustrated”.
The parish had no carol service last Christmas either, even after Wharton contacted the Taoiseach’s office and the Department of Arts and Culture to propose holding a carol service outside. She was told “no outside gatherings were allowed”.
For those longing for a return to song, it may be too early for All Things Bright and Beautiful by Dubliner Cecil Frances Alexander, but another hymn by the composer seems apt: There Is a Green Hill Far Away.