Proverbs 27v1 reads, "Do not boast about tomorrow, for you do not know what a day may bring forth." The past six months have underlined the truth of these words. The measures introduced to stop the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus meant that all our congregational organisations and activities, and our Sunday gatherings, came to a sudden stop in the middle of March past. The lockdown affected much more than churches. Schools closed, workers were furloughed, traffic dwindled, hospitals prepared for the worst. But then the peak passed and the Northern Ireland Executive began to implement its step-by-step plan for the easing of the restrictions.
At the end of June the Executive announced that churches could gather in their meetinghouses, providing "social distancing" was observed. In light of this Donacloney Kirk Session met in early July and decided that morning services would recommence on Sunday 6th September - earlier if possible, later if need be. The congregational committee met on Tuesday 28th July and agreed a plan to prepare for the reopening of the church building. We still do not know what a day may bring forth but, God willing, morning services will resume in Donacloney Presbyterian Church on Sunday 6th September at 11.30am.
In anticipation of the easing of lockdown, the Presbyterian Church in Ireland prepared advice, guidelines and checklists for its congregations. The advice includes the following:
• If you have been displaying any of the symptoms of COVID-19, or have been in close contact with anyone displaying such symptoms, do not attend any church activities or organisations.
• Take primary responsibility for your own health and wellbeing by carefully considering the level of risk involved in coming to any gathering of people at church.
• Do not feel under any pressure to be present if you are uncomfortable about any aspect of attending.
This advice is common-sense and should be borne in mind. Please do not feel under pressure to be present when Donacloney Presbyterian Church gathers this Sunday. A message from the Bible will still be posted to our congregational website and Facebook page and the Moderator of the General Assembly will continue to present an on-line service for the whole church each week. Nevertheless, we do look forward to seeing our church building open again, and to meeting with one another to offer our praise to God, to pray and to be refreshed in the Gospel.
With the morning service restarting, we might be inclined to say that we are "getting back to normal." For the next number of Sundays, however, our time together in the meetinghouse will be very different to our norm!
You may expect three noticeable differences to our Sunday morning gathering. First, you may not find a seat! To comply with social distancing, the maximum number that the meetinghouse can accommodate is 100. A number of pews - most of them in the side aisles downstairs - have been designated for family "bubbles." Other seats have been marked for individuals or for two people from the one household, and many of the pews have been roped off as out of use. It will be helpful if you could arrive in good time before the service, so that you can be directed towards an appropriate seat; it is more than likely that you will be directed towards what is not your normal seat. This is an occasion for us as a church family to put into practice Philippians 2v4 - "Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others."
That verse is relevant also in connection with a second difference to our Sunday morning gatherings. If you are over the age of 13, and are not exempt, please wear a face covering in the church building. Although church buildings are not included in the list of places where the wearing of a face mask is mandatory, the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, along with a number of other churches, recommends and encourages their use in all gatherings. This, together with social distancing and the use of hand sanitisers on entering the meetinghouse, are ways in which we may show our care and concern for one another while the COVID-19 coronavirus is still prevalent. And, just in case we need to "track and trace," we will keep a record of who is present at the service.
The third noticeable difference will be in the order of service. For the next while, we will sing less, there will be an "all-age address" instead of children's address and sermon and there will be no children's church. Overall the service will last for about 45 minutes. The creche room will be available for parents with babies and very young children, but all the toys have been removed. No offerings will be collected through the service; there will be an opportunity to make gifts and offerings as you leave.
Although it will not be back to normal, it will be good to meet together once more before our God. He is the One who does know what each day will bring forth. As the hymn-writer put it, the Lord Jesus Christ is "Thou who changest not" to Whom we pray, "Abide with me" When we gather, we will give thanks that He has been with us, and is with us always, to the very end of the age. As things continue to develop in this strangest of years, remember that although everything has changed, nothing has changed. Still Jesus Christ is Lord.