Free Presbyterian Church in U-turn over public services during coronavirus crisis
The church, which has dozens of congregations across the country, said at the weekend that while many people believed religious services fell under the UK government’s advice for people to avoid social gatherings, its own church interests committee was “not of that view,” arguing that the act of public worship is a “divine institution” and “not a mere social activity.”
It also said that the government’s statements around “mass gatherings” did not apply, given that “the masses no longer assemble to worship God in spirit and truth.”
But hours after The Scotsman revealed its controversial guidelines, it has now issued revised guidance in which it “strongly urges” ministers to close church buildings for a temporary period.
In its initial three page briefing, posted on its website on Saturday and circulated around its congregations, the Free Presbyterian Church stressed that the use of its church buildings had “not been forbidden” by Prime Minister Boris Johnson
“When we compare the size of many of our buildings with the numbers meeting in them, the crowded situation of a mass gathering does not occur in many of our congregations,” it reasoned.
While it said “things may change” in the near future, the church said worship could continue as long as the “utmost care” was taken.
Its own advice included spreading out seating for congregations so that at least one empty pew separates each occupied one, and asking people to wash their hands, and leave services in single file “a metre or two apart.”
It said the question of who should attend services was “very difficult,” but controversially, it did not explicitly tell those over 70 or with underlying health conditions not to come to church.
However, the new guidance stresses that everyone should stay at home unless they have an essential reason to do otherwise.
The church said the new advice took account of “the strengthened language” of the UK and Scottish governments.
The single page statement states: “The church interests committee recognises that the scriptural sphere in which governments operate includes such lawful endeavours to safeguard the nation’s health.
“Therefore, whilst it does not wish to interfere with the rights of biblical church government, the committee strongly urges ministers and church courts to close church buildings for a temporary period, and reiterates to all the people of the church the government advice to ‘stay at home’ except for essential reasons.
“While it is a biblical obligation ordinarily to maintain and attend public worship, these are not ordinary times.”
Meanwhile, the minister of Ness Free Church on Lewis, part of the Free Church of Scotland (Continuing) told his congregation on Sunday evening that he expected to proceed with his services as normal.
The Rev Greg MacDonald said a presbytery meeting on Tuesday would “discuss further our response to the Covid 19 crisis” and that he hoped to post an update online.
However, he added: “But failing that, we do expect to proceed with our services.”
They include a prayer reading scheduled for Wednesday evening and two services this Sunday, which Mr MacDonald said would reflect the growing crisis. The church is also uploading its services to its YouTube channel.
He asked people to make monthly direct debits or standing orders to show support to the church amid any possible decline in attendance at its services.
The main website of the Free Church of Scotland (Continuing) has no advice recommending people stay away from services, but it includes a list of those which are broadcast online.
“During the coronavirus outbreak there will be people in our congregations and in other churches who may not be able to attend public worship,” it observes.
Such a stance is at odds with those taken by other faith groups during the pandemic.
The Church of Scotland has cancelled all services of worship, moving instead to online services where possible, although some of its buildings are being allowed to remain open for prayer on the proviso that only a few people are present at any one tie, and kept well apart from one another.
The Free Church of Scotland issued advice last week urging all its congregations to suspend all Sunday services and midweek activities, including prayer meetings, home groups, and youth groups, until further notice
The Catholic Church in Scotland has also suspended public masses due to the coronavirus pandemic.
It comes as First Minister Nicola Sturgeon warned that churchgoers would be at risk if they continued to attend public services.
Speaking at the Scottish Government’s daily coronavirus briefing, she said: “I’ve got huge respect for people’s faith and I’m not criticising that in any way, but you are at risk.if you are surrounded by people in a church just as you are at risk if you are surrounded by people in another crowded place.”