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BELFAST, Northern Ireland (ChurchMilitant.com) - Catholic bishops of Northern Ireland have agreed to close churches for Mass even though the government has made it "voluntary" and "not mandatory" to cancel corporate worship.
"As many people as possible stay at home for the sake of health, life and the Common Good," bishops said in a statement Thursday, insisting that "the Eucharist and other liturgies should take place without the physical presence of the faithful" from Jan. 7–Feb. 6.
"The clear message from health officials is that this situation is going to worsen significantly over the coming weeks," the five N. Ireland prelates noted, urging parishes to move their services online.
The bishops expressed concern over "extremely high level of transmission of the COVID-19 virus; the continuing escalation of numbers in hospital and intensive care; the number of associated deaths; and the increasingly unsustainable pressure on our healthcare staff."
Medical physicist Christine Padgham from neighboring Scotland warned Saturday that the hysteria was being hyped-up by "endless propaganda" from the government and media. Church Militant reported Friday that the Scottish government had criminalized public worship.
"There has been no rigorous analysis of the virological results of lockdown at all, much less the societal effects. We haven't asked what effects this will have on our immunity either. Are we storing up huge health problems for next year and the years beyond?" she asked.
"Put simply, there is no evidence that lockdown works to prevent the spread of a virus," Padgham emphasized, adding her voice to over 39,545 medical practitioners and 13,084 medical and public health scientists who have signed the Great Barrington Declaration.
In contrast to the Irish bishops, Cdl. Vincent Nichols, head of the Bishops' Conference of England and Wales, concluded "there is no evidence that churches are places where infection is spreading."
Bishop John Sherrington of Westminster observed that churches were "making a significant contribution to the personal resilience and inner strength of people which is much needed at this time" and churches in England would remain open.
The government's decision to allow churches the freedom to decide whether or not they should be open for gathered worship, follows a legal challenge by Christian Concern (CC) into the English and Welsh government's previous decisions to close churches.
"There can be no doubt that the legal challenge and pursuit of a judicial review by 122 [mostly evangelical and Pentecostal] church leaders has helped the government understand the crucial importance of church independence," a CC statement said.
"Never before in our history have our churches been forced to close — not during wars, plagues or famines," it added.
However, Anglican bishop of London Sarah Mullally suggested closing churches, tweeting "the situation is serious in @dioceseoflondon."
But London Assembly member David Kurten told Church Militant that "churches are vital as a place for people to go to in the best of times, but even more so in a time of uncertainty and fabricated confusion such as now."
"Churches stayed open even during the blitz. It is quite wrong to close them now, and especially unbelievable that the bishop of London has called for them to be closed," stressed Kurten, a committed Christian and a candidate for the forthcoming mayoral election.
"She's following Sadiq Khan here, mayor of London," Catholic columnist Melanie McDonagh wrote in The Spectator.
"It's one thing for a politician to want to be seen to be closing things down; quite another for a senior member of the Anglican hierarchy," McDonagh remarked. "What she doesn't do, and neither does the mayor, is provide evidence for the desirability of church closures."
Meanwhile, Irish bishops welcomed a similar move by Anglicans, Presbyterians, Methodists and other denominations to ban public worship "in response to the unequivocal message from public health authorities that as many people as possible stay at home at this time."
A Baptist pastor told Church Militant he was shocked that the most fundamentalist churches in N. Ireland had capitulated to the "new totalitarian health dictatorship."
The pastor cited the example of Belfast's Whitewell Metropolitan Tabernacle — a church that gained fame after its previous pastor James McConnell said in 2015 he was ready to go to prison to defend his right to free speech.
McConnell was tried for describing Islam as "heathen" and "satanic" in a sermon but found not guilty as his comments were not deemed to be "grossly" offensive under the law.
McConnell's church, now under Pastor David Purse, explained he "was part of a zoom meeting of church leaders and representatives with Stormont MLA's along with the chief medical officer Michael McBride and the chief scientific officer Ian Young."
"They admitted we are now paying the price for the relaxation of the rules over Christmas and subsequently we are at a critical phase in the pandemic with a hospital occupancy of 102% and 1 in 40 people in the province currently with the virus," Purse revealed.
The pastor said the government "recommended" that "church services go online only, assuring us that if that was agreed it would help bring a significant public health benefit and would undoubtedly reduce infections, hospital admissions and ultimately save lives."
Catholic bishops and Protestant church leaders at the meeting did not say if they had asked the government for evidence of the alleged spike in infections, neither did they question the reliability and necessity of testing healthy people for the virus, nor did they ask for proof of the efficacy of the lockdown policy.
Church Militant contacted the Irish Bishops' Conference asking if the bishops had considered the case made by reputed epidemiologists, virologists, immunologists and doctors against the lockdown and the evidence provided in the Great Barrington Declaration.
"Have the bishops also considered the case that the lockdowns are doing greater harm than good and have been ineffective in stopping the spread of the virus so far?" this reporter asked.
The bishops' spokesman did not respond as of press time.