Churches which remained open for services yesterday (Sunday 22 March) are yielding to public and government pressure and revising their guidance after a stormy Sunday in Lewis.
Most churches in the Western Isles observed Government guidance on gatherings in public places, following the advice of denominational bodies including the Church of Scotland, Free Church of Scotland and Scotland’s Roman Catholic bishops and opting for online prayer and worship.
But some church bodies made the decision that guidance did not apply to their services and remained open for worship, including churches in Ness, Sandwick and on Scotland Street in Stornoway.
The discovery that some in the Christian community continued to allow gatherings when all other public buildings were closed led to calls for Comhairle nan Eilean Siar and politicians to intervene to prevent such gatherings.
One islander said: “Church services simply cannot be taking place. I understand the spiritual need that is so important for some, but this needs changed as of now and most churches have put online options in place. The council leaders need to get involved and lead on this.”
And another commented: “Yes, it’s sad that we can’t meet together, but these are exceptional times and we all need to follow the advice given. Surely of all people we Christians should model this behaviour.”
Some chose to directly address the churches in question. One sent a private message to a church organisation saying: “I am in disbelief to hear there was a church service in Sandwick today. I assume you are all well aware of the Government’s advice.
“You are putting your congregation, your community, your island at risk. Please reconsider your actions. You do not have to congregate in a church to worship God.”
A guidance note issued by the Church Interests Committee of the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland on Saturday said: “The importance of public worship is such that where possible, and adopting very stringent means of observing complete social distancing, this should continue.”
That decision has been revised today (Monday) with the same committee issuing a new guidance note. It said: “In this rapidly moving and distressing situation, the Church Interests Committee (CIC) has taken account of the strengthened language of the UK and Scottish Governments since it issued its advice at lunchtime on Saturday 21 March, and now updates its advice accordingly.
“It has become a key part of Government policy for slowing the spread of the virus among the population that everyone, not just the elderly and the vulnerable, should stay at home for all but essential reasons.
“The CIC 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 CIC 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.”
The Free Church (Continuing) at Cross, Ness yesterday streamed two live services on YouTube, one on the theme of coping with isolation. The services are made available by the Free Church (Continuing) via their Twitter account.
The Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland offers audio content, including sermons by ministers from Leverburgh and Stornoway, at https://www.fpchurch.org.uk/sermon/
Picture shows Stornoway Free Church of Scotland (Continuing) at Sandwick during a gathering yesterday evening (Sunday).