By Bill Heaney

The Catholic Church in Scotland wants First Minister Nicola Sturgeon to revise the restriction on numbers attending services over Easter.

Responding to last week’s announcement on the reopening of Places of Worship, which involves a limit to the numbers who will be allowed to be present, the Catholic Bishops of Scotland have issued a statement welcoming the move and calling for a removal of the cap, which limits the number of people who can attend.

A Church spokesperson said: “Instead, the bishops maintain congregation size should be calculated in accordance with the size of each church, a system similar to that used in the retail sector [large shops], which still maintains social distancing regulations.”

The full statement was as follows: “As Scotland’s Catholic bishops, we welcome the recent announcement by the First Minister foreseeing a return to our churches for the most important celebration of the liturgical year at Easter.

“We also welcome the recognition of the status of public worship implicit in this decision.

“The Catholic Community recognises the seriousness of the pandemic and is committed to working with others to avoid the spreading of infection.

“At the same time, we anticipate ongoing dialogue with the Scottish Government regarding the requirement of a numerical ‘cap’ on the number of worshippers.

“As we continue to observe social distancing  and the protocols on infection control and hygiene formulated by the Bishops’ Conference working group under the leadership of the former Chief Medical Officer Sir Harry Burns, pictured, we maintain that it would be more appropriate for each church building to accommodate a congregation in proportion to its size rather than on the basis of an imposed number.

“We echo here the timely words Pope Francis addressed to the representatives of countries to the Holy See on the 8th February, 2021: Even as we seek ways to protect human lives from the spread of the virus, we cannot view the spiritual and moral dimension of the human person as less important than physical health.

“The opening of churches is a sign that the sacrifices endured so far are bearing fruit and gives us hope and encouragement to persevere. We pray that the Risen Christ, for whom we long during this holy season of Lent, will bless and bring healing to our nation.”

How soon will churches be allowed to open their doors and how many people will be allowed to attend is a question that is being asked across the country.

This question came up at First Minister’s Questions in the Holyrood parliament on Wednesday.

Labour MSP Elaine Smith challenged Nicola Sturgeon: “In her statement [today], the First Minister invited people to email her, and I do not want to put anyone off doing that.

“However, I wrote to her at the start of the year about the closure of places of worship, explaining the importance of communal worship for spiritual, social and psychological benefits, and I have received no response as yet.

“With schools beginning to return and Lent starting, will the First Minister give some reassurance to Scotland’s Christians that she will prioritise churches in her strategic framework so that they can be among the first places to reopen? We hope that that might be in time to celebrate Easter.”

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and Riverside Parish Church, Dumbarton. Top picture: St Patrick’s Church in Strathleven Place, Dumbarton.

Nicola Sturgeon replied: “We will try to get places of worship back to normality. They are not closed, but the ability to worship normally and freely is restricted. I deeply regret that, as I know that everybody does, and we want to get that back to normality as quickly as possible.

“I do not want to pre-empt what we will set out in the strategic framework next week, but members will see a priority given to getting places of worship open again, given the importance that we attach to that.

“We will continue to do that as quickly as possible. I know that many people feel strongly about it and I understand that, but nobody in the Government, including me, wants anywhere to be operating less than normally for any longer than is necessary.

“It is easier for people to bear that with some settings than with others. We know how difficult it is with schools and care homes, and it is difficult for places of worship as well.

“As we get the virus suppressed and continue to make progress with vaccination, that is what I mean when I say that we will have to make choices about what matters most to us.

“Sometimes those will be difficult choices, but the more we can build a consensus about the things that really matter—I would include places of worship in that—the more we can come out of this lockdown in a sensible and sustainable way and, I hope, avoid the need for another one later in the year.”

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