Two Weddings & A Funeral: Do Churches Know the Law?

Over the last number of days, there has been much coverage on social media, print media and broadcast media about 3 religious events which were scheduled to take place in Co.Wexford, all involving members of the Travelling Community.

The fact that two weddings were still being supported by the Church authorities, leads the question in the headline to be raised. Do Churches know the law? The reference to Churches includes Priests and other Church officials. Before addressing this question, here is a brief summary of the events in question:

The first of these events was a planned wedding in Bunclody on May 13th. Ultimately after Garda intervention, this wedding was postponed at a late stage, with the Bride-to-be almost ready to depart for the Church.

The second of these events was a funeral which took place in Enniscorthy Cathedral on May 15th. A large crowd gathered for the funeral despite the 10 person limit, while a large crowd also attended Crosstown Cemetery for the burial afterwards. Social distancing was not observed.

The third of these events is another wedding scheduled to take place tomorrow, May 19th in Bunclody church.

South East Radio’s morning mix programme this morning, May 18th, had a discussion about these events. The travelling community was represented by Martin Collins (Pavee Point) and the Catholic Church was represented by Fr John Carroll (Diocesan Secretary & Diocesan Communications Officer).

One key question in relation to these events which was not addressed on the programme is:

  • What does the Law say with regard to Church services?

This is a key question because, during discussions on the morning mix programme, Fr. Carroll introduced an air of confusion to the situation with regard to weddings, claiming that more clarity was needed from government:

“We understood the under 10 guideline would allow for a wedding or a baptism, and that they could proceed”.

“We are looking for clarity on that at the moment”.

Both Fr Carroll, and the Priest who agreed to officiate at the wedding appear to be of the view that small weddings can take place. The relevant law clearly states otherwise. In addition, the governments road-map for re-opening, schedules Churches for re-opening (except for the 3 exceptions listed below) in Phase 4 (July 20th), and only where social distancing can be maintained.

The Health Act 1947 (Section 31A -Temporary Restrictions) (Covid-19) Regulations 2020 Article 4 (1) states that:

4. (1) An applicable person shall not leave his or her place of residence without reasonable excuse

The only exceptions to this rule in relation to religious ceremonies are in Section O, which states the following:

(o) in the case of a minister of religion or priest (or any equivalent thereof in any religion) –

(i) lead worship or services remotely through the use of information and communications technology

(ii) minister to the sick, or

(iii) conduct funeral services

These are the only 3 exceptions to this law. It is abundantly clear that Church weddings are not included in these exceptions. The weddings in Bunclody were arranged to take place in a Church, and therefore are clearly contrary to the law quoted above.

Funerals

In relation to funerals, Fr Carroll made some very reasonable points in terms of the difficulty a Priest is presented with:

“It is not possible in the heat of the moment and in the genuine grief of the moment for a Priest to officiate the crowd and at the same time celebrate a mass”.

“Some situations are bigger than we can manage on our own”.

“By the time a funeral arrives at a Church 90% of the activity has already occurred, in terms of people travelling,…, this is something over which we have no control.”

It would be very difficult for a Priest to almost act like a night-club bouncer in policing entry into the Church or Church grounds, while at the same time tending to his funeral duties. A disturbance or disruption may further add to the upset experienced by the grieving family. Fr Carroll also highlighted that Priests are often on their own for these services, as Sacristans and other helpers remain at home.

Martin Collins (Pavee Point) said:

“I am pleading with my own people, to please respect the guidelines from the HSE, only 10 people allowed to attend a funeral, and even with that social distancing needs to be obeyed.”

This law and COVID-19 regulations are in place for ALL sections of society, regardless of traditions, or how important a particular event is to a certain section of society.

Minister Paul Kehoe contributed his thoughts on the issue on the Morning Mix and pointed out that:

“It is not just the travelling community that have their religious and cultural traditions, the majority of Irish people are Christian, and the funeral service is something very important. 99% of the funerals which have taken place have obeyed the guidelines. It is no use saying that the travelling community are looking for the respect of everyone in society, when they don’t obey the guidelines, when they don’t obey the rules, and show total disrespect for other members of society.”

Minister Kehoe also pointed out that people involved in two other traveller funerals had contact with his office in relation to some of the concerns they had, and that those funerals took place within the guidelines.

One thought to consider: If people across all communities decided to proceed with weddings or large funerals, how would case numbers have reacted and would it have been possible to begin removing some lockdown restrictions today?

Finally, it is not clear as to where the apparent confusion in the Church has stemmed from, in relation to weddings, but the law is very clear. They are not permitted.

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