Anglican Bishop Rick Lewers and Catholic Bishop Michael Kennedy explain what the change in COVID-19 restrictions will mean to our area

Bishop Kennedy conducts a service in St Mary's Cathedral in Armidale

Bishop Kennedy conducts a service in St Mary's Cathedral in Armidale

COVID-19 restrictions governing the number of people who can attend religious gatherings were eased this week.

Religious gatherings and places of worship can now have up to 300 people, subject to a COVID-19 safety plan.

Northern Tablelands MP Adam Marshall said the change was good news for our region.

"Ongoing restrictions limiting the number of people who can attend religious gatherings like church services has been of great concern for many in the Northern Tablelands," he said.

"People attending a religious service will be required to provide their name and contact details when they enter so they can be used for contact tracing. They are also being urged to wear a mask when attending places of worship.

"Religious gatherings exclude weddings and funerals, however, from December 1, the number of people who can attend weddings will be lifted to 300 people subject to the four square metre rule indoors and two square metre rule outdoors."

Bishop Kennedy said he was delighted with the announcement from the NSW government that restrictions on places of worship will continue to be eased.

"Coming into the Christmas period, the significance of Sunday Mass to Catholics cannot be overstated," he said.

"Attending Mass is an important factor in maintaining the spiritual and emotional wellbeing of worshippers. Within the Armidale Diocese, we are confident that we can continue to provide a well-resourced and COVID-safe environment for our community to gather for public worship and we look forward to being able to accept more parishioners to our popular Mass times."

Anglican Bishop Rick Lewers said he welcomed the changes but doubted it would change things much for churches in his diocese which includes the major centres of Armidale, Glen Innes, Gunnedah, Inverell, Moree, Narrabri and Tamworth, and surrounding towns and villages.

"I don't think it will make a lot of difference in most of our churches because the four square metre rule is still applied, and we don't have too many churches that would have 300 people attending, but we do have a couple of churches where that would be true," he said.

"The four square metre rule is a rule that actually governs how many people we can fit into our buildings so I don't think it will make much change at all.

"We're happy about the change, but I think what we are really looking forward to is the day when it goes to two square metres inside and when people can sing.

"Nobody has been singing for ages and the world is a sad place when people aren't singing."

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The decision to allow larger numbers for services but not for ceremonies is also confusing Bishop Lewers says.

"In terms of some of the regulations - strangely, they have continued to cap weddings and funerals at 150," he said

"That's a kind of oddity when they have expanded normal services to 300, but I'm very happy with the 300 as that will help a few of our parishes to function a little more easily.

"They haven't given us any indication on singing but I understand in Queensland, in the Brisbane Diocese, they have a two square metre rule and they can sing, and they have never stopped singing, but that is just consistent with the inconsistencies across the country so we are consistently inconsistent.

"Everybody has to do everything we can to be good community citizens in this regard and look after the welfare of one another - if we are not doing that then there is no point us being here really."

Both Bishops agreed that coming into Christmas the larger congregation numbers allowed would be normal for many of the churches in their dioceses.

St Peter's in south Tamworth, St John's in west Tamworth, the St Peter's Cathedral in Armidale, and some of our regional churches like Gunnedah, Moree and Inverell will see those kinds of numbers coming into Christmas," Bishop Lewers said.

"But the space of the building really is the determiner how many people can fit in under that four-metre rule."

Numbers attending church once services returned after their forced closure had dropped according to Bishop Lewers but he says there have been some useful learnings for church leaders to come out of COVID-19.

"I think there is a range of things that have happened," he said.

"We learned a heck of a lot about technology, and I think our churches are a whole lot more tech-savvy now in terms of producing church that people can either pick up on Youtube or Zoom into, so that's been a benefit for us but the non-benefit is that church is really about community, and community is best when it gathers.

"It's good for us to be back gathering again, but some of the implications of not gathering are that some people have become lazy in their attendance because they can now watch at home, which is a consumerist attitude to church you know 'we just consume we don't' give anything', and that is kind of contrary to the church.

"And others are fearful - there are still some seniors who are fearful of entering back into social settings - though I think that is dwindling.

"But I do have to say that some people are less concerned about fear and illness, and more desirous of just being back in the company of their church families.

people have become lazy in their attendance

Bishop Rick Lewers

"I think all of us want to spend time with our genetic families, and there is a truth about church for people who come and that is that it is a family, and we love one another and enjoy each others company, and want to care for one another.

"In the uncertainty of the last eight months we've been made mindful of our own smallness I guess, and our human pride has been undone by something we can't even see, so we've been made to feel a little bit insecure and our mortality is a bit confronting.

"I'm hoping that Christmas will be a time when people can reconnect with their roots and the Australian Christian Church.

"It would be good if, in December, Christmas carol services can take place because we can perform a carol service if the audience doesn't sing.

"Hopefully that is indicative of what we will see around the country because as a church leader, I can tell you I would be disappointed if we can't. "

Mr Marshall said as the NSW Government eased restrictions the community should continue to be COVID Safe.

"The government's aim is to provide as many opportunities as it can for organisations and the community to carry on with their work and lives as much as possible," he said.

"Moving forward it is important everyone maintains good hygiene, continues to social distance and follows up-to-date health advice.

"Most importantly if you exhibit any of the symptoms of COVID-19 including fever, cough, sore or scratchy throat, shortness of breath or loss of smell or taste you should be tested at your nearest clinic or GP."