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By Shermain Bique-Charles

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An outspoken religious leader is questioning the authority of the Ecclesiastical Commission to speak on behalf of the church and give credence to the recommencement of worship services in early June.

On Wednesday, the Cabinet agreed to lift the restriction on the operations of religious organisations subject to the development and issuance of appropriate regulations by the Ecclesiastical Commission of Antigua and Barbuda.

Bishop Charlesworth Browne told Observer that a quasi-body of the church — the Ecclesiastical Commission — cannot properly speak on the behalf of the church.

He said the Ecclesiastical Commission is a body set up by the government and clearly there seems to be a conflict of interest.

“A government body set up to advise the government? I am not sure how that works,” Browne said.

Browne, who is the President of the Antigua & Barbuda Council of Church Leaders, and Head of the Christian Ministries Centre, said the independence of the church is being taken away by the Ecclesiastical Commission.

“It is taking the authority from the church. The rightful authority of the church is being hijacked by the Ecclesiastical Commission,” he said.

Browne, who was not part of the meeting, insists that his comment is not intended to cause conflict, but rather peace.

“I want peace more than anything else especially in this time, but my conviction is that the body that the government has consulted is one sanctioned together, headed by the government, and I have issues with that,” he said.

“They were not going to call me about a meeting because I have expressed my concern about how this body is constituted and the powers that this body has.”

Bishop Browne maintains that the power of the Ecclesiastical Commission is only “according to the power that the government allows it. There is not quite an independent voice when it comes to this body”.

The Cabinet of Antigua and Barbuda met on May 6 and agreed to lift the restriction on the operations of religious organisations subject to the development and issuance of appropriate regulations by the Ecclesiastical Commission of Antigua and Barbuda.

Coming out of the deliberations between the government and the Ecclesiastical Commission was the decision to undertake a comprehensive assessment of church buildings and formats of worship.

This will help the Commission and church leaders to determine how best to implement social distancing and appropriate sanitisation arrangements that are suited to the specific building and sanctuary.

Furthermore, until the guidelines and regulations are issued by the Ecclesiastical Commission, churches are not open for mass gatherings and are encouraged to continue utilising the media and virtual platforms to engage members and deliver instruction and worship services to parishioners.

The Commission expects to submit its guidelines and regulations for consideration and approval by the Ministry of Health so that a phased approach to opening churches for services could start on Saturday June 6 and Sunday June 7.

Among the guidelines being considered are scheduling of multiple services, wearing of masks throughout services, and ensuring hand sanitisers or hand washing stations are established at or near the entrance of each church building.

Chairman of the Ecclesiastical Commission William Dorsett said in a press statement that the Commission is working with the government to help clergy, members and parishioners to safely return to their churches.

He noted that the regulations being developed are not intended to put an additional burden on the clergy but will help to protect their health and that of the members of their congregations.

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