What does the government guidance for worshipping safely say?

29 June 2020

The government finally released its promised Guidance for the safe use of places of worship from 4 July. Here, we analyse what it says and what it means for worship in churches from next Sunday.

Worship has been prohibited

Since late March, churches in the UK have been in the extraordinary position of being prohibited by law from facilitating corporate worship. Churches were allowed to run food banks or blood donation centres, but not to offer prayer. Even when the government allowed churches to open up for private prayer, it was clear that praying with another person (even a minister) would be illegal and could result in a criminal conviction.

Christian Concern and the Christian Legal Centre are supporting a group of church leaders, who have challenged the legality of the government banning of Christian worship and ministry. They contend that the government had no right to impose a blanket lockdown on in-person church ministry and that the independence of churches from state interference is legally well established, going back as far as Magna Carta.

On 23 June, the day before the time limit expired to bring an application for judicial review of the regulations, the government announced that churches would be allowed to re-open for worship from 4 July, with guidance to follow. The guidance, now released, explains what precautions the government recommends that churches should take from 4 July, if they choose to re-open.

The difference between ‘must’ and ‘should’

The guidance carefully explains that where it states that an activity ‘must’ take place, this is because it is a requirement in law. By contrast, where the guidance states that an activity ‘should’ take place, this is not a legal requirement, but rather government advice.

The content of the guidance only contains two uses of ‘must’. Both of these occur in discussion about the use of consumables. The guidance states:

“Speaking, singing and chanting should not happen across uncovered consumables (other than consumables to be used by the celebrant alone). Instead consumables must be securely covered, and prior to the receptacle being opened, should be cleaned, hands must be washed or gloves worn.”

This means that the only legal requirements in the guidance are to securely cover any consumables and to wash hands or use gloves when they are opened. The rest of the guidance is strongly advised by the government, but not legally required.

In the meantime, the government regulations relating to worship, which carry legal force, remain in force and have yet to be updated. It remains to be seen whether the regulations will follow the guidance in terms of what is legally required and what is advised. However, the legal demands within the guidance appear to have been heavily toned down and this appears to be an admission from the government, that it was wrong to legally prohibit worship in the first place.

Numbers not limited

The guidance states that gatherings of more than 30 people will be permitted in places of worship and their surrounding premises. This means that numbers are restricted by building capacity rather than an arbitrary number. Social distancing should be maintained throughout. Marriages, funerals, and other life cycle ceremonies should be limited to no more than 30 people, but again this appears to be strong advice, rather than a legal requirement at this point. Church buildings should only be used for activities that are currently permitted by law. The guidance also applies to buildings whose primary purpose is not for religious gatherings, but where they are used for worship such as a community centre and it applies to surrounding grounds for example adjourning car parks or gardens. However, the guidance does not apply to certain open spaces, public parks, or other places where guidance relevant to that place should be followed. Therefore it appears that the restrictions on singing would apply not only in the church building but also in an adjoining Church garden, but would not apply if the church met in a local public park.

Risk Assessment

Places of worship should carry out a risk assessment. Indeed, if the place of worship is also a workplace for any employees or volunteers then it will be legally required to carry out such an assessment. Churches have a duty of care to volunteers to ensure they are as far as reasonably practical not exposed to risks to their health and safety.

Music and Singing

The guidance states that singing, chanting, shouting or playing blown instruments should be avoided in worship, even if social distancing is being observed or face coverings are used. Organs can be played but should be cleaned thoroughly before and after each use. The guidance states:

 “Where essential to an act of worship, one individual only should be permitted to sing or chant, and the use of plexi-glass screens should be considered to protect worshippers from them, as this will further prevent transmission and the screen can be easily cleaned.”

This is a serious restriction on worship for most Christians. There are numerous commands to sing in the Bible, particularly in the Psalms. Colossians 3:16, for example, exhorts believers to engage in “singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.” Sung worship has been a central feature of Christian worship ever since the formation of the church. Allowing only one person to sing is extremely restrictive and amounts to prohibiting corporate Christian worship as we know it. It also severely restricts the ministry of the Holy Spirit in moving people to sing or start or join a new song. Churches will need to decide what level of restrictions on singing they are comfortable making in their own situations. The scientific evidence on transmission risk from singing is far from clear at this stage.

Other key points in the guidance

  • Where water is used, e.g. for baptism, the guidance states that “small volumes can be splashed onto the body, but full immersion should be avoided.” Baptisms have not been permitted since March, and some churches will be keen to do baptisms now that churches can open again. The government is here advising against full immersion baptism, but it is advice only.
  • Where books or other items are used by worshippers, they should be quarantined for 48 hours after each use.
  • Communal vessels for consumables should be avoided. Prewrapped is preferred.
  • Tea and Coffee can be served, but it should be by table service rather than queuing to a hatch.
  • Cash donations are discouraged in preference for online or contactless giving.
  • Churches should keep an accurate temporary record of visitors for 21 days which can be used to assist NHS Test and Trace. This needs to be done in compliance with data protection legislation.
  • Social distancing of 2 meters, or 1 meter with risk mitigation where 2 meters is not viable, should be maintained between households at all times. Markers can be used, with queue management and flow organisation.
  • Everyone entering and leaving a place of worship should wash their hands for 20 seconds or use hand sanitiser if this is not available. There should be signs and posters encouraging handwashing and other good hygiene practices. Hand sanitiser should be provided in multiple locations in addition to toilet facilities.
  • Toilets should be well-cleaned, with hand sanitiser available, and single use paper towels rather than communal towels.
  • All surfaces in the building, especially those most frequently touched such as door handles and rails, should be regularly cleaned.
  • Vulnerable people and those with any symptoms should be advised to stay at home.

We await the updated regulations to see how much of all this will have the force of law.

Christian Concern will continue to pressure the government not to interfere with legal force on Christian worship.

The legal challenge will continue until we are sure that our freedom to worship and our freedom to run our churches as we wish is secure.

We will keep you updated on any new developments.

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