The Christian Legal Centre’s Rob Smith gives practical steps for pastors hoping to restart church services safely.
During a typical day at the Christian Legal Centre we have 4 or 5 calls or emails from church leaders of various denominations asking us if it is ok to re-open their doors. They have often heard so many conflicting reports that the leadership teams have erred on the side of caution and decided to continue with online services instead.
Once we convince them that they really can re-open, myriad supplementary questions follow about what they can and cannot do. Is it against the law to sing? Can we take communion? Is our band allowed to play? Do we have to wear face coverings? The list is many and varied, but the answers themselves are pretty straightforward.
Of course, we are all conscious that we do not want our churches to be perceived as hotbeds of Covid-19 and should take all reasonable steps to keep our congregations safe, but the emphasis must be on reasonable.
On 29 June, we received an email from a government source, telling us that places of worship would be able to re-open from 4 July. This notification was in response our instigating judicial review proceedings against the government which challenged the legitimacy of the closure of churches in the first place.
The news was generally well received, but the doomsayers in the Christian community quickly began circulating misinformation that made it sound like pastors would likely be prosecuted if there was an outbreak that might be linked to their church, unless every suggestion in the guidance was strictly followed. Fortunately, this was never the case, but the seeds of doubt were sown.
Since 4 July, the regulations relating to places of worship have been revised several times, and will no doubt be amended further as the pandemic unfolds. The following guidance will seek to debunk some of the myths and hopefully encourage more churches to open their doors to worshippers where it is safe to do so.
What can reasonably be expected before re-opening?
The guidance, quite reasonably, expects those responsible for places of worship to have considered the risks that their premises pose to their congregants. To comply with this requirement, it is suggested that each church produces its own Risk Assessment, to demonstrate that all reasonable precautions have been taken. The assessment is not expected to consider an exhaustive list of every imaginable risk. The guidance simply requires churches “to take action to minimise the potential for spreading of COVID-19 among worshippers, and those working or volunteering within the building and surrounding grounds,” placing the emphasis on minimising risk.
The guidance gives a helpful link to the Health and Safety Executives website, which gives examples of how to set out a risk assessment.
The Risk Assessment needs to be a real attempt to take reasonable precautions, rather than a ‘tick box’ exercise, but need not be too onerous. Obvious things to consider include ensuring social distancing (preferably maintaining 2 metres between individuals or families) is adhered to; setting up a ‘one-way’ system in the church if the building allows; ensuring surfaces and items that are frequently touched are regularly cleaned; and making adequate quantities of hand sanitiser available. This is not intended to be an exhaustive list of precautions, and obviously each church building will be slightly different, but providing appropriate steps are followed, a reasonable effort will have been made to keep everyone safe.
From 8 August the wearing of face coverings in church became mandatory in England and Scotland. The requirement applies to all people who are not in an exempt category on the basis of age or health, but does not apply to staff or volunteers, who are not required to wear anything. Churches need to take reasonable steps to keep employees and volunteers safe, so the decision may be made for them to wear masks, but it is not mandatory. Likewise, nobody expects the pastor to work his/her way through the sermon incumbered by a face mask, likewise the person doing the reading or leading prayers.
With implementation of policy for dealing with coronavirus being a devolved matter, each part of the United Kingdom has its own version of the Regulations. Accordingly, advice can never be a ‘one size fits all’ situation. For example, in England the Regulations recognise outside spaces around the church (car parks, open spaces, graveyards etc) as being an extension to the place of worship. Whilst we have been enjoying some lovely summer weather, many churches, particularly those with larger congregations for whom social distancing is problematic indoors, have taken to worshipping outside. This has an additional benefit as the wearing of face coverings is not compulsory outdoors. Sadly, this broader interpretation of a place of worship is not reflected in the Scottish or Welsh Regulations, and churches wishing to meet outdoors are restricted to the 30 persons rule.
A question we are frequently asked is ‘should we refuse entry to anyone not wearing a face covering?’ It may be appropriate for your welcome teams to give people a friendly reminder, but churches are not expected to enforce the regulations, any more than Supermarkets accost anyone entering their stores without wearing a mask. The police asked for help in enforcement, but this was refused, and the enforcement of any fine remains a police matter.
For the avoidance of doubt, there is no prohibition on singing in church. The regulations say: “There should be no group singing by worshippers.” It goes on to say: “Small groups of professional or non-professional singers will be able to sing in front of worshippers both outdoors and indoors from 15 August. Singing in groups should be limited to a small set group of people and should not include audience participation.”
Similar advice is issued in relation to the use of instruments that are blown, with the regulations saying: “playing of instruments that are blown into should be specifically avoided in worship or devotions.”
The use of ‘should’ rather than ‘must’ means that the recommendations do not have the force of law and are therefore discretionary. With face coverings now mandatory, that may complicate singing indoors somewhat, making worship outdoors all the more attractive during the summer months.
Opinions can be split within congregations over whether the regulations should be adhered to strictly, or whether a little more discretion can be exercised. Nobody should be encouraged to participate where their conscience is troubled, so some of our partner churches have come up with a practical solution, allocating the first half of their services for worship, with the remainder of the fellowship joining afterwards.
Some churches seem to be under the impression that the Regulations prohibit baptisms altogether; this is simply untrue. In fact, the following section is expressly dedicated to the procedures that the Government suggests churches follow when using a baptismal pool.
Where full immersion in water is necessary as part of a ritual or ceremony, this should be very carefully planned following the rules below.
Those being immersed should be at least 2 metres away from the congregation and officiants at all times, except while they are being immersed.
Only one person should be immersed at any time and they should only be attended by a single officiant/clergy member.
During the immersion, clergy/the officiant can place their hands on the head of the person being immersed, but they should not ‘cradle’ the person or touch them in any other way
Clergy/the officiant should wash their hands after each person is immersed, or if this isn’t possible they should use hand sanitiser.”
Once again, the Regulations are drafted in helpful language that recognises the importance of the sacrament, whilst at the same time urging sensible caution.
It may seem peculiar, but the sharing of a chalice for communion is not forbidden by the Regulations, falling within the ‘should’ rather than ‘must’ category. I had a very excited caller who pointed out that the combined effect of the anti-microbial properties of silver, coupled with the alcohol in the wine meant that using a shared chalice was fine. I am no epidemiologist, but that seemed a little fanciful, so although it is not strictly forbidden, a little common sense might not go amiss, and the use of individual communion glasses may be a safer option if your church tradition allows.
As far as the distribution of wafers or bread is concerned, it is recommended, but not compulsory, that the person handling these should have either washed their hands thoroughly, or wear gloves. Once again, these steps are simple and impact little on our ability to worship.
Getting back to normal
Once we get beyond the scaremongering and the urban myths, there really is very little preventing us from opening our churches and enjoying worship together. Whilst social distancing and the wearing of face coverings may mean that it will be a little while before worship feels normal, there is much to be said for meeting as a congregation. We can pray together, take communion together, we can sing together, we can encourage one another. With a little effort and innovation, we can accommodate our church families whilst still keeping them safe. However strange it may feel in the short-term, it has to be preferable to watching on a computer screen. Please God let us never accept that as the norm.
For full details of the guidelines in each part of the UK:
Northern Ireland: https://www.nidirect.gov.uk/articles/coronavirus-covid-19-regulations-guidance-and-what-they-mean-you
Find out more about Church lockdown