Government guidance on the re-opening of buildings for public worship
Last updated: 4 August 2020
Note - 4 August 2020: Government guidance regarding face coverings in places of worship has been updated, and now reads: 'From 8 August, face coverings will be required by law to be worn in a greater number of public indoor settings including places of worship, museums, galleries, cinemas and public libraries. Please be mindful that there are valid exemptions for some individuals and groups to not wear a face covering in these settings.'
?Please note that face coverings are mainly intended to protect other people, not the wearer, from coronavirus (COVID-19), and are not a replacement for physical distancing and regular hand washing.
Since mid-June, it has been permissible for churches in England to be open for private and individual prayer. As announced by the Prime Minister on 23 June, far wider opening of churches in England is permitted from 4 July 2020. This includes opening for public worship, weddings and baptisms (though not by full immersion).
Official government guidance ‘COVID-19: Guidance for the safe use of places of worship from 4 July’ covers most activities that churches are likely to engage in, and emphasises the importance of a local risk-assessment.
Government update, 27 July
On 27 July, the Government issued an update to ‘COVID-19: guidance for the safe use of places of worship and special religious services and gatherings during the pandemic’ which deals specifically with ‘special religious services and gatherings’.
Original guidance, 4 July
A summary of some key points in the guidance released on 4 July is available below. Churches will need to ensure that they consult the official guidance directly for full details.
Advice for Single Congregation LEPs and shared buildings which are opening for prayer and public worship may also be relevant.
The guidance explains that a COVID-19 risk assessment will need to be completed by each place of worship – in addition to any risk assessment already in place. Please consult the guidance for further details on risk assessments – particularly sections 3, 5, 6, 7 and 8, as well as Annex A.
A link to the HSE website’s generic guidance on completing a risk assessment is included in the guidance. Sample church risk assessments are also available via our web page 'Preparing for when church buildings re-open'.
Singing, chanting and the use of musical instruments
Congregational singing is not permitted, but the singing of an office by a cantor, or chanting by one person, is. Choirs will not be permitted. Similarly, the playing of instruments that are blown into will not be permitted.
Spoken liturgy (for instance responses or shared spoken prayer) will be permitted, but not in a raised voice, and only with adequate social distancing. The same prohibition will apply to shouting, and where possible PA systems to enable the least projection of a voice are advised.
The basis of this guidance is the higher likelihood of transmission where air is more forcibly projected through shouting or singing, compared to normal talking.
Food and drink
Specific guidance on the use of food and drink in acts of worship (including communion) is provided in the government guidance, including its distribution and the way in which the celebrant conducts the consecration of elements.
The serving of refreshments for congregations is not permitted. However, hospitality spaces within a place of worship, such as cafes, are permitted to open but should be limited to table-service, social distancing should be observed, and with minimal staff and customer contact in line with hospitality guidance.
The size of a congregation permitted to gather will be governed by local risk assessment rather than an arbitrary number (social distancing limiting the proximity of worshippers).
Careful analysis of flows of people into and exiting the building should be undertaken, and measures taken to keep people socially distanced while doing so. There is also guidance on the use of toilets.
The guidance also notes that ‘Individual venues should consider the cumulative impact of many venues re-opening in a small area. This means working with local authorities, neighbouring businesses and travel operators to assess this risk and applying additional mitigations…’
The handling of cash is strongly discouraged. The guidance continues: ‘Where this is not an option, cash should be collected in a receptacle that is set in one place and handled by one individual, as opposed to being passed around. Regular cleaning and hygiene should be maintained, and gloves worn to handle cash offerings where giving continues.’
The use of shared items
All handled items, such as communal hymn books or Bibles, should be removed from public use, although worshippers will be permitted to bring their own.
The guidance reads: ‘In line with other government guidance for other venues including in the retail and hospitality sector, you should assist this service by keeping an accurate temporary record of visitors for 21 days, in a way that is manageable for your place of worship, and assist NHS Test and Trace with requests for that data if needed for contact tracing and the investigation of local outbreaks.’ (see 'COVID-19: Maintaining records of staff, customers and visitors to support NHS Test and Trace')
The guidance continues: ‘We will work with faith leaders and organisations to make the process for recording your customers and visitors compliant with data protection legislation and as manageable as possible, including the development of digital solutions. This may be an additional reason for places of worship to consider a booking system for visitors, in addition to limiting numbers in order to adhere to with social distancing guidelines.’
Baptisms, ordinations, weddings and other ceremonies
The guidance includes sections on ‘Weddings and other life cycle events’ and ‘Use of water’. To note, baptism by full immersion is not permitted.
There is a 30-attendee cap on weddings, delivered through separate advice from Government cross-departmentally (see ‘COVID-19: Guidance for small marriages and civil partnerships’).
Any activities, such as house groups or home prayer meetings, will remain subject to more general advice about the mixing of households (presently limited to two households outdoors, and soon to be revised to enable the same to take place within a house — subject to appropriate social distancing.
While a summary of some key points in the guidance is available above, churches will need to ensure that they consult the official guidance directly for full details.
Further resource relating to the re-opening of church buildings are available at www.cte.org.uk/reopening