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Now we are six, do church rules change?

17 September 2020

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PLACES of worship have been granted additional exemptions to the ban on social gatherings of more than six people, which came into force on Monday (News, 11 September).

When it announced the “rule of six” last week, the Government was clear that public worship would be exempt. Updated guidance, published on the Church of England website on Thursday says, however, that this “is not a blanket exemption”. Worshippers must not form groups of more than six in church, unless they are from the same household or support bubble.

The guidance seeks to clarify how other church services and activities are affected by the new rule:

  • Bible study groups: a group is allowed to meet in someone’s home “as long as there are no more than six people in the house in total, including those not taking part in the group at the time”. If larger groups are wanted, however, they can meet on church premises, under the same conditions as apply for public worship.

  • Baptisms: the C of E guidance says that there is “a specific exemption that covers stand-alone baptism services”, which continues to permit a maximum of 30 people to attend without observing the rule of six. “Until otherwise advised, we consider the maximum of 30 to include everyone participating in the service.”

  • Ordinations: there is a “specific exemption” which applies to ordination services that do not take place as part of a regular act of worship: 30 people are permitted to attend without observing the rule of six (and again this includes everyone who participates in the service).

  • Worship outside: this is still allowed, “but the precautions you need to take depend on how many people attend,” the guidance says. It continues, however: “Social events where more than six people from more than one household or support bubble are likely to gather should not take place outside, including in a churchyard.”

  • Choirs: the return of small choirs to public worship (News, 21 August) is not affected by the rule of six, but the exact number of singers will depend “on whether adequate physical distancing can be achieved”. Congregations are still not permitted to sing. Choirs are allowed to rehearse for public worship in churches in groups of more than six, but more caution should be shown about amateur choir rehearsals: they should be “carefully risk assessed”, because they “are an activity where there is a significant likelihood of groups mixing and socialising”.

  • Children’s and youth groups: these are allowed to start again, and should follow the Department for Education’s guidance on out-of-school settings. “In outline, these [the DfE guidance] recommend that, to reduce the risk of transmission, children and young people who attend should be kept in small, consistent groups, and of no more than 15 children and at least one staff member,” the C of E guidance says. “Children should be assigned to a particular class or group, and should then stay in those consistent groups for future sessions and avoid mixing with other groups in your setting.” It continues: “As the risk of transmission is considerably lower outdoors, providers who normally run sessions indoors should consider whether they are able to do so safely outside on their premises.” The Diocesan Children and Youth Advisers Network has published resources to assist youth and children’s workers.

The C of E guidance does not address socialising after services, but Government guidance says that, once a worship service has ended, “participants should be encouraged to move on promptly, to minimise the risk of contact and spread of infection. . .

“Worshippers should limit their interactions with anyone they are not attending your Place of Worship with, i.e. if they are attending a communal service with one other household, wherever possible they should try not to engage in conversation with anyone outside of this group.”

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