SOME choirs made a prompt and joyful return to church services on Sunday, after changes to government guidelines on the performing arts were announced on Friday. These were reviewed and then endorsed by the Church of England in new guidance issued on Monday.
It is not yet clear which of the scientific studies of droplet transmission commissioned by the Department for Digital, Media, Culture and Sport gave the Government confidence to “reconsider appropriate mitigations”. Results are eagerly awaited from Declan Costello, an ear, nose, and throat surgeon and choral singer, who has been conducting stringent trials. Lay vicars from Salisbury Cathedral have also taken part in experiments (News, 10 July).
Crucially, it is now permissible for both professional and non-professional singers and musicians to perform individually or in small groups inside and outside of buildings, in line with the recommendations for physical distancing and hygiene set out by the Government in its performing-arts guidance.
The C of E guidance makes it clear: “This includes those who regularly volunteer to do music and singing, as part of a choir, for example, to perform as a part of worship.”
Congregations are not yet permitted to sing. Wherever possible, the guidance says, people should continue to distance physically from those with whom they do not live; venues, performers, and audiences should be matched to ensure that two-metre distancing applies; and the number of performers should be limited.
Those assisting with worship through music or singing “do not always need to wear a face covering, but face coverings or screens should be used if physical distancing cannot be maintained”.
Singing and music can now be a part of ceremonies such as weddings, but with the caution: “People should avoid singing, shouting, raising voices, and/or playing music at a volume that makes normal conversation difficult or that may encourage shouting. This is important to mitigate the potential for increased risk of transmission — particularly from droplets and aerosol transmission.”
The guidance confirms that organs can be played for services, practices, and general maintenance. Worship bands can play, with the same physical distancing observed, and, again, with the stricture that the music should not be so loud that people have to shout above it. Microphones and PA systems can be used — optimally individual lapel or static microphones rather than hand-held.
Organisations are still encouraged to work outdoors whenever possible, and the suggestion remains that, where music plays a big part in worship, and recordings are available, this should be considered as an alternative to live singing. But the new guidance, described by the RSCM on Monday as “encouraging”, has given a lifeline to choirs to return to worship, at least in part.
The church of St Bartholomew the Great, Smithfield, in London, which has a professional choir of eight, was quick off the mark on Sunday, with a return of the full choir. The Rector, the Revd Marcus Walker, heard on the radio on Saturday that the guidance had changed, and rang the director of music, Rupert Gough, to ask, “Do you think we can?” The answer, he said, had been, “We can.”
They positioned the singers in the transept, socially distanced, away from the congregation and not facing each other. All had printed off their own copies of the music. “We arrived to Parry’s ‘I Was Glad’,” the Rector said on Monday. “Obviously, there were tears. I remembered the first time [during lockdown] that the choir sang from home, and how that brought the first shard of light in the darkness of the pandemic.”
The choir also sang Mozart’s Missa Brevis. Members of the congregation, most of whom had not been expecting the choir, said that it made the church feel whole again, Fr Walker said. It was also the occasion of the licensing of the Revd Jonathan Livingstone as Hospitaller for St Bartholomew’s Hospital. Now, the church is planning its first choral evensong next Sunday, on the eve of its patronal festival.
The choir of Westminster Abbey also returned, in part: six lay vicars were positioned in the Lantern, and the congregation gathered in the nave at the west end of the church. The plan is to build up the music stage by stage to a full choral schedule over the coming weeks and months.
The choir posted a message on Twitter on Sunday: “152 days since we sang our last service, we’re thrilled to be back rehearsing Byrd’s Mass for Three Voices for this morning’s Eucharist. For now, we’re fewer in number, socially distanced and remote from the congregation but it’s wonderful to be back and singing together again.”