FROM 4 July, incumbents will be responsible for determining how many people can safely attend public worship in their churches, based on a risk assessment of the capacity and ventilation of the building, the Government has said.
The guidance, published on Monday and effective from 4 July, was drawn up by the Places of Worship Taskforce, which includes faith leaders and government ministers. It has legal status under the Health and Safety and Equality Acts.
“And Jane, wilt thou bubble with this man?”
No maximum number is specified for people attending for general worship, which includes led prayers, devotions, or meditations. The guidance confirms, however, that a maximum of 30 people are permitted to attend weddings, funerals, and other “life-cycle” services, such as baptisms, regardless of the size of the building, unless this takes place during routine communal worship (News, 26 June).
It states: “Limits for communal worship should be decided locally on the basis of the capacity of the place of worship following a risk assessment. The number of people permitted to enter the place of worship at any one time should be limited, so that a safe distance of at least two metres, or one metre with risk mitigation (where two metres is not viable) between households.”
The floor space and “likely pinch points and busy areas” should be assessed, and “alternative or one-way routes introduced” where necessary, it says. Volunteers, contractors, and worshippers may be consulted as part of the risk assessment.
Other considerations to mitigate risk include multiple entry points, signposting, sign screens or barriers, booking systems, and restricting access to non-essential areas. Staggering entry times with other local venues to avoid queues, and arranging one-way travel routes between transport hubs and venues should also be considered.
Places of worship should not reopen if it is deemed unsafe to do so.
This responsibility is assigned to the “venue manager” — defined in the guidance as the “person or persons responsible for the management of an individual place of worship. . . This may be a religious leader or lay person.” In Church of England churches, this will most likely fall to the incumbent and/or PCC.
The Recovery Group of the C of E issued further guidance on Tuesday outlining the legal implications and practicalities of resuming public worship. It states: “The minister and/or churchwardens should not feel under pressure to open a church for public worship if it would, in the light of government guidance, be unsafe to do so.”
In normal circumstances, under canon law, morning prayer, evening prayer, and a celebration of holy communion should be held in at least one church in each benefice on all Sundays and on certain feast days. If this is not possible for the first few weeks “the matter can be dealt with by the minister and each of the PCCs without the need to consult the bishop” through a formal resolution.
“If it will not be possible for at least one church in a benefice to hold the normally required public services for an extended period of time, the minister and PCC of each parish in the benefice should make a joint request to the bishop for dispensation.”
If the incumbent of the benefice is unable to conduct the normally required public services “because they are sick, shielding, or otherwise vulnerable they must use all reasonable endeavours to find a replacement person to take the services. This also applies to baptisms, weddings and funerals.”
The Bishop of London, the Rt Revd Sarah Mullally, who leads the C of E’s Recovery Group, confirmed on Monday that national worship would continue online after 4 July. “As our church buildings begin to open, we need to reflect what we have learnt from online services and how we change to become more accessible to people who find it very difficult to access our buildings,” she said.
This is also encouraged in the guidance, which states: “It is recommended that, where possible, places of worship continue to stream worship or other events to avoid large gatherings and to continue to reach those individuals who are self-isolating or particularly vulnerable to Covid-19.”
The guidance advises that all services should be completed in the “shortest reasonable time”, and the building emptied promptly. Religious leaders are responsible for altering any rituals, such as administering communion, to minimise the risk of infection, it says. Communal vessels should be avoided, and any “consumables” covered while the priest is speaking or singing.
“Where food or drink (‘consumables’) are essential to the act of worship, they can be used, however the sharing of food should be avoided, as should the use of communal vessels. If it is necessary to handle consumables as a part of a faith practice, those giving and receiving food items should wash their hands thoroughly before and after consumption, or wear gloves.
“The person distributing the consumable should release it, into the hand only, in such a way to avoid any contact between them and those receiving it, or wear gloves. If accidental contact does occur, both people should cleanse their hands immediately.”
Singing, chanting, shouting, and the use of wind instruments in general is not permitted owing to the potential risk of aerosol and droplet transmission.
On the use of water during baptism, the guidance states: “Where rituals or ceremonies require water to be applied to the body, small volumes can be splashed onto the body, but full immersion should be avoided. . . Where an infant is involved a parent/guardian or other member of the infant’s regular household should hold the infant.”
Cash donations and collection plates should be avoided. Any cash offered should be collected in a receptacle that is set in one place and handled by one individual. Children should be supervised by parents or guardians at all times. Play areas should be removed or cordoned off.
The new guidance refers to all places of worship, including any surrounding grounds: for example, adjoining car parks, courtyards, or gardens. It does not include businesses, such as hotels or restaurants, which are licensed for weddings, for example.
“Hospitality spaces within a place of worship, such as cafés, 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.”
St Edmundsbury Cathedral, which is due to reopen for worship on Sunday, has introduced a booking system. There will be two services, at 8 a.m. and 11 a.m. People who are planning to attend are asked to email firstname.lastname@example.org with their name, the service they wish to attend, and the number attending from their household by 12 noon on the Friday before.
There will be no choral or congregational singing. Livestreamed worship and private prayer — including evening prayer — will continue during the week.
The Dean, the Very Revd Joe Hawes, said: “Much preparation has been done to ensure that worshippers can attend the services safely. Worship may look different, at least to start with, but at least whether in the building or via our livestream we can now be reunited in worship.”
The Central Council of Church Bell Ringers (CCCBR) announced that bell captains were preparing for a “cautious return to ringing”, with social distancing, possibly as soon as 4 July. The focus would be Sunday bell-ringing to announce services, rather than the practice and teaching of ringing as a hobby.
Because of the close proximity of bell ropes in most bell towers, a full peal of bells is unlikely to be rung until social-distancing measures are lifted.
The president of the CCCBR, Simon Linford, said: “Ringing three or four bells for 15 minutes for a service is not what keeps most of us ringing. The novelty is going to wear off quite soon. It could be a long time before peals or even quarters are possible, and we won’t be able to do any teaching.
“However, it is an essential part of the strategy for us getting ringing going again that the church values our contribution, and we have managed to get them to include us in their plans.”
The timing has not been confirmed. Mr Linford continued: “We received specific confirmation that access to towers to check bell installations ready for ringing was approved, provided it is done safely by more than one person, socially distanced.”