MASKS are now mandatory once again in places of worship in England, after the Government tightened its response to the threat of the omicron Covid variant, its so-called “Plan B”.
The publication of the new regulations on Thursday confirmed that communal worship is exempt from the requirement to ask for Covid passes, which, from next Wednesday, will apply to indoor venues with a capacity of more than 500 unseated people. Weddings and funerals are also exempt, though there is less clarity about concerts and any other unseated events.
Mask-wearing in church, however, has become mandatory until further notice, unless an individual falls into an exempt category, such as a child under 11 or someone with a physical or mental illness or impairment or disability.
Masks may legally be removed once in church, however, if leading a service or reading. The regulations also state that face coverings may be removed “when it is reasonably necessary . . . to sing including singing as part of a choir, or during a service or rehearsal, or for performance”.
New Church of England guidelines issued on Thursday acknowledge these exceptions, but none the less advise: “Congregations may wish to consider the use of face coverings while singing depending on the local circumstances.” In particular, in poorly ventilated spaces, where there is a higher risk of catching or passing on the virus, the guidance says of congregational singing: “We advise additional precautions should be considered.”
By and large, the guidance continues to place responsibility for decision-making on individual incumbents. “Incumbents should feel empowered to make locally appropriate decisions, including taking different approaches to different types of services and events where the risks may vary.”
This, however, does not extend to asking congregants or visitors to prove that they have been vaccinated. This is not a requirement, the guidance says, “nor is it appropriate. . . We do not know by how much the vaccine stops coronavirus from spreading.”
When it comes to the eucharist, communion may still be in both kinds and the common cup may still be used. The guidance states, however: “It is important that no pressure is placed on priests to preside at holy communion or on parishioners to receive the sacrament.”
Also: “Bishops wish to make clear that, given continued potential risks to health, it remains permissible for the president to be the only person who receives holy communion in the form of wine.” It is recommended that parishes agree a consistent policy, and that this is communicated carefully.
The guidance also recommends formulating a policy about the Peace. “Many congregations will now be familiar with offering a sign of peace without touching one another. In churches where the Peace is shared with touch, where you may want to consider providing badges for those who may not wish to do so, and whether the Peace might be shared only with those people in one’s immediate vicinity.”
Besides this, the guidance repeats in detail methods for keeping the congregation and clergy safe, such as covering the eucharistic elements, continued hand sanitising, ventilation, and social distancing in poorly ventilated spaces. One suggestion is to provide cards for worshippers to place on the seat next to them to keep it unoccupied. There are also detailed instructions about the best ways to clean surfaces.
If there is a known case of Covid in someone who has been in a church (being registered for Test and Trace is not compulsory but recommended), thorough cleaning and disinfecting is necessary. Failing that, the building should be closed for at least 48 hours, in accordance with guidance from Public Health England.
The guidance warns about the particular challenges of weddings, baptisms, and funerals, especially where large numbers of people are involved. Risk assessments should be carried out. They should also be requested of anyone hiring church premises for an outside event.
Food and drink can continue to be offered, and the new restrictions allow for the removal of masks for their consumption.
Face coverings have remained a legal requirement in places of worship in Scotland and Wales, and have been re-imposed in Northern Ireland.
The Bishop of London, the Rt Revd Sarah Mullally, leads the Church of England’s Covid Recovery Group. She said on Thursday: “Few of us imagined when we first heard of the coronavirus at the beginning of last year that we would now be approaching our second Christmas of a global pandemic.
“The recent emergence of the new Omicron variant and the evidence already we’ve seen of its rapid spread is a cause of real concern.
“And while we are hugely thankful for the rapid development and mass rollout of the vaccines — and the current booster programme — there are important steps we should take now to protect ourselves and each another.
“As Christians we have a duty to care for one another, especially those who are most vulnerable, and the latest measures announced by the Government should offer some extra protection and reassurance for people. . .
“This Christmas we will be coming together — whether in person or online — to worship God and celebrate his coming into the world as a human being like us.
“Amid all that we have been through together in the last two years, that hope is as strong as ever.”