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Musicians await news on Easter singing rules

12 March 2021

Amateur choirs still not able to prepare for Holy Week

NO ANNOUNCEMENT has yet been made whether — with the approach of Holy Week and Easter — there will be any revision to the Government’s current guidelines on singing in places of worship.

Submissions from the Church of England Recovery Group to the Places of Worship Taskforce have included a draft roadmap from the Royal School of Church Music (RSCM) and the Cathedral Organists’ Association (COA) for the safe resumption of singing within the context of a gradual easing of the lockdown in the UK.

It had received proper consideration, and the deliberations of the Recovery Group were informing government planning, the RSCM’s director, Hugh Morris, said on Tuesday. “Communication lines are good and open, and we have certainly been making sure that the message has been getting to the right places about music being a critical part in the marking and celebration of Holy Week and Easter.”

No communal singing is permitted under the current guidance, which restricts “singing or chanting essential to an act of worship” to one person wherever possible. Up to three individuals may sing “where it is essential to the service”, observing strict social distancing. The limit of three — a figure acknowledged to have arisen from another faith tradition — has caused frustration, because much church music is written in four parts.

Under the Government’s guidance for performing arts, “Professional groups may continue to rehearse and train, and perform for broadcast or recording purposes if a congregation is not present. . . Non-professional activity, such as amateur choirs and orchestras, cannot take place.”

The Government was known to be working on a response, Mr Morris said. “We can’t tell yet when any more guidance will be forthcoming. Better that we are all cheered by a positive change than we set up expectations which are then dashed when guidance either fails to arrive, or doesn’t include the allowances which might be hoped for.”

A spokeswoman for the Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government confirmed on Thursday that discussions were ongoing with faith leaders involved in the Places of Worship Taskforce, and that the Government hoped to lift the limits on singing as the roadmap progressed through the spring, as long as it was proved safe to do so.

Singing is currently still regarded as a high-risk activity because of the increased risk of transmission through aerosols (small viral particles in the air) and droplets (News, 9 July 2020). 

“Places of worship bring huge solace and comfort during this challenging time — that’s why we have taken the decision to allow them to open with guidance to help them stay safe,” the spokeswoman said. “The guidance includes performers being limited to the minimum necessary for the service and following the principles of safe singing. As we move through the roadmap we hope to lift the limit on numbers singing as soon as the evidence confirms it is safe to do so and we will set out details in due course.”

The Bishop of Leeds, the Rt Revd Nick Baines, received a warm response when he raised the matter in the House of Lords last week. He highlighted concern around the approach of Holy Week and Easter, and asked: “Can the Minister offer a roadmap for when singing by choirs and congregations will once again be allowed, with sufficient time to prepare?”

Lord Bethell, on behalf of the Government, said that he was “entirely sympathetic” to the question. “I cannot think of anything nicer than spending Easter at Salisbury Cathedral listening to the beautiful singing of the choir there,” he said. “We will be led, however, by the public-health practicalities on that.

“It has been one of the most heartbreaking aspects of this pandemic, that those who seek sanctuary through worship have not been able to join the rest of their community; but the practicalities of the spread of the virus are unavoidable; so we will be led by public-health advice in this matter. I do not have a date for [the Bishop’s] roadmap, I fear, but his considerations are very much understood in the department.”

Cathedral choirs and large churches with professional singers have been able to function to some degree. For a short time in December, parish churches with amateur choirs were able, with the required mitigations, to assemble to record music for Christmas.

Many would like to do that again for Holy Week and Easter. The organist and choirmaster of St Michael and All Angels, Bramcote, David Hanford, who is president of the Nottingham and District Society of Organists, said on Tuesday: “Whilst understanding and supporting fully the need for a cautious approach to any easing of restrictions, I do feel that the data now supports a return to the protocols regarding church music that were in place prior to Christmas 2020.

“As a first step, I would like to see all church choirs have the opportunity, subject to appropriate risk assessments and social distancing, to meet in person to rehearse and record music for use in services during Holy Week and Easter. My personal opinion is that the additional restrictions in respect of amateur choirs, compared with their professional counterparts, should now be removed.” 

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