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Wakes, weddings, and outdoor singing: What are the latest Covid-safe rules for churches in England?

17 May 2021

Coffee mornings are back under step three of the Government’s roadmap

©Emma Solley

The nave roof and west window of Exeter Cathedral. The cathedral reopened for visitors on Monday

The nave roof and west window of Exeter Cathedral. The cathedral reopened for visitors on Monday

THE 30-person limit on funeral attendance in places of worship has been scrapped as part of the latest easing of lockdown restrictions in England. And groups of six people from different households can now sit together during worship.

“It’s awful — we no longer have an excuse not to sit with the Jones’s”

As part of the third stage of the Government’s roadmap, which came into force on Monday, attendance at funerals is now limited to the Covid-safe capacity of the building, allowing many more people to pay their respects in person.

Wakes and weddings of up to 30 guests are now permitted — up from six since the second stage of the roadmap began on 12 April. Support groups and parent-and-child group gathering limits have also increased to 30 people, excluding under-fives accompanied by a parent or guardian (subject to the building’s capacity).

More generally in England, groups of 30 people from unlimited households may now meet outdoors, and groups of six people from up to six different households are able to meet indoors and stay overnight. Pubs and restaurants are now permitted to welcome people indoors, though social distancing continues to limit numbers.

The Prime Minister also announced that hugging between friends and family would now be left to “personal choice”. This needs to be “exercised with caution”, however, he said. Factors such as the vulnerability and age of family and friends, and whether they have had the vaccine, will influence behaviour.

Government guidance on places of worship was updated last Friday to include these changes. Church of England guidance was updated on Monday afternoon.

As before, the size of congregations for communal worship, including ordinations, baptisms, and confirmations remains limited to the capacity of the building and subject to a risk assessment. Mixing between households within places of worship, including for private prayer, follows national restrictions, mean that groups of six people from different households can now sit together. Social-distancing rules still apply between separate groups.

Face coverings are still mandatory in places of worship, and the distribution of the communion cup remains suspended. The use of water and full immersion during baptisms is permitted with social-distancing guidelines and hygiene measures applied.

Outdoors, congregations are unlimited as long as they are spaced “in multiple groups” of up to 30 people, allowing larger outdoor events to take place (News, 14 May). Congregational singing outdoors is also permitted. There has been no update on congregational singing inside churches, however, which is still not permitted due to the risk of droplet transmission (News, 4 June 2020).

Currently, up to six amateur musicians and singers may perform indoors as part of the act of worship; there is no limit on the number of professional singers; and children’s choirs can also perform, whether from one school or more.

In line with national guidance, hospitality spaces within places of worship, such as cafés, are permitted to open both inside and outside, and people may also provide their own food and drink at a place of worship, meaning that coffee mornings may now resume. For church venues that sell alcohol, table service is required with socially distanced seating arrangements.

On Monday, Lichfield and Exeter Cathedrals were among the church buildings to open their doors to visitors for sightseeing for the first time this year. Both cathedrals have been open for worship throughout the most recent lockdown. There will be specific opening times for the public outside of regular service times; Lichfield is free to enter; Exeter charges £5 entry.

The Church’s adviser on medical ethics and health policy, the Revd Dr Brendan McCarthy, said on Monday that the changes for places of worship were “relatively modest” but that increases in numbers at life events were welcome.

“A more extensive easing of restrictions is expected next month when England is due to move to step four on the Government’s ‘reopening’ roadmap.

“However, despite major progress in the rollout of vaccinations, recent developments around the world — especially the tragic events in India — show that there is still uncertainty ahead, and we will continue to encourage a measured approach to the path forward as we seek to protect the most vulnerable.”

The fourth and final stage of the roadmap, which would end to all legal limitations on social contact, is expected to be implemented from 21 June. This will be determined by the success of the vaccination programme against the Indian variant of the coronavirus (News, 14 May), which is thought to be more transmissible.

As cases of the variant rose in northern regions of England over the weekend, Mr Johnson announced that the vaccine would be offered to all over-18s in those areas. The waiting period between first and second vaccinations for the over-50s has also been reduced from 12 to eight weeks, after it was reported that most of the people hospitalised with the new variant in England in the past few days had not been vaccinated.

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