CONGREGATIONAL singing and the common cup at the eucharist will be allowed in England once again from Monday, church authorities have confirmed, despite the sharp rise in coronavirus cases. It will be up to clergy and PCCs to decide whether to retain precautions such as face coverings, social distancing, and communion in one kind.
The latest Church of England guidance was published late on Friday afternoon, in preparation for Monday’s removal of restrictions in England. The move coincided with the news that reported daily cases in the UK had passed 50,000, and a warning by the Government’s chief medical adviser, Professor Chris Whitty, that hospital admissions could reach “scary numbers”. Different timetables for relaxing Covid restrictions have been set by the governments of Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland.
The Bishop of London, the Rt Revd Sarah Mullally, who heads the Church’s Covid recovery group, welcomed the relaxation of restrictions, including what she described as the “long-awaited return of congregational and amateur choir singing”, but she also urged caution.
“This is a difficult point in the course of the pandemic. Despite vaccination rates, cases are up, hospital admissions are up, and long Covid remains an ongoing concern. Therefore our approach needs to be cautious and careful,” she said.
“Taking personal responsibility means responsibility for our neighbour, not just for ourselves, and taking precautions to protect those more vulnerable than we consider ourselves to be. Local church leaders know their communities and their own circumstances, and we will support them making local decisions to keep themselves and their community safe.”
She paid tribute to the vaccination programme, those who continue to administer the vaccines, and those who have taken up the jab.
The latest guidance, “Opening and managing church buildings in Step 4 of the Roadmap”, urges church leaders to listen to the “voices of vulnerable” when making their decisions about how far to relax local restrictions.
The guidance appears to expect disagreements. It suggests: “A clear rationale will also help with communicating why additional measures may be taken, and why these measures will vary from place to place and event to event. In every situation there is likely to be a range of feeling about risk, both to ourselves and to others, that will need to be accommodated by our churches in a way appropriate to each of them. . .
“We recognise it may be difficult to agree exactly what to do and how to come to a decision on a specific point. Rural and area deans, archdeacons and bishops can all be asked for help and advice,” it says.
All churches should continue to carry out risk assessments to help make decisions on matters such as mask-wearing and social distancing.
An incumbent may “retain some or all of these measures if they believe doing so is important for safety in their building, or if they judge that it will help people to feel more secure in returning to worship and other uses of the building,” the guidance says.
While singing is allowed from Monday, church leaders are warned that it carries with it “a higher risk of catching or passing on the virus”, and are urged to consider opening windows and doors, shortening the duration of singing, and encouraging mask wearing. Singing and meeting outdoors are a “good alternative” to meeting indoors, it suggests.
Bell-ringing can also now go ahead without social distancing, though hand sanitising and good ventilation are still urged.
Churches should also consider how they can provide for the needs of those who are clinically extremely vulnerable, including clergy, lay leaders, and PCC members, as well as members of the congregation and visitors, the guidance says.
While the common cup can now be shared again at communion, it does not have to be, the guidance states, and it is up to clergy to decide whether to continue with communion in one kind only. No pressure should be placed on clergy, or on members of the congregation, to administer or receive the common cup.
For children and youth groups, all restrictions have been removed, though hand hygiene and sensible cleaning are recommended.
Restrictions on events and catering have also all been removed.
In other parts of the UK, restrictions remain as the governments of Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland take a more cautious approach.
In Northern Ireland, face coverings will no longer be compulsory from 26 July in places of worship, though the Church of Ireland has said that it will review that and other advice in the “context of medical advice”.
Social distancing for indoors events, including worship services, will also be reduced to one metre.
In Wales, masks remain a legal requirement indoors, as is hand sanitising and the two-metre social-distancing rule. However, singing is allowed in places where Covid rates are low, provided masks are worn, and teas and coffees can be served after services. Celebration of communion remains in one kind only.
Scotland goes down to its lowest level of restrictions, level 0, on Monday, but face masks remain mandatory. Congregational singing was permitted in areas with low number of cases from 23 June. The common cup at communion is still not permitted, however.
Read the new and updated guidance documents here