Returning to church buildings – what does the Government guidance say?

From the 4th July, church buildings will be able to re-open for public worship. It is our intention   at Bearwood Chapel to re-open in some format as soon as possible. We will also continue to use social media to provide online connections and services over the coming weeks and months.

In two further articles this week I will set out what our planned approach will be and also explain why we are going ahead with re-opening. I will also provide video versions of the updated information via Facebook. First of all, in order to enable understanding of the approach we are taking, I would like to provide an overview of the latest Government guidance.

The guidance can be read here:

https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/covid-19-guidance-for-the-safe-use-of-places-of-worship-from-4-july/covid-19-guidance-for-the-safe-use-of-places-of-worship-from-4-july?fbclid=IwAR2cbo5hgCwGqVXtvQQDPQOiuFXTpHuhLtHz1EC3y87WGxxMMxUKDCeLN1w

The key things we need to be aware of are:

Building Capacity

Places of public worship will be allowed to have gatherings of more than 30 people. However

  • Weddings and “other lifecycle events” continue to have a capacity of 30. I assume that this is likely to include funerals, christenings/dedications and baptisms.
  • Social distancing must continue to be enforced.

It is worth noting that whilst the new 1metre plus option allows for closer proximity, this is where necessary and with other protective measures taken.  2 metres at the moment remains the ideal and it will be wise to allow for this.

It is helpful to note that the provisions include the grounds of church buildings. These are considered part of the place of worship. This may enable some churches to make use of open-air space.

Services

We will be restricted in terms of what we can do as follows

  • Singing, shouting, and raised voices should be avoided. It is however possible to have one person singing or chanting where this is essential to worship.
  • Perspex shields are recommended for those speaking/singing/chanting from the front
  • Spoken responses (liturgy) are permissible but should avoid raised voices.
  • “blown” instruments are to be avoided and keyboards should be wiped down between use.
  • Recorded music is preferred to live music.

The guidance does allow for a reasonable number of activities connected with public worship to happen. It should be possible to use liturgy (quietly), listen to reflective music, hear Bible readings and have Scripture read. We may also be able to look at methods of sharing testimony too.

The guidance also provides for the opening of church café areas similar to the provision for the hospitality industry. This may make it possible for café style services to recommence – but I suggest this is reviewed locally with the relevant authorities.

Communion and Baptism

These two “sacraments/ordinances” play a central part in protestant worship alongside the public reading and preaching of God’s Word.

It seems that communion is possible based on the guidance. Note that the wording says:

“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.”

It may therefore be possible to serve communion if the bread is pre-cut and individual glasses are used. I expect that churches will want to carry out their own risk assessments and consult with local public health authorities first.

The guidance provides for the use of water in ceremonies but only via splashing and specifically excludes immersion. Churches such as ours where baptism by immersion is the norm will have to consider whether to ask people to delay baptism or whether there may be exceptional provision for “irregular baptism” by sprinkling.

Infection Control and protection of the vulnerable

As expected, all attendees should be asked to wash or sanitise hands on entry and exit.  Furthermore, face masks are strongly recommended.

Children’s toys, Bibles and hymnbooks should be removed and attendees either encouraged to bring their own Bibles or readings provided on screens.

Cleaning of surfaces should happen regularly although the term “deep clean” does not appear in the documentation.

Children remain under supervision of parents.

Churches should consider the possibility of having specific opening times for those over 70.

Churches are also encouraged to develop agreement/contracts with attendees about expected social behaviours to minimise risk.

Track and tracing, shielding and self-isolation should be followed

Enforcement

It is important to note that whilst the Prime Minster spoke last week about a shift from regulation to guidance, this does not mean that the guidance is mere, unenforceable advice.

It is important that risk assessments and walk throughs are carried out and we will be doing this during the week. We will also have a final risk review before going forward with opening.

The Local Authority has responsibility for enforcing the guidance and ensuring that buildings are in line with health and safety requirements. They will be able to insist on changes to plans or closure.  Failure to risk assess for COVID-19 forms a breach of health and safety legislation and could lead to criminal proceedings.

It is essential that we act responsibly in showing that we care for our community. 

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