This week, the Government has introduced new rules. It will be illegal to have groups of greater than six gathering for social purposes. Whilst this does not in and of itself limit the numbers that can attend church, it will have some affect on church life. This is because whilst the total number of people attending church may not be capped, people are expected to attend in those groups of six. There is not to be any mingling between groups.
Now what exactly is meant by mingling is a little uncertain. However, the Home Secretary has indicated her understanding in an interview.
“Asked if two families of four stopping for a chat on their way to the park would be in breach of the “Rule of Six,” the Home Secretary said: “It’s mingling, I think it is absolutely mingling but you have to put this into context of coronavirus, and keeping distance and wearing masks…”
This is where it may become a challenge for churches. Currently there shouldn’t be an issue at the church building itself because the expectation is that social interaction is meant to be minimal and people are to be dismissed immediately from the site. However, what happens on route between church and home is really up to individual church members. At the moment there shouldn’t be a problem with two families walking together to the building (socially distanced of course), catching up and enjoying fellowship. This could be a helpful way of enabling the kind of horizontal aspects to church that the Government’s guidance does not seem to capture. However, there is now the risk that people will be breaking the law or at least seen to be breaking the law.
Now on one level, the Home Secretary’s statement is contestable. I am not convinced that she is interpreting the regulations correctly. However, that doesn’t matter. What matters is that a public statement has gone out. This may influence the approach of those policing the rules. When you consider that the penalties are going to be strict liability rather than heard in court and when policing the rules is being passed to marshals and for the general public to report there is a risk that this could lead to lots of reporting. It creates an opportunity for people to avenge petty quarrels and vendettas by getting neighbours into trouble. It risks creating an environment where the church is seen as a bad witness.
As it happens, the rule of six has been trumped by local lockdown measures here in Sandwell. Though we are still able to meet as a church and so will continue to open the doors on Sundays, we are aware that we need to go more cautiously. We had hoped to start to increase our provision over the next few months. For example, we were looking at how best to provide for all ages within families. We would be holding back on that anyway. However, I can see the rule of six causing problems here. At the moment it is likely to only be twos and threes walking home and chatting but if families start to return, we are more likely to see families walking in together. Indeed it would be bizarre normally for a family of three passing the home of a family of five on route to church not to start walking and talking together. Anything else would seem rude! In the end, when the time comes I think we will still want to look at going ahead with what we can do at the building and reminding people about the mingling rules. However I think these rules are going to create an unhelpful burden