The Government are expected to confirm on Monday 12th July the ending of all remaining COVID-`9 measures. There has been a lot of speculation over the past few weeks about what that will exactly look like. On the one hand, there have been briefings from some ministers, scientists and even the PM suggesting that some measures will continue whilst the weekend papers were suggesting that July 19th will see the end of compulsory social distancing, face masks and the requirement to scan in to venues for track and trace.
Well, on the 5th July, the Prime Minister gave the COVID briefing whilst Sajid Javid spoke in the House of Commons and it was confirmed that if final unlocking goes ahead on the 19th (the decision will be made next week) then it will include permission to sing and removal of requirements to wear facemasks and to practice social distancing. Whilst these will no longer be legal requirements, the public remain encouraged to respond responsibly to specific situations. So for example, the Prime Minister suggested that he would wear a mask during rush hour on the London Underground but not at less busy times on overground trains.
The exact nature of what happens on the 19th July has crucial implications for churches. Since last July, with the brief exception of the mini lockdown in November 2020, churches have been allowed to open however there has been a requirement for social distancing, face masks, contact tracing and a ban on singing. If the latest noises in the press are right, all of that is about to change.
However, I suspect that if we are assuming there will be a big bang return to normal on the 19th July then we are going to be disappointed. The reason for this is that whilst restrictions will have been lifted, this will come at a time when cases have been increasing rapidly and this will be feeding into hospital admission rates and potentially deaths by end of July. Whilst my personal perception is that this is all within the parameters of what can be expected at this stage of a pandemic and that the country should be able to cope due to the effectiveness of the vaccines, it is also going to leave a lot of people feeling extremely anxious of us experiencing another horrific wave that overwhelms the health service.
The result of this is that I think we can see a country that is increasingly polarised at the moment. Some are extremely keen to get back to life as normal, frustrated at the delays and suspicious of anything that suggests ongoing state intervention and control in our personal lives. Others remain very anxious about the threat of COVID and would prefer strict measures to be in place much longer. If some people pushed the boundaries during lockdowns others may choose to continue to distance, self-isolate, wear masks etc even after the requirement is lifted. Indeed, they may choose to stay away from venues and contexts where such measures are not observed.
We will find that due to our character, disposition and political/philosophical outlook will find that we lean one way or the other on this. We may also find that our congregations reflect their local communities and that one of the two views tends to dominate. This is probably already reflected in those churches that have gone further in returning and seen more people coming back already versus those that still remain mainly online. The risk then is that if we are disposed to one view and especially if our disposition is shared by our congregation, then we may have a blind spot to the other position.
Because of that, it is so important that we lean into our blind-spot and are ready to challenge our own assumptions as well as providing for those who don’t feel the same. My natural political disposition is towards a form of libertarianism so I would rather see the end of restrictions as soon as possible. My approach to problem solving coupled with a long held interest in data analysis means that my disposition is towards seeing us open up as soon as possible. I also am emotionally drawn to being part of a large crowd with lots of singing, prayer and preaching. So I’ve struggled with the whole online, stripped back experience.
This means I need to remember that not everyone feels the same way as I do. If you have the same outlook as I do, then I’d encourage you to be particularly alert to those who are anxious about returning. This means:
- Take time to look at all the data and information, including that data which looks least supportive to your outlook.
- Help to share and communicate information that will provide reassurance for those who are anxious. Take time to meet with people who are anxious and who may be most reluctant to return. Be patient with them, love them, pray for them and with them.
- Don’t push individuals to return before they are ready. This means continuing to provide online content for a little while yet.
- Make sure that you have done all you can to assess and mitigate against risk when you gather. As I’ve said before, this may include providing a form of test and trace, continuing to allow for a reduced capacity to allow people to socially distance and encourage face maks wearing in confined spaces.
- Take time to prayerfully study those passages of Scripture that remind us of our responsibility to love our neighbours and put their needs first.
Some of you may come from the other end of the spectrum and be extremely anxious about return to church in person. Can I encourage you to lean into your blind spots too? This probably means:
- Getting your churches open and meeting as close to normal as soon as possible. For example, whilst I’m saying that we should prepare for reduced capacity, we should probably do this by setting out seats as normal but allowing people to space themselves. It may mean putting on an extra service so people have the option of attending with less people present.
- Paying attention to the positive data even if it challenges your nervousness.
- Expressing trust in those brothers and sisters who are working and have been working towards a responsible return plan.
- Offering constructive advice to those organising things to let them know what measure you think they can take that will help.
- Take time to prayerfully study those passages of Scripture that point us to God’s sovereignty and the call to rest in him
I’ve mentioned a few times that I’ve got a view on how we might model our church gatherings over the next 3 or 4 months that will enable people to return and for us to look after each other. My proposal is:
- Open your building with seats laid out as normal but assume 50% capacity. This means if you have 80 people in your church and your building holds 100, then put on two services enabling you to fit 40 in at each. Another way of managing capacity and space might be to provide the children’s groups for the full duration of the service rather than a scenario where children stay in a meeting for the singing and go out for the teaching
- It may help to offer two styles of service. One would be including singing from the off. The other would provide for a slower pace of return sticking to readings, prayer and a talk in the short term.
- Encourage people to sign in to enable a level of track and trace and to continue to access rapid testing options.
- Continue to provide a level of hygiene control including asking people to hand sanitise on entry. You may also wish to ask people to wear face masks at pinch points entering and exiting the building. Provide for individual communion servings.
- Continue to provide an online option for those who are not yet ready to return
- Use the summer to do outdoor singing.
- Review your risk assessment based on local data each week and publish the risk assessment.
- Liaise with your local public health team.
- If you haven’t done so yet, consult the congregation on these things.
It is worth mentioning that whilst legal restrictions will go, I think this will put a greater onus on churches to do due diligence on their risk assessments. Venue hirers, insurance companies and health and safety regulators will be watching those things carefully and even as the removal of restrictions happens under COVID legislation we may still find that some restrictions continue through other means.
Finally, let’s seek to keep the bond of unity and peace. There will be different views on how to go forward but lets respond to those differences charitably and remembering that we have a shared commitment to seeking God’s glory in all we do.