“The clock hath ceased to sound…”
One of the documents issued on 27 March by the Church of England was the snappily-titled Securing and caring for your church buildings during the Covid-19 pandemic: advice for incumbents, churchwardens and PCC members, (“the Advice”). This provides clear guidance on a number of practical issues, not least of which is the maintenance of church clocks, bearing in mind the change to British Summer Time (BST) at 1 am on Sunday, 29 March.
On 22 May, the House of Bishops Covid-19 Recovery Group issued Access to church buildings during lockdown: general advice for incumbents, churchwardens and PCC members, an updated version of the Advice. This post summarizes the main points in the revised document, to which reference should be made for more detailed information. The other updates from the Church on 27 March, including the Archbishops’ further exhortation on the complete closure of churches have been added to our Coronavirus updates – index page.
The ten-page Advice is issued by the Archbishops’ Council Cathedral and Church Buildings Division, hence the different format and, most notably, its document control. As we have commented on numerous occasions, this has not been a strong point in much of the Church’s guidance, but in a rapidly-developing situation, this is invaluable. This document is to be kept under review and updated as events develop, with each update issues as a new version. The current version will always be available to download from the Church of England website via the Coronavirus FAQs page.
The following topics are covered: Telling people what’s happening; How to close the church building for an extended time; What can we do?; Insurance; Finances; Building works and public notices; Bats; The churchyard. The document index provides convenient (internal) links to each of these headings. We have summarized these under the following broad headings:
Following a summary of communication issues (p 2) and “How to close the church building for an extended time” (pp 2-3), in “What can we do?”, (pp 3-5) the Advice lists the actions that may, and may not, be taken by incumbents, churchwardens and PCC members, (and others). The overarching requirements are the Government guidelines on travel, and the health and safety of the person concerned. It states [our italicization]:
“There will probably be members of the congregation taking their daily exercise or shopping for buildins whose route will pass by the church. They could check if all looks well from the outside, without entering the building. Consider whether you could put together a community rota to check the outside of the church daily.”
It may be reasonable for one designated person to enter the church to check that it remains safe and secure, provided they follow all government guidelines and have access to appropriate materials to sanitise surfaces such as doorknobs. This must not happen on a rota, as numerous people entering the building would represent a transmission risk, and must be limited to essential maintenance checks. The following things can usefully be checked on from ground level:
- The lightning conductor
- Any lead roofs and flashings
- That heating oil is still safe and undisturbed
- That there are no leaks to mains water supplied services
- That downpipes, gutters and gullies are working properly.
Any accidental damage should be recorded. A pair of binoculars can be helpful in assessing the building. This inspection should be done from ground level and without climbing ladders.
On access to the church for winding the clock and/or changing the time, servicing or surveying for telecoms infrastructure and other essential activities, the Advice states:
- Any access that is required must be in accordance with government guidance for essential travel and social distancing.
- Servicing or surveying for telecoms infrastructure is an essential activity and the equipment provider may still require access to the tower.
- Correcting the time of the clock does not justify the risk of a lone person climbing the tower, and we do not recommend this happens while the current lockdown restrictions are in place.
With regard to access for organ practice, (p5), “Organ practice cannot be considered as essential activity under the government guidance and does not justify a separate journey“.
Although the cleaning of a closed church may be undertaken alone, the Advice states (p5):
“It is crucial to limit unnecessary journeys. Cleaning cannot be considered an essential activity that would justify a sperate journey. Please be aware that a building in which someone who may have the coronavirus has been is considered ‘dirty’ (i.e. may contain infection) for 72 hours afterwards. This means multiple keyholders must not access the space, even if this is done one at a time. In any event, surfaces and door fixtures need to be sanitised in line with Public Health England guidelines.
Allied to cleaning is the advice relating to the protection of the church interior from bat droppings and urine while the church is not being regularly cleaned, (p8). Insurance and Church Finances are addressed on pages 5 and 6.
Building works and the associated public notices raise particular problems for churches which are part-way through a building project, or due to start work on a building project. This is covered on pages 6 to 8 which highlight the importance of government guidance and that produced by the construction industry that all contractors should be aware of and follow. Quinquennial Inspections should not take place as although in general only onw person may be involved, this will require travel to the site, and “although it is important it is not essential under the government advice on travel restrictions as they stand”.
Considerations on the posting of public notices (pp 7-8) engage aspects of the faculty jurisdiction, and
“Displaying public notices, for example for applications under Faculty, is a requirement of primary legislation. Your diocesan chancellor can give a dispensation from posting a notice if this is necessary and guidance has been sent to each chancellor about this.
Although continuing to post physical notices of any application will ensure that you are adhering to the letter of the law, it is equally important to abide by the spirit of it, which means that members of the public and statutory consultees should have the opportunity to engage fully with every application made under Faculty through a transparent and straightforward consultation process.
The current situation will greatly reduce the opportunities for members of your congregation, local residents and visitors to see a public notice. If you are preparing to apply for permission, particularly for a large or complex project, we feel that there is a moral imperative for you to ensure that the plans and supporting documents are available on your website if you have one, and that responses to the consultation are invited though social media and relevant email lists, to ensure that the process remains fully open.
The need to carry out consultation in different ways is an opportunity to engage creatively and widely using electronic media and may help foster support for the church and awareness of what it is doing at this time.
If it is possible for you to delay an application, at least until the lockdown is lifted, then we strongly advise you to do so.
The churchyard presents a number of particular issues during this period. Given the Archbishops’ clear guidance that church buildings are closed and there should be no public worship, clergy are not permitted to lead worship outdoors, even if people maintain 2m distance. However, with regard to locking the churchyard gates, or keeping the church grounds open for people to walk through, the answer is more nuanced since government guidance/legislation allows daily exercise and encourages the use of green spaces, and for many urban churches, the church grounds are the only green space around. Briefly:
“[clergy &c] should take reasonable steps to secure the site, but we appreciate that for many churches it is not possible (or desirable) to limit all access to the churchyard and wider site. Vehicular access should be restricted. Gates to car parks and driveways should be closed and locked. This is partly because it is important to remain conscious of the safety of others accessing the churchyard and church – even if they are not meant to be there.
If a public footpath runs through the churchyard it should not be obstructed. If the churchyard has become a gathering place the police may act to move people on”.
The General Synod Legal Advisory Commission has produced Public rights of way over land forming part of a churchyard; information on particular rights of way may be found on the definitive map of the area, such as that for Oxfordshire.
In relation to whether the cutting of the grass and other gardening is allowed, the Advice concludes:
“After the Prime Minister’s address to the nation on Monday 23 March, Michael Gove clarified matters relating to ‘exercise’. He said people would be allowed to run, walk or go to an allotment, but that more social activities, such as playing golf, were not allowed. On this basis, we believe it is appropriate for someone to come to church occasionally to mow the grass and carry out essential gardening. They should work alone (unless they are with someone from the same household). If they are using the church’s equipment, then it should be sanitised before and after use.”
If people are congregating in the church grounds, “no attempt should be made to move on groups of more than two people who are not from the same household. This is a matter for the police to enforce.”
Finally, the advice on local community groups (such as groups supporting people with disabilities, mental health issues, or suffering from social isolation) that work in church grounds is:
“The professional organisations and charities that provide these services will have their own guidance on how to work during the Covid-19 emergency. You should ask about their compliance if they continue to use your grounds”.