Churches during relaxation of lockdown – I

Rights of entry, seating, and forms of worship

On Friday 15 May 2020, the first Taskforce on Reopening Places of Worship (“the Task Force”) was held with faith leaders to plan the safe, phased reopening, for individual prayer and public worship, including weddings and funerals. Earlier in the month, the House of Bishops had agreed to a phased approach to revising access to church buildings in line with the government’s lifting of restrictions on places of worship.

The Task Force noted that the government had set out its “ambition to reopen places of worship in step 3 of its plan to lift restrictions, which is expected to be no earlier than 4 July subject to further scientific advice”. However, in recognition of how difficult it has been for people of faith to not be able to practice their religion with their community, “members agreed to work together to consider whether some forms of worship, such as individual prayer, might be permitted in places of worship before they fully reopen in step 3, where appropriate and safe to do so in line with social distancing guidelines”.

The House of Bishops has been working on the delivery of this goal, and uploaded the first versions of a tranche of technical guidance papers to the CofE web site on 27 May. The discussion below considers the extent to which access to places of worship is constrained by the overarching statutory legislation, the applicable ecclesiastical law, and their implementation by the Church of England.

During the progressive relaxation of lockdown provisions, the emphasis on who may enter a church will progress from the presence of the priest alone, the priest and those essential to the functioning of the church, and finally to the presence of a congregation, albeit in reduced numbers initially.

Relaxation of restrictions to date

On 24 March, the Church of England issued a Press Release confirming the closure of all churches with immediate effect, including for private prayer. Whilst subsequently, clergy were asked to believe that it was “guidance – not an instruction or law”, this was not evident from the mandatory language used in the Archbishops’ Ad Clerum or in the approach taken by the Diocese of Rochester.

Following its meeting on 5 May, the House of Bishops issued a Statement announcing its backing of a phased approach to revising the access to church buildings. Further to this, the Archbishops’ Council, Cathedral and Church Buildings Division issued Access to church buildings during lockdown: advice for incumbents, version 1 on 6 May, and an updated version 2 on 7 May. Whilst church buildings were to remain closed for public worship, they could be accessed by the priest and a very restricted number of people. Changes were introduced 20 May with regard to construction works in churches, and on 22 May the set of technical advice papers described below was circulated, in which further relaxations were announced.

Who may enter places of worship and what preliminary precautions will be required?

Preliminary precautions

The first tranche of technical guidance papers, which was completed on 22 May, includes information for incumbents, churchwardens and PCC members on: access to church buildings; keeping church buildings clean’ and a Risk Assessment checklist for parish churches. This last document provides a template for the risk assessment specific to covid-related risks and links to the relevant advice notes. Although it stresses that the assessment concerns “not general risks”, a number relate to typical health and safety issues which have arisen from the closure of churches rather than coronavirus infection.

The assessment relates to situations where there is limited access to church buildings the purposes of private prayer, livestreaming, construction, carrying out of contractual work, building maintenance and cleaning. A further version of the Risk Assessment is to be produced “when small services such as weddings and funerals are allowed, then for private prayer, then for some form of public worship”.

Who may enter a church?

At the present time, there are restrictions on gatherings imposed by regulations 6 &7, The Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (England) Regulations 2020, and advice on social distancing is given in the non-statutory Guidance Staying alert and safe (social distancing). The latter advises staying two metres apart from anyone outside of ones’ household; however, there is no legislation (and hence no offence) related to social distancing, on which incidentally, the WHO advises maintaining at least one metre distance between oneself and others.

As a consequence of the amendments in The Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (England) (Amendment) (No. 4) Regulations 2020, SI 2020/588, as from 13 June 2020, private prayer is permitted under Regulation 5 of the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (England) Regulations 2020, SI 350. This states:

“(6) A place of worship may be used…

… (e) for private prayer by individuals, and for these purposes, “private prayer” means prayer which does not form part of communal worship”.

As with the closure of churches on 24 March, faith groups may seek to adopt a more restrictive approach than that in the statutory legislation and guidance.

Parish Churches

We considered the ecclesiastical law on who may enter a parish church in March 2019 in relation to the advice issued by the General Synod Legal Advisory Commission, Parish Church – Right to Enter (February 2019), and the analysis in Philip Jones’ post The Right to Worship (November 2012). There are some uncertainties as to the origin of the right to enter a parish church; whether this was originally founded in statute or whether it is purely a common law right. Leaving aside these academic points, “the Advice indicates that subject to certain caveats, a parishioner has the right to enter his or her parish church in order to take part in divine service (i.e. any form of legally-authorized religious service) and to remain there until the conclusion of the service.

However, this right is “subject to there being sufficient accommodation available (including standing room) but is necessarily subject to the requirements of the preservation of good order as well as of any applicable health and safety legislation”. This proviso is particularly pertinent in the present circumstances where the available accommodation will be determined by the applicable Health Protection Regulations and Guidance on maximum numbers and spacing, as well as measures such as the HASAWA 1974 and other health and safety legislation.

Where may people sit?

Canon F 7 Of seats in church empowers churchwardens to direct where parishioners and non-parishioners should sit and, importantly, stresses that this is “as the officers of the Ordinary and subject to his directions“. The implication here is that a diocesan bishop may impose specific directions under his powers as Ordinary, and these could include constraints relevant to the relaxation of the lockdown requirements. Incidentally, Canon F7(3) indicates that parishioners should have priority allocation of seats in the main body of the church. A practical problem with the implementation of Canon F 7 will arise with churchwardens aged 70 and over; regardless of medical condition, these are considered to be within a vulnerable group for whom government advice (at 2.1) “continues to be that they should take particular care to minimise contact with others outside their household”.

Given that few churches are the same in their architectural and internal seating arrangements, the incumbent would need a certain degree of flexibility in applying diocesan constraints to his or her particular situation. Few problems on numbers and spacing are likely to be encountered when places of worship are opened for private prayer, since the number wishing to attend is likely to be relatively low, their time in the church will probably be less than during a service, and the rights associated with attending divine service will not be applicable. However, as churches move towards holding “worship services with limited congregations”, the logistics become more complex, and commentators have indicated a number of possible solutions.

Some reports have suggested that a form of ticketing might be introduced; this could conflict with the rights of parishioners to attend divine service, although the simultaneous streaming of the service might alleviate some of the problems. The option of “back-to-back services” would enable a greater number to experience “live” services, but apart from adding to the workload of the clergy, this would need to take into account the time and resources required to clean the churches between services.

The seating available will affect the numbers in the congregation that can be accommodated whilst maintaining social distancing. Some have (opportunistically) suggested that pews should be removed and replaced by chairs, whilst others have extolled the virtues of box pews for family groups (as in St Mary’s, Whitby, shown), although it is unlikely that there will be a return to pew renting and the manorial pew (ref.2).

What changes need to be made to  places of worship?

On Monday 18 May, the Second Church Estates Commission, Andrew Selous, gave the following answer to two Written Questions from Andrew Rosindell and Luke Evans [emphasis added]:

“… We are working with Government and with representatives of the heritage planning sector to assess the need for building adaptations related to public safety in our cathedral and church buildings, and in particular temporary additions or changes that might need to be made to enable social distancing and proper hygiene. We are committed to enabling our churches and cathedrals to make such changes as might be needed to allow them to reopen safely.

Any such changes to church buildings would fall within the faculty jurisdiction, although rule 8.2  Faculty Jurisdiction Rules 2015 as amended by the Ecclesiastical Jurisdiction and Care of Churches Measure 2018, Schedule 3, Part 2, provides for a scheme of temporary minor re-ordering of a church under as archdeacon’s licence for a specified period not exceeding 15 months;  this includes fixtures and fittings, but is inapplicable where there is no minister in post, rule 8.3.


The Advice issued in February 2019 concerns the entry of persons to parish churches rather than “non-parochial units”, and was issued at a time when most PCCs would have been considering their Annual Church Meetings and the Annual Parochial Church Meetings. Further insights on the entry to curches and cathedrals may be gleaned from the Advisory Commission’s Celebrity Marriages in Anglican Cathedrals and Churches which was issued in February 2017 in a different context. Unsurprisingly, given the commonality in some of the authorities cited, its considerations regarding rights of entry are similar, with the additional comment “[a]ny person with a right to seating in a particular pew cannot be denied that right”, as demonstrated at a recent royal wedding (ref.1).

This  Advice also comments on the issue of ticketing for services, although this is limited by the absence of relevant authorities. It notes that it is unclear whether any service for divine worship may be ticketed, [stressing that a wedding invitation is not the same as a ticket to a service and cannot per se entitle a person to entrance to the church]. The question was left open in R v Bishop of Bristol, ex parte Williamson, which related to protests at an ordination rather than at a wedding. “Even if it may, it is likely that there must be sufficient publicity to permit those otherwise entitled to attend to apply for a ticket [Hill M,  Ecclesiastical Law 3rd ed, (2007, OUP) at page 88, note 222]. In the present circumstances where there is simultaneous streaming of services, a potential benefit of ticketing might be the opportunity to ensure that those who did not have access to streaming facilities could attend “live services”. The application for, and issue of tickets, also provides a means of addressing GDPR concerns, although in practice this would be unnecessary where only the clergy are identifiable. However, ticketing has the potential of creating a record of those entering the church for use in contact tracing, as in the present recommendations on entry to churches.  

What form might the worship take?

The endpoint of current discussions by the Task Force is “worship services with limited congregations”; it is not a return to the pre-pandemic position. Nevertheless, even with this restricted goal, there are significant problems to be addressed as there appears to be relatively little information on the precautions which would be necessary. Prior to lockdown and the cessation of public worship, precautionary advice such as that from the Church of England on 12 March, was issued; this centred on good personal hygiene by all participants, non-sharing of hymn books &c, suspension of the administration of the chalice as well as physical contact during the sharing of the Peace, blessing or “laying on of hands”. Similar advice has been issued by the Methodist Church.

As churches move towards holding “worship services with limited congregations”, it will be necessary to build upon these essentially “good practice” procedures, supplemented by scientific information on the transmission of coronavirus. On 26 May, the Environment Agency published Environmental influence on transmission of COVID-19, a 24-page report compiled by the Environmental and Modelling Group for the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE), and also the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies published the 16-page report Evidence of environmental dispersion of COVID-19 for different mechanisms (14 April 2020). The Government Office for Science has produced Coronavirus (COVID-19): scientific evidence supporting the UK government response which provides links to the work of SAGE, external science advice and advice from expert groups.


[1]. Sister Annaliese and Sister Judith (a.k.a. the “ninja nuns“) were seated in their usual places at Westminster Abbey on 29 April 2011, which happened to be next to Prince William, Duke of Cambridge, on the occasion of his marriage to Catherine Middleton.

[2]. An extreme example is the Opera Boxes in Holy Trinity, Wensley which were removed from a Drury Lane theatre  in 18th Century and installed by the 3rd Duke of Bolton. At the other end of the scale were the “pew openers” (e.g. one of the minor characters in W S Gilbert’s The Sorcerer), a familiar figure of the time: almost always an elderly woman who controlled entry to every pew, opening up pews to the owning families in return for a gratuity. The expression ”has the grip of a pew-openers muscle” was derived from the uncanny way she was able to grip coins firmly in the palm of her hand in a discrete manner.

Cite this article as: David Pocklington, "Churches during relaxation of lockdown – I" in Law & Religion UK, 27 May 2020,

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