Music, musicians, and the congregation

Churches during relaxation of lockdown – II

The first post in this series, Churches during relaxation of lockdown, considered the rights of entry, seating, and forms of worship in relation to the House of Bishops’ phased approach to revising access to church buildings in line with the government’s lifting of restrictions; also included was a review of the first meeting of the Taskforce on Reopening Places of Worship. The current horizon of this phased approach does not stretch beyond “worship services with limited congregations”, and initially it seems unlikely that this will include music. Nevertheless, the reintroduction of music in some form is under consideration within the Church of England and elsewhere, and was discussed at the recent Royal School of Church Music webinar ‘What next for the Ministry of Music in our Parishes and Dioceses?


The RSCM webinar was held on 22 May 2020, and has been reviewed in the Church Times article Does singing increase risk of infection? The transmission and dispersion of the coronavirus are among the issues being considered by the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE), and on 26 May, the government published information on its work which we commented in A sage appraisal of COVID-19. The two events were close together; however, as we indicated in our post, the SAGE information related to meetings four to six weeks earlier, at the time of writing (ref.1). The importance of basing decisions on the latest information in relation to fact-developing understanding of coronavirus was stressed in the RSCM webinar.

The development of “pragmatic and rational advice”

Four aspects of church singing were considered in the webinar: models for the continuation of music in churches; best practice for safe use of space and facilities; Financial implications; and the effects and consequences on church communities and church musicians. Underpinning these discussions was the development of “pragmatic and rational advice” that can be disseminated to churches, to enable to resume “worship services with limited congregations” and beyond. Such advice will need to meet the twin goals of being safe for all participants, whilst permissive in the use of music.

Scientific considerations

A detailed review of the scientific considerations was given by Dr Charlie Bell (National Clinical Fellow at the Health and Social Care Committee of the House of Commons. Fellow and Lecturer, Girton College, Cambridge) [from ~43:10 to 52:40]. He noted the conjecture and scare stories in the media coverage, and stated that scientific knowledge was not currently in a position to come down either way on the role of aerosols and whether these posed a substantially increased risk. Dr Bell also stated that in view of the different nature, there was no direct read-across from influenza data to coronavirus situations.

He explained that there are two forms of transmission of coronavirus: through larger droplets, >5µm, and through aerosols. If someone coughs, the droplet will hit person or fall onto floor and stay on hard surface for up to 72 hours, though this is much lower for paper and cardboard. Aerosols remain in the air for longer, hence the “2 metre rule” which relates to the open air; inside buildings this could extend to 4-5m. Droplets are known to be a primary mode of transmission, and procedures for their avoidances are relatively straightforward. However, the evidence is very mixed on whether aerosols are also an important transfer mechanism.

Dr Bell stressed that in the absence of definitive science, it was “risk” that was being assessed, and a number of scenarios could be constructed. These “risk assessments” might be specific to certain circumstances, or be so general that would necessary to supplement them with site/situation information before they could be applied. From what is known, certain measures are advisable, whilst others are not so; different advice might be necessary for different situations.

Unsurprisingly, the information presented by Dr Bell was consistent to that reported to SAGE, and reviewed in A sage appraisal of COVID-19. Recently, a professional musician, Ed Ballard, has gathered evidence from scientific studies on the transmission of Covid-19, and this provides a useful resource for links to a wide range of published data (ref.2).

Organists and organ scholars

The Church of England Guidance Access to church buildings during lockdown: general advice for incumbents, churchwardens and PCC members, v1, (22 May) includes a remarkably “tin eared” statement on organ practice:

“At present regular access for organ practice is not advised. This advice will be reviewed when there is a prospect of services happening in the church when music will be required“.

The Guidance acknowledges the need for rudimentary maintenance “for a cathedral or church with a larger or mechanically complex organ” where “prolonged lack of use will result in long-term problems with its performance”. However, it does not take into consideration the requirements of organists for frequent practice to maintain and develop their skills, or their pupils who are reliant on access to the church organ (ref.3).

This was certainly not the view of contributors to the webinar, a number of whom stressed the need to permit organists access to churches. Dr Bell stated that there was no scientific reason to suggest that an organist alone in a church is more of a risk than a priest alone, although there may be legal/contractual issues to address where the organist had been furloughed. With regard to cleaning in these situations, only basic cleaning was necessary, not “deep cleaning” – i.e. simple detergent cleaning as in government advice. Furthermore, there is no evidence that pipe organs are likely to spread disease any more than any other organ, such as electronic organ, so there is really no good reason why pipe organs should not be used.

Choral and congregational singers

Dr Bell commented ”there is an enormous amount of noise around the science, with much conjecture and some scare stories”, on which the Church Times article added “much of the debate [outside the webinar] has centred on the experience of the Amsterdam Mixed Choir. After a performance of Bach’s St John Passion on 8 March, 102 of the 130 members contracted the virus. One died, and others were admitted to intensive care”. To this might be added the experiences at Skagit Valley Chorale in Washington State, and other instances in Europe.

However, he confirmed to the webinar “there is no evidence that it was the singing which spread the disease”; this may have been spread by other means. The possibility of spreading by a single individual was also conjecture.

No evidence appears to have been presented on the spread of coronavirus in church or cathedral choirs, for which the style and location of singing &c is quite different from the Skagit and Amsterdam examples. With regard to congregational singing, he stated that one could not use evidence of one example as proof for elsewhere. On an internationally risk assessment basis, congregational singing appeared to be “probably fine”, although outdoor services, may be an answer or part of the interim answer.


It was clear from the webinar that the approach of the churches must be based on sound science, not on its assumptions of what constitutes science. The evidence presented was based upon the WHO opinion that droplets are a primary mode of transmission and no definitive conclusions can be made on the role of aerosols. There are, however, some who have suggested otherwise.

At the present time, it is not known whether singing is safe, and in the absence of definitive science, it is “risk” that needs to be assessed. From what is known, certain measures are considered to be advisable, whilst others are not so, and a number of scenarios can be constructed. In view of the many variables relating to the performance of music in churches – the buildings, the choirs and the music itself – it is unlikely a “one size fits all” solution will be possible. Different advice will probably be necessary to address different situations.


On 3 June, the Liturgical Commission issued new guidance Marking our Communities 1: Opening the Doors: re-entering our church buildings, which stated:

“[1.4] As part of our ‘recovery’, a suite of liturgical resources has been gathered. Sadly, it is unlikely that our worship will be able to include congregational singing for some months. National guidance about music, singing and worship is being prepared and will be circulated separately.”

David Pocklington


[1]. The overview report covered SAGE meetings over the period from 4 February 2020 (meeting 4) to 14 May (meeting 36); the paper on dispersion was discussed at meeting 25 on 14 April 2020; the paper on transmission was discussed at meeting 29 on 28 April 2020.

[2]. As Ed Ballard himself admits, his review (rather like this present one) is by “a lay person” in this particular field of science, and has not been subject to peer review; however, the trends observed align with those of the RSCM webinar experts.

[3]. Likewise, bell ringers are dependent upon access to the ringing chamber; the provision for an ‘appointed person’ to ring a single bell under a restricted set of circumstances does little for the change ringing skills of the band of ringers.

Cite this article as: David Pocklington, "Music, musicians, and the congregation" in Law & Religion UK, 5 June 2020,


4 thoughts on “Music, musicians, and the congregation

  1. From the risk point of view, it seems that until regular testing and tracking are available, the risk of passing on the virus when singing in church is too great given the nature of the virus and its behaviour and the impact on the older members of most congregations. The fact that it attacks the respiratory system is also a factor as is the fact that a vaccine may not be available at any stage to protect people in the future. We may simply have to wait till the virus in its current form has disappeared which may take some time i.e. months/years.

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