Guidance on supervised individual prayer

New guidance from the Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government

On 12 June, the Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government issued COVID-19: guidance for the safe use of places of worship during the pandemic, (“the Guidance”). Although summarized in our “Breaking news” post, we noted that the Guidance is very extensive, comprising eleven sections; anyone who is proposing to reopen a place of worship in the near future should read the advice very carefully.

In this post we focus on the pressing issue of individual prayer, which is addressed in section 4 of the MHCLG Guidance. The links below will enable readers to move to the section of most interest to them.

Background

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 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. Rights of entry, seating, and forms of worship were discussed in Churches during relaxation of lockdown – I and the second post in this series considered the longer term issues of Music, musicians, and the congregation. On 5 June, the Church of England published a range of new guidance in preparation for permission for churches to be open for individual prayer and for occasional office services, stating “the government has not yet given permission for the opening of churches”.

Late on the evening of 6 June, the Church of England issued a statement following the Government’s announcement reported by BBC News that places of worship in England can open up for “supervised individual prayer” from 15 June. This was followed by the government Press Release Places of worship to re-open for individual prayer. However, at the coronavirus press conference on 10 June 2020, the Prime Minister then stated:

“Finally, we will allow places of worship to open for individual prayer this weekend. And I hope that will be of some comfort to those of faith who have been unable to go to their place of worship”.

The accompanying Press Release stressed that it was “Transcript of the speech, exactly as it was delivered”. However, the Bishop of Liverpool was quick to clarify that:

“In @LivDiocese churches will have the option of opening for private prayer, depending on their local situation & on local resources available, from Monday (15th). Parish clergy will make these decisions for their own context. I trust my colleagues and will support them in this”.

Quite so. Whether church open is currently a matter for government, but when churches are opened is not within its gift; furthermore, the overarching guidance is permissive, not mandatory. This was echoed in the Press Release from the Church on 11 June on this unexpected (and seemingly unnecessary) change from 15 June to 13 June.

Guidance

The MHCLG Guidance comprises eleven sections; the section relating to individual prayer is reproduced below [emphasis added].

“4. Guidance for individual prayer within a place of worship

From 13 June places of worship will be permitted to open for individual worship.

Permitted use

Individual prayer within a place of worship is defined as a person or household entering the venue to pray on their own and not as part of a group, led prayer or communal act. They should be socially distanced from other individuals or households. Collective or communal prayer and regular scheduled services are not permitted at this time as set out in Regulations. This includes a Minister of Religion or lay person leading devotions or prayer of any sort.

Those in charge of running a place of worship should engage and communicate with worshippers and the wider community to explain what activity is permitted and what is still prohibited.

Principles

Individuals or members of the same household may enter the building to make personal prayers and it is strongly advised that social distancing is maintained with other households. The fewer the people inside the building at any one time, the lower the risk of transmission.

Individual prayer should be carried out such that adherence to social distancing of 2 metres (3 steps) all round can be maintained between individuals or those from separate households. A household is a person or a group of people who live together in the same accommodation.

Individuals should stay alert at all times. They should not gather in groups, except with members of their own household, inside or outside the building. Steps should be taken to reduce the social interaction between people outside of an individual’s household to reduce the transmission of the virus.

In addition to the key principles and guidelines set out in section 3, it is strongly advised that:

    • Individuals should be prevented from touching or kissing devotional and other objects that are handled communally. Barriers and/or clear signage should be put in place where necessary.
    • Individuals should also avoid touching property belonging to others such as shoes which, if removed, should be placed and collected by their owner while adhering to social distancing principles.
    • Books, reusable and communal resources e.g. prayer mats, service sheets or devotional material should be removed from use. Single use alternatives can be provided as long as they are removed by the worshipper. Items owned by the individual to aid worship e.g. a prayer mat or religious text, may be brought in but must be removed again.
    • No food or drink is made available prior to, during or after the service.
    • Activities such as singing and/or playing instruments should be avoided, with the exception of organists who are able to use buildings for practice with appropriate social distancing. The government is continuing to work on scientific and medical advice around how such activities can best be managed safely and further guidance will follow on this shortly.
    • Any pre-requisite washing/ablution rituals should not be done at the place of worship and shared washing areas should be closed.
    • Where possible faith leaders should discourage cash giving and continue to use online giving and resources where possible minimising contact around transactions. Regular cleaning and hygiene should be maintained, and gloves worn to handle cash offerings where giving continues.

Restrictions on capacity

Restrictions should be set locally to limit the number of people permitted to enter the place of worship for individual prayer at any one time, so that a safe distance of at least 2 metres (3 steps) can be maintained between individuals and households.

The size and circumstance of the premises will determine the maximum number of people that can be accommodated whilst also facilitating social distancing.

In defining the number of people that can reasonably follow 2 metres distancing, the total floorspace as well as likely pinch points and busy areas should be taken into account (e.g. entrances, exits) and where possible alternative or one-way routes introduced.

A risk assessment should be carried out to identify points of high risk in the building and mitigating action.

It is recommended that places of worship close to individual prayer during the time normal services would be taking place and continue to stream this regular worship or prayer services (which individuals are not currently permitted to attend) to avoid over-crowding.

Venue managers might want to consider advertising set days or times when places of worship are open for individual prayer solely for those particularly vulnerable to COVID-19, e.g. those over 70 or clinically vulnerable.

Church guidance Using church buildings for individual private prayer and funerals issued on 12 June suggests:

“Government guidance refers to ‘venue managers’ as the person or persons responsible for making this decision and ensuing compliance with guidelines. This could be the incumbent, churchwarden, or another member of the PCC. The key is that this person is identified clearly and is willing to take on this responsibility.”

Legislation

The definition of “social distancing” is included in “soft law” guidance, and there is consequently no associated offence with the infraction of the recommendations. With regard tp private prayer, 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”.

[Thanks to Tiffer Robinson for the clarification].

The Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (England)(Amendment) (No. 4) Regulations 2020 have now been published, and “further amend the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (England) Regulations 2020, S.I. 2020/350, to permit the opening of retail businesses and certain outdoor attractions, to enable churches to open for private prayer by individuals, to make provision for linked households, and to permit certain gatherings”.

Comments

  • Whilst the term “supervised individual prayer” has been used in earlier advice &c, it is not used in the current Guidance. Nevertheless, there are several instances in which each individual place of worship and their “venue managers” are “strongly advised” to apply specific aspects of this guidance which involve an element of supervision.
  • Organists without access to an instrument will welcome the relaxation on the use buildings for practice with appropriate social distancing.
  • Section 1 includes a non-exhaustive list of activities that are not currently permitted, although  further information will be given in due course on these activities. These include:
    • communal or corporate worship (led devotions/worship/service/prayer by a Minister of Religion or lay person, e.g. Evensong, informal prayer meetings, Jummah, Mass or Kirtan)
    • services other than funerals, e.g. baptisms or coming of age ceremonies
    • study groups, and out of school settings, including faith supplementary schools such as Sunday schools, madrassas or yeshivas
    • lifestyle and leisure/recreational groups such as craft groups or exercise groups
    • meetings including practices such as choir practice or bell ringing
    • tourism: buildings should remain closed for tourism purposes.

Contents – MHCLG Guidance

  1. Introduction
  2. Purpose of this guidance
  3. Key principles for safely reopening places of worship for permitted activity
  4.  Guidance for individual prayer within a place of worship
  5. Travel to and from a place of worship
  6. Guidance for early years and childcare use
  7. Should you visit if symptomatic?
  8. Individuals who are self-isolating due to a possible or confirmed case of COVID-19 in the household
  9. Individuals who are extremely clinically vulnerable/shielding
  10.  What leaders can do to help prevent the spread of infection
  11. How can places of worship communicate this guidance to visitors?

Update from the Church of England, here 

Last updated Friday 12 June at 17:15:

  • Updated Risk assessment document for opening church buildings
  • New Using church buildings for individual prayer and funerals document (combines previous Access to church buildings during lockdown: advice for incumbents and Access to church buildings during lockdown: general advice for incumbents, churchwardens and PCC members into a single guidance document)
  • New FAQ Can organists enter church buildings for organ practice and maintenance? in Prayer and worship section

These updates will be added to our Coronavirus updates – index.

Cite this article as: David Pocklington, "Guidance on supervised individual prayer" in Law & Religion UK, 12 June 2020, https://lawandreligionuk.com/2020/06/12/guidance-on-supervised-individual-prayer/

8 thoughts on “Guidance on supervised individual prayer

  1. On the question of supervision in churches open for private prayer, I see that updated guidance posted on the Church of England’s website today says:

    “*Does someone from the church need to be present when the church building is open for private prayer?
    Supervision is not required under government guidance.
    Government guidance advises on the sorts of safety measures that should be considered, such as queue management and hand cleansing facilities (which could be hand sanitiser or wash basins). For busy churches it may be that this will require someone to be present to ensure social distancing and hygiene measures are being respected, as well as for security. However for churches in quieter areas provision of clear signage and facilities to enable the guidelines to be met will be adequate.”

  2. Like Tiffer, I, too, was going to query the view that the new ‘gathering’ provisions in the Amendment No 3 Regulations [SI 2020 No. 558, substituted reg 7(3)(a)] would permit ‘private prayer, by individuals (or household groups) in church buildings (or other places of worship)’ without amendment of reg 5(6) of the principal regulations [SI 2020 No. 350] listing the uses for which a place of worship, otherwise required to be kept closed, could lawfully be used.

    Happily, by inserting in para (6), ‘or (e) for private prayer by individuals, and for these purposes, “private prayer” means prayer which does not form part of communal worship.”’, the position has been made clear before the change in the law comes into effect tomorrow: see reg 2(4)(c) of The Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (England) (Amendment) (No. 4) Regulations 2020 [SI 2020 No. 588] made at 12.00 pm (sic) today (12 June) – which we must take to be 12.00 noon – but only laid before Parliament at 2.30 pm.

    A preamble to the new regulations states: “In accordance with section 45R of that Act [the Public Health (Control of Disease) Act 1984] the Secretary of State is of the opinion that, by reason of urgency, it is necessary to make this instrument without a draft having been laid before, and approved by a resolution of, each House of Parliament.” Since the relaxations contained in these regulations have been trailed for several days, it’s not clear why they could not have been laid before Parliament and approved before this afternoon. More pertinently, this further amendment of the principal regulations makes it difficult to ascertain the current exemptions from the lockdown restrictions. It would help if the Government published a version of the main regulations incorporating all the subsequent amendments, and kept that amended version constantly up-to-date as and when further relaxations are made.

    One final observation: unless I have missed it, the regulations have not been amended to permit organists to enter churches to practise (unless such practice is to be regarded as private prayer by the organist!) Although the MHCLG Guidance includes at page 8 (Section 4 – Guidance for individual prayer within a place of worship – Principles), “Activities such as singing and/or playing instruments should be avoided, with the exception of organists who are able to use buildings for practice with appropriate social distancing”, there in nothing in the regulations that would support such an exception.

    • With regard your comments on organists, I agree that there is an apparent mismatch between Section 4 of the MHCLG Guidance and SI 2020/350 as amended by SI 2020/588. However, on 9 June (i.e. prior to the Guidance or SI 2020/588), our post on the update by Becky Clarke quotes her as saying:

      “The regulations require a place of worship to be closed except for the uses permitted: funerals, to broadcast worship, provide essential services and early years childcare. Our lawyers [i.e. MHCLG lawyers] advise that if the place of worship is being cleaned or preparing to open, there’s a strong argument it’s still closed whilst these activities are happening, provided members of the public can’t access it.”

      This interpretation of Regulation 5(5) SI 2020/350 as amended could equally be applied to an organist who practising, providing the place of worship is closed and members of the public cannot access it. This would preclude an organist practising during any period of private prayer.

  3. Presumably, though, only if the organist is practising ahead of accompanying hymns etc as part of the broadcast or streaming of an act of worship permitted by reg 5(6)(b) of the main emergency regulations [SI 2020 No.350]. This begs the question, not at all clear from the regulations, as to who is permitted to be in the place of worship to take part in the broadcast/live-streamed service.

    Reg 6(2)(k) permits “a minister of religion or worship leader” to go to their place of worship (without specifying the purpose for which he/she may go there) but there is no other relevant exemption in the non-exclusive ‘reasonable excuses’ (to the restrictions on movement) specified in reg. 6. In the light of reg 5(6)(b), arguably it is a reasonable excuse for an organist to go to the place of worship to accompany the broadcast service, or to practice therefor. But if this is what Section 4 of the latest MHCLG guidance had in mind, it would have better to have stated it.

    Since the bishops relaxed their guidance to ‘allow’ clergy to enter their churches to livestream services, as always permitted by the regulations, our rector has been accompanied by his wife and children (all members of the same household, and with one of them acting as server and another leading the intercessions) when streaming on Facebook a Sunday Eucharist service from one of the five benefice churches. That, too, would seem to be on the basis that the family members had a reasonable excuse (under reg 6(1)) to leave the place where they were living in order to assist in the live-streamed service. But if the members of the rector’s family, why not other unrelated members of the congregation to, say, read the lessons or lead the intercessions?

    What all this shows is the difficulty in framing emergency regulations to provide for every possible circumstance. Hence, perhaps, why Dominic Cummings and Boris Johnson were able to weather the storm following the Cummings’s family journey to County Durham and their 60-miles round trip to Barnard Castle for Cummings to ‘test his eyesight’.

  4. I assume that a minyan is a minyan, even if the participants are socially distanced. But the Chief Rabbi has been very careful to stress that he is not urging the Jewish community to resume corporate worship until it is safe to do so.

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