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.
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”.
“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.
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.
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.
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.”
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”.
- 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.
- Purpose of this guidance
- Key principles for safely reopening places of worship for permitted activity
- Guidance for individual prayer within a place of worship
- Travel to and from a place of worship
- Guidance for early years and childcare use
- Should you visit if symptomatic?
- Individuals who are self-isolating due to a possible or confirmed case of COVID-19 in the household
- Individuals who are extremely clinically vulnerable/shielding
- What leaders can do to help prevent the spread of infection
- 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.