Following a virtual meeting, the House of Bishops has issued the following statement.
House of Bishops Statement on Government COVID-19 guidance
The House of Bishops has welcomed and commended the decision of the Government to open places of worship for public worship from 4th July at a virtual meeting held on June 24th.
Following the Prime Minister’s statement to the Commons the previous day, the Bishops encouraged all concerned to work within the Government’s guidance whilst ensuring proper care is given to those most vulnerable to the virus.
The House of Bishops endorsed a statement made by the Bishop of London on behalf of its Recovery Group, stressing this would not be an immediate return to normality, and that Government guidance is permissive not prescriptive. Churches that are not fully ready by July 4th should not feel any obligation to rush to restart public worship.
For clergy who have been shielding, the House agreed that personal safety should continue to be prioritised and that duties could still be performed remotely. Where churches may not be able to open for a long period, for this or other reasons, bishops stand ready to agree with the minister and parochial church council a dispensation from the legal requirement to hold services.
The House welcomed clarification from the Government that a limit of 30 people in total applied to weddings, and that numbers for worship would differ depending on the context.
Uncertainty on the maximum permitted numbers for worship and for weddings was a concern for all faith groups in England, and the background and its resolution are discussed in our post Reopening of places of worship in England on 4 July: a clarification. Within the Church of England, the House of Bishops statement also addressed specific canon law issues relating to churches which may not be able to open for a long period, and the future action by the bishops in agreement with the minister and PCC a dispensation from the legal requirement to hold services.
With regard to this issue, the advice posted by the Church of England on 17 March at the start of the lockdown included the following statement (in “Notes to editors”):
“In normal circumstances, individual incumbents and parochial church councils would apply under Canon B 14A to bishops for dispensation from holding the public services required by the Canons of the Church of England.
However, on the basis of legal advice, and in the light of the Government’s advice on preventing the spread of infection, we consider that the canon law doctrine of necessity can be relied on and that the public services required by the Canons need not – and should not – take place until further notice.
This advice covers the public services which the Canons normally require to be held every Sunday and on principal feasts and holy days (Holy Communion and Morning and Evening Prayer) as well as the weekday Daily Offices.”