Reopening of places of worship in England on 4 July: a clarification

Today, 24 June, the Government has issued somewhat ambivalent updated guidance, Coronavirus outbreak FAQs: what you can and can’t do after 4 July (ie in England). The relevant extracts on places of worship are as follows:

1.17 Can weddings go ahead?

Yes, from 4 July, weddings and civil partnerships will be allowed to take place. You should only invite close friends and family, up to a maximum of 30 people. The wedding exception is for wedding ceremonies only. Large wedding receptions or parties should of course not be taking place. Wedding celebrations can only happen when people follow the guidance of six people outdoors, support bubbles, or two households indoors or outdoors. It is critical for these guidelines to be observed to keep you and your family and friends as safe as possible.

1.18 Can I pray in a place of worship?

Yes, from 4 July, places of worship can open for services and group prayer and strongly advised to follow COVID-19 Secure guidelines. You will be able to independently pray or hold a religious ceremony in a church, mosque, synagogue, temple or other places of worship.

We advise that you limit your close social interaction in these venues to your own household and up to one other, wherever possible. When attending a place of worship, for ceremonies or services, it is important to observe the social distancing guidelines.”

Which was slightly ambiguous.

The comments above relate to all places of worship in England; however, the House of Bishops of the Church of England has issued its own clarification after a virtual meeting:

“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” [emphasis added].

Our post, House of Bishops Statement on Government COVID-19 guidanceaddresses these and canon law issues specific to the Church of England.

11 thoughts on “Reopening of places of worship in England on 4 July: a clarification

    • In the Lords debate Covid-19: Wedding Venues on 24 June, The Minister of State, Cabinet Office (Lord True) (Con) said:

      “My Lords, I am sure my noble friend would welcome that, following the Prime Minister’s Statement yesterday, from 4 July, wedding ceremonies and civil partnership ceremonies will be able to take place in England. Venues should ensure that they are Covid-19 secure, with clear social distancing in place. People should still avoid having a large ceremony and should invite no more than 30 close family members and friends.”

      This appears to muddy the waters further, given that legally there need to be five people at a wedding: the priest, the couple, and two witnesses, (plus provision for an objector, according to CofE legal guidance), leaving room for only 24 or 25 “close family members and friends”.

      • “(plus provision for an objector, according to CofE legal guidance),”

        Does this mean that a wedding is limited to ~25 guests, but, technically, an unlimited number of objectors can arrive to lodge their protests? Or is there a cap on objector numbers in the CofE guidance?

        • See my comment yesterday at 9.57 am (below), referring to the right of parishioners to attend divine service in their parish church. Until the Government publishes the new Amendment regulations, we won’t know whether the 30 limit is a legally enforceable restriction on the number attending a wedding, or only guidance. Either way, there has been a lack of clear thinking on the part of those writing the amended Guidance issued on 24 June by the Cabinet Office. Frank may “hate to think that governmental processes were such a shambles”, but that seems to be the position at present. Hopefully, the anomalies the comments on this post has highlighted (and, no doubt, others) will be addressed well before 4 July.

          • I am enormously outside my depth here, but does a solemnisation of Holy Matrimony necessarily count as divine service? (I can’t tell from perusing Section B of the C of E canons, and I know nothing about canon law.)

          • Hopefully, a friendly neighbourhood canonist will be able to answer that. I’m afraid I know hardly anything about canon law either, despite – ostensibly – having an LLM in the subject ☹️☹️☹️.

          • I cannot remember the definition of “divine service” being raised when I did the LLM either. However, In February 2019, the General Synod Legal Advisory Commission issued the Advice Parish Church – Right to Enter which states: states:

            A parishioner has the right to enter his or her parish church in order to take part in divine service and to remain there until the conclusion of the service (3).

            For these purposes ‘divine service’ includes any form of legally-authorised religious service (4). 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 (5) as well as of any applicable health and safety legislation (6).

  1. One of the problems at the moment is that it is not clear what continuing (or revised) restrictions will be legally enforceable (by being contained in the Coronavirus, Restrictions Regulations) and what is to be only guidance, to be applied using (in the Prime Minister’s words in Parliament on Tuesday 23 June) ‘common sense’. (“Our principle is to trust the British public to use their common sense in the full knowledge of the risks.” adding, “From now on, we will ask people to follow guidance on social contact, instead of legislation…”). However, until amending regulations are issued (for England they will be the No. 5 Amendment Regulations) the extent to which the new principle will operate will not be clear.

    Weddings are an example. Para 1.17 of the latest Government guidance (quoted above) states: “You should only invite close friends and family, up to a maximum of 30 people,” suggesting that this is not a mandatory restriction. However, in answer to the question at para 1.25 (“Can I gather in larger groups for any reason?), the guidance states: ” It is against the law to gather in groups of up to more than 30 people, except for the limited circumstances to be set out in law.” Clearly, it would help everyone if the Government published the amending regulations as soon as possible and not leave that to the day they are to take effect (or the day before), as has been the case with earlier amendments.

    One practical point in relation to weddings. “In law parishioners have the right to enter their parish church for attendance at divine service and to remain there for its duration.” (Briden Ch in Re St Michael’s, Orchard Portman [2001] 2 WLR 1686 at p.1689G.) So, friends of the bride and/or groom, not invited to the wedding ceremony but living in the parish, would be entitled to attend the church for the service and could not be refused entry. Hopefully, they would use common sense and not create a scene if politely asked to leave. But if the church were large (such as several ‘wool’ churches in East Anglia, able to seat 300+) and thus easily able to accommodate more than 30 people while maintaining ‘social distancing’, why should they be excluded? And what is the logic of limiting those attending a wedding to 30 when para 1.18 indicates that there will be no legal limit on the number attending a church for worship as from 4 July?

    • Tell me about it; the whole exercise reeks of an off-the-cuff afterthought. (And I do hope I’m wrong about that: I would hate to think that governmental processes were such a shambles.)

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