Singing in churches and cathedrals

Since we posted on singing in churches and cathedrals in our 5 July round-up, the Church of England has revised its advice on the conduct of public worship in the light of new Government guidance relating to the performing arts and also, more specifically, to places of worship. This post reviews this new tranche of guidance and the on-going work directed towards an understanding of the transmission of the virus, and the production of a practical, longer term solutions; extracts from this guidance and advice are reproduced at the end of this post.

The new guidance

The performing arts

On 10 July, the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy updated its detailed guidance relating to the performing arts (“the BEIS Guidance”) which, in addition to addressing the “higher risk” activities such as singing and the playing of wind and brass instruments, includes the management of premises or venues and audiences. It states that professionals working in the performing arts are permitted to return to their activities in line with  the BEIS Guidance; non-professionals (meaning those participating in performing arts other than for work purposes), or groups which include non-professionals, may refer to this guidance for their activities, but must at all times do so in line with government legislation and guidance on meeting people outside your household.

“Non-professionals should currently not engage in singing or playing wind and brass instruments with other people given these activities pose a potentially higher risk of transmission and whilst research is ongoing. DCMS [the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport] has commissioned further scientific studies to be carried out to develop robust scientific data for these activities. Existing and emerging evidence will be analysed to assist the development of policy and guidelines.”

Of particular relevance is section 4.2: Singing and playing wind and brass instruments which provides guidance for people who work in performing arts, including arts organisations, venue operators and participants.

The Department has developed a five-stage roadmap ”to bring our performing arts back safely”:

Stage One– Rehearsal and training (no audiences)
Stage Two – Performances for broadcast and recording purposes
Stage Three – Performances outdoors with an audience and pilots for indoor performances with a limited socially-distanced audience
Stage Four – Performances allowed indoors and outdoors (but with a limited socially-distanced audience indoors)
Stage Five – Performances allowed indoors / outdoors (with a fuller audience indoors)

The BEIS guidance anticipated the move from Stages One and Two  to Stage Three of this roadmap on 11th July; an announcement on 17 July “marked] the move to stage 4 of the government’s 5-stage roadmap for the return of professional performing arts. Under the new regime, audiences, performers and venues will be expected to maintain social distancing at all times”.

The Guidance further notes “[a]s social distancing guidelines and our understanding of higher risk activities such as singing and playing wind and brass instruments evolve, and as the law changes, further versions of this document will be published”.

Although the BEIS Guidance does not refer directly to choirs in churches and cathedrals, it is indicative of government thinking in this area, and it seems likely that a similar staged approach will be adopted. It states:

“This guidance is likely to be relevant and should be considered in a wide range of circumstances including but not limited to…places of worship… Where relevant, it should be read alongside the specific guidance relevant to particular settings.”

Furthermore, it reemphasizes that the understanding of the risks involved is at a relatively early stage.

Places of worship

On 10 July, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) produced guidance specific to places of worship (“the MHCLG Guidance”), and this forms the basis of advice issued by the Church of England on the Conduct of Public Worship (“the Church Advice”). Importantly, the MHCLG Guidance defines its use of “must” and “should” in relation to the statutory provisions:

“Must” Where the guidance states that an activity must take place this is because it is a requirement under the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (England) Regulations 2020, and therefore is a requirement in law.
“Should” Where the guidance states that an activity should take place this is not a legal requirement under the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (England) Regulations 2020, however it is strongly advised that consideration is given to following the advice being given to reduce the risk of transmission of COVID-19.

The Church Advice tends to use the permissive “may”, or occasionally the very CofE “it is best not to”; however, some provisions are described as non-mandatory. Included in the Church Advice update of the earlier version 1.2 are:

  • a new question added highlighting the Government definition of a place of worship;
  • a consideration of children and young people attending worship with guidance on young people attending worship alone; and
  • the new government guidance on professional singers issued on 9th July, which means that “as of 11th July professional singers can sing outdoors to worshippers and indoors for rehearsal and broadcast subject to the guidance“.

The Advice also notes:

“For other denominations who use Church of England buildings to meet for worship we ask that adhere to the same advice (where relevant) including conducting their own risk assessment and ensuring compliance to physical (social) distancing, Public Health hygiene practices and guidance on music and singing for example”.

Fundamental to this guidance and advice is the question Q 3. What is considered as a place of worship? on which the Guidance states:

A. The government has defined a place of worship as follows:

“A place of worship refers to a building used for regular religious ceremonies, communal worship or similar gatherings by religious organisations. It includes the use of surrounding grounds, for example, adjoining carparks, courtyards or gardens for which the venue managers are also responsible.

The guidance also covers premises when being used for religious gatherings, even when their primary purpose is not for religious gatherings, such as a community centre. These premises will only be able to be used where they are permitted to be open and additional guidance may be applicable.

This guidance does not cover public parks, private homes, cultural sites or other open spaces, such as woodlands which may be used for religious purposes. If people do want to engage in worship in these spaces, then the guidance relevant to that place should be adhered to.”

This is of particular importance to singers and musicians vis-à-vis the restrictions on where non-professional singers may not sing, rehearse or record.

Professional and non-professional singers

Whilst there is general agreement that singing and the playing wind and brass instruments poses a potentially increased risk of transmission, there appear to be mixed messages in the MHCLG Guidance regarding the relative risks of professional and non-professional musicians. These are carried through to the Church Advice, although that issued by the Scottish and Welsh governments on congregational worship makes no reference to the issue.

There is a clear commercial incentive for professionals working in the performing arts to return to their activities; likewise at the present level of understanding on transmission via aerosols, it would be unwise to encourage non-professional musicians to perform or to rehearse together. However, it is unclear whether the singing by a professional presents a greater risk than the singing of a non-professional. Training for deep breathing (maximizing intake of aerosols into the lungs) and projection of the voice (and aerosols) would appear to be counter-intuitive to minimizing the risks to the performer and the audience.

Organs

A range of advice is given on the permissibility of playing organs churches:

  • “[o]rgans can be played for faith practices, as well as general maintenance, but should be cleaned thoroughly before and after use”, MHLG Guidance;
  • “[o]rgans can be played for services, practice and general maintenance, but should be appropriately cleaned after use”, Church Advice.
  • “[p]laying organs which require air to be pushed through the mechanism should be avoided. It is advised to use electronic keyboards as an alternative”,  Welsh Government Advice to Local Authorities;
  • other instruments that do not require breath to operate may be played (for example, church organs), guidance from the Scottish Government

These discrepancies might be rationalized if the issuing bodies were relying on different scientific advice and/or were adopting of different risk criteria to its recommendations. Or not.

Summary

The current position has been summarized in a document circulated to by General Synod for its virtual meeting on 11 July, and the BBC reports on the experimental work being undertaken. The distinction between professional and non-professional musicians is highlighted in the updated from the Diocese of Oxford in its update  13 July: Coronavirus (COVID-19) latest – A note on worship, which explains [emphasis added]:

“At present, there should be no group singing inside churches when worshippers are present. However, a cantor or solo voice is permitted to sing during the service and instruments can be played, though these should only be instruments that are not blown into. Organs can be played for worship, as well as general maintenance.

Separate to the above guidance, which relates to congregational worship, groups of professional singers are now able to rehearse and record in churches and church halls for broadcast purposes. This dispensation does not currently apply to volunteer choirs and non-professional singers.” 

On 13 July, in a written question the Rt Hon Robert Halfon MP (Harlow, Con) asked the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, if he would publish the timeframe for people to be able to sing in churches as the covid-19 lockdown restrictions are eased. Luke Hall, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Housing, Communities and Local Government) (Thornbury and Yate, Con) referred to recent guidance, and said:

“Singing is a central element of many religious practices but poses a particular risk of spreading the virus. The Government and medical and scientific communities are urgently engaged in research around transmission risk and how activities such as singing and chanting can be managed safely indoors, by congregations and by amateurs.”

More informative was the Guidance COVID 19 Mission and Ministry with Children, Young People & Families in a Church Setting, issued on 14 July. This states that “new guidance for what is possible from September will be issued by the government soon“. Although referring to the Church Advice, supra, it makes no reference to the professional/non-professional issue in its summary of the document.

Watch this space.


Extracts from guidance and advice

Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy 

Performing Arts 4.2: Singing and playing wind and brass instruments .

Updated  27 July 2020.

Objective: To minimise the risk of transmission whilst singing and playing wind or brass instruments.

This is the initial phase of the recommended guidance. Further guidance will be issued when there is sufficient scientific evidence to support a move.

Singing and playing wind and brass instruments, especially in groups, are considered higher risk activities because of the potential for aerosol production and the absence presently of developed scientific analysis to assess this specific risk. The evidence is being developed rapidly. This Section sets out the additional risk mitigation appropriate to the initial phase of returning to singing and playing wind and brass instruments.

Singing

Steps that will usually be needed:

  1. Limiting singing in groups or in front of audiences to professionals only (i.e. for work purposes only).
  2. Observing extended social distancing (current guidance is that if the activity is face-to-face and without mitigations, 3 metres is appropriate) between each singer, and between singers and any other people such as conductors, other musicians, audiences or accompanists.
  3. Limiting singing in groups to group sizes which are as small as possible in one discrete space, and only considering increasing this number if a comprehensive risk assessment has been conducted which includes but is not limited to: the size of the space; the ventilation levels within the space; the positioning of singers within the space; the effectiveness of any booths, barriers or screens in use; the use of fixed teams to reduce contacts.
  4. Avoiding exposure of audiences, crew and other performers through using alternative programmes, technology or re-orchestrating for fewer voices as the first priority.
  5. Operating outdoors wherever possible.
  6. If singing indoors, limiting the numbers to account for ventilation of the space and the ability to observe extended social distancing.
  7. For singers working with other individuals, positioning side-to-side or back-to-back and avoiding singing face-to-face even when following the required distance.
  8. When essential, if it is not possible to maintain recommended extended social distancing whilst singing, using one or multiple fixed teams to manage risk of transmission and considering […]
  9. Within the fixed team, positioning side-to-side or back-to-back and avoiding singing face-to-face wherever possible.
  10. Observing extended social distancing (current guidance is that if the activity is face-to-face and without mitigations, 3 metres is appropriate) between the fixed team and any other people such as conductors, other musicians, audiences or accompanists wherever possible.
  11. All members of a fixed team self-isolating if one member displays symptoms of COVID-19, which again reiterates the need to keep fixed teams as small as possible.
  12. It is unlikely that this fixed team approach will be possible where professional performers work with more than one group or organisation simultaneously.
  13. Considering using booths, barriers or screens if possible between individual singers who are not part of a fixed team, between fixed teams of singers and others, and between performers and any audience, noting that:– The effectiveness of the booth, barrier or screen varies substantially depending on the type of booth, barrier or screen used […]
  14. Considering regular private testing (noting that this will not allow any relaxation of other control measures) with an accredited provider, particularly for members of a fixed team, and those who sing with more than one group at a time such as deputising musicians and teachers.
  15. Making sure that no singers are participating if suffering with symptoms of COVID-19 or when advised to self-isolate.
  16. Results of further research conducted will lead to updates in this guidance.

MHCLG

The Guidance COVID-19: guidance for the safe use of places of worship during the pandemic was last updated 27 July 2020.

Food and Drink

  • Speaking, singing and chanting should not happen across uncovered consumables (other than consumables to be used by the celebrant alone). Instead consumables should be securely covered, and prior to the receptacle being opened, it should be cleaned, hands should be washed or gloves worn.

Singing, chanting and the use of musical instruments

Led devotions

  • There should be no group singing inside places of worship when worshippers are present.
  • Outside only, small groups of professional singers will be able to sing in front of worshippers. Singing in groups should be limited to professional singers only and should be limited to a small set group of people. Both the singers and the worshippers should be outdoors.
  • Indoors – where essential to an act of worship, one individual only should be permitted to sing or chant, and the use of plexi-glass screens should be considered to protect worshippers from them, as this will further prevent transmission and the screen can be easily cleaned. Where music plays a big part in worship, and recordings are available, we suggest you consider using these as an alternative to live singing.
  • You are advised only to play musical instruments that are not blown into. Organs can be played for faith practices, as well as general maintenance, but should be cleaned thoroughly before and after use.

Broadcasting

Congregational activity

  • Except for the limited circumstances outlined above, people should avoid singing, shouting, raising voices and/or playing music at a volume that makes normal conversation difficult or that may encourage shouting. This is because of the potential for increased risk of transmission from aerosol and droplets.
  • Therefore, spoken responses during worship should also not be in a raised voice.
  • Activities such as singing, chanting, shouting and/or playing of instruments that are blown into should be specifically avoided in worship or devotions. This is because there is a possible additional risk of transmission in environments where individuals are singing or chanting as a group, and this applies even if social distancing is being observed or face coverings are used.

Church of England

COVID-19 Advice on the Conduct of Public Worship – Version 1.3, 10 July.

New Government guidance on professional singers issued on 9th July means 16. Q. Can we sing? has changed and as of 11th July professional singers can sing outdoors to worshippers and indoors for rehearsal and broadcast subject to the guidance.

[15]. Q. Can we use communal service sheets and hymn books etc? 

A. It is best not to use communal service sheets or books that can be touched repeatedly by different individuals, and which may be difficult to clean. Individual service sheets should not be handed out at the entrance as this is likely to breach social distancing. However, they may be placed on pews/seats before the service, and then taken home by worshippers.

Alternatively, people could print off their own service sheets and take them home afterwards. Similarly, people should be encouraged to bring their own bibles and take them home with them. In circumstances where worshippers cannot bring their own books, churches should keep a selection of clean books for individuals to use. Clean books should be quarantined for 48 hours since their previous use and should be quarantined for 48 hours again after use.

[16]. Q. Can the organ be played?

A. Yes. Organs can be played for services, practice and general maintenance, but should be appropriately cleaned after use.

[17]. Q. Can we sing?

A. There should be no group singing inside churches when worshippers are present. If worshipping in a churchyard small groups of professional singers (those who are employed to do so) will be able to sing in front of worshippers. Singing in groups should be limited to professional singers only and should be limited to a small set group of people. Both the singers and the worshippers should be outdoors, as defined as a place of worship (see question 3 above).

When inside churches, where essential to an act of worship, one individual only should be permitted to sing or chant, and the use of plexi-glass screens should be considered to protect worshippers from them, as this will further prevent transmission and the screen can be easily cleaned.

Groups of professional singers are now able to rehearse and record in churches and church halls for broadcast. See the following guidance for information on how this can be done safely. Volunteer choirs and non-professional singers may not rehearse in churches and church halls or record there for broadcast.

You are advised only to play musical instruments that are not blown into. Organs can be played for worship, as well as general maintenance, but should be cleaned thoroughly after use.

[18]. Q. Can our worship band play?

Yes, as long as there are no wind instruments or singing. Players need to be appropriately socially distanced, and the music should not be so loud that it encourages people to shout above it.


General Synod

The General Synod document GS Misc 1251 produced for its virtual meeting on 11 July reviews of the issues associated with COVID-19, and Singing and Music in Church Buildings is covered in the following paragraphs [emphasis added]:

[52]. While there have been instances of localised outbreaks of COVID-19 associated with choir practices and church services during which congregational singing took place, the available scientific evidence on risks associated with singing and playing brass and woodwind musical instruments is not particularly robust.

[53]. Public Health England is currently undertaking a literature review of the topic as well as conducting specific research with singers and musicians.

[54].Until PHE issues its report (expected by the end of July), government guidance advises that singing and playing brass and woodwind musical instruments in church buildings should be avoided (other than for organ practice).


Cite this article as: David Pocklington, "Singing in churches and cathedrals" in Law & Religion UK, 17 July 2020, https://lawandreligionuk.com/2020/07/17/singing-in-churches-and-cathedrals/

2 thoughts on “Singing in churches and cathedrals

  1. what is the difference between professional and amateur singing – none, except that the professionals will have stronger and more powerful lungs surely this will be more dangerous than amateur choirs singing more gently and spaced appropriately.

    So when can we sing outside to the congregation inside ?

    • As from yesterday “Small groups of professional or non-professional singers” have been able to sing in front of worshippers both outdoors and indoors, although “singing in groups should be limited to a small set group of people and should not include audience participation”.

      With regard to the difference between professional and non-professional singers, I suspect that initially the distinction was made to facilitate a return to rehearsing and performing by those whose income was reliant on singing/performing – hence the guidance being formulated under the “performing arts” heading.

      In terms of singing per se, the risks would appear to be associated with breathing (and the intake of coronavirus into the singer’s lungs) and the projection of the voice (and the transfer of droplets and aerosols to the listeners)- both characteristic of trainedsingers, whether paid or unpaid. Declan Costello has been undertaking research into the transmission of droplets and aerosols, but the results are as yet unpublished.

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