Suspending public worship – England

On 4 January 2021, the Bishop of London issued a response to the new COVID-19 restrictions following the Prime Minister’s announcement, which together with extracts from National lockdown: Stay at Home relevant to places of worship have been reproduced in an earlier post.

The relevant legislation has been published and the updated Church guidance now includes a revised version of COVID-19 Suspending public worship: some legal questions and answers. The canon law requirements were first considered in our July post Coronavirus and ecclesiastical law – I, but in view of the increasing number of churches which are choosing to suspend public worship, it is opportune to revisit these issues.


Legal requirements for holding public worship.

The normal requirement is that Morning Prayer, Evening Prayer and a celebration of Holy Communion are held in at least one church in each benefice on all Sundays and on certain feast days and holy days. Where benefices are held in plurality the requirement is to hold each of the services in at least one church in at least one of the benefices. These requirements can be accommodated with in the following ways:

1. Limited suspension of public worship

Where it is the opinion of the minister and PCC that no church in the benefice should be used for these services on one or more specific days or for a specific number of weeks, the minister and PCC (or PCCs where there is more than one parish in the benefice) can jointly decide to dispense with holding the services on those days without reference to the bishop.

For example, this could be for a period of national lockdown where the risk is considered greater than at other times. However, neither the minister alone nor the PCC(s) alone can decide to dispense with holding these services: it is a joint decision and the services can be dispensed with only if both the minister and PCC(s) agree to do so.

The minister and the PCC(s) should set out the arrangements in a formal a resolution. Paragraph 1(a) of Canon B 14A provides that the minister and the parochial church council of each parish in the benefice may jointly agree to dispense with the canonical requirements for public worship. The PCC(s) can be asked to deal with the matter under the correspondence procedure provided for in rule M29 of the Church Representation Rules (for which email can be used).

2. Extended suspension of public worship

Where it is the opinion of the minister and PCC that no church in the benefice should be used for the above services for an indefinite, unspecified period, the minister and the PCC(s) will need to make a joint request to the bishop for a dispensation, as provided for in paragraph 1(b) of Canon B 14A.

Neither the minister alone nor the PCC(s) alone can make the request: it must be a joint request. And the bishop cannot grant the dispensation unless the joint request is made.

The Guidance suggests a recommended format for a PCC(s) resolution in both cases. It notes “there is no hard and fast rule as to whether a dispensation is needed on ‘an occasional basis’ under paragraph 1(a) of Canon B 14A or on ‘a regular basis’ under paragraph 1(b)”. Where a benefice is vacant and no priest in charge has been appointed, the sequestrators (generally the rural dean and churchwardens) have responsibility for ensuring the performance of public worship; and should therefore act jointly with the PCC, as above. In cases of serious doubt, the archdeacon should be consulted.

Occasional Offices

These require a risk assessment of the church or churchyard to be carried out and all reasonable measures to be put in place to limit the risk of coronavirus transmission. If the minister does not consider that it would be safe to conduct a wedding or a funeral in a church building, “[they] should discuss this with those involved and ask them to consider the possibility of other options”.

Funerals

Funerals are currently permitted in churches, churchyards and cemeteries with a maximum of 30 people attending. Linked services, such as the burial of ashes, are also permitted with up to 6 people in attendance.

Alternative options include the funeral taking place at a crematorium, or at the graveside. There is no legal right to a funeral service in the church itself (as opposed to at a crematorium or at the graveside) and it is ultimately a decision for the minister whether that should happen.

Weddings

Weddings in church are currently permitted with a maximum of 6 people attending, though Government advice is that weddings should take place only in exceptional circumstances. A wedding couple with a qualifying connection have a legal right to marry in their parish church and cannot be put off indefinitely if they still wish to marry despite the current restrictions. If the minister does not feel safe officiating at a service yourself, they can delegate your duties to other clergy who are willing and able to officiate. Concerns about how to proceed should be directed at the local Archdeacon.

Cite this article as: David Pocklington, "Suspending public worship – England" in Law & Religion UK, 7 January 2021, https://lawandreligionuk.com/2021/01/07/suspending-public-worship/

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