COVID-19: guidance for the safe use of places of worship

An updated version of COVID-19: guidance for the safe use of places of worship (“the Guidance”) was issued today, Monday 11 January 2021, by the Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government (MHCLG). The previous version was published on 22 December 2020, following which, on 4 January the Prime Minister announced a national lockdown for all of England. These restrictions:

  • require people to stay at home, except for specific purposes
  • prevent people gathering with those they do not live with, except for specific purposes
  • close certain businesses and venues

There is different advice for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Guidance for places of worship has been updated to reflect the fact that the new variant of the virus is 70% more infectious. This means that additional safeguards should be put in place to minimize opportunities for the virus to spread. The significance of the updated guidance is that it stresses [emphasis added]:

“Under the national lockdown, places of worship remain open for communal worship. This is now one of the very few legal exemptions that allow larger numbers of people to gather. It is therefore crucial that places of worship and those attending comply with both law and the COVID-19 Secure guidance.

Where possible, when visiting a place of worship you should stay local and avoid travelling outside your local area, meaning your village or town, or part of a city”

A further update was made on 11 January 2021§ in relation to Singing, chanting and the use of musical instruments, which was added to the Church of England’s Coronavirus (COVID-19) guidance for churches – FAQs, which notes “[i]t has been confirmed that this guidance applies both to professional and amateur choirs where a congregation is present”. On 12 January, the Church of England issued a new tranche of guidance incorporating these changes.

This post includes:

COVID-19:guidance for the safe use of places of worship

Under these restrictions, places of worship in England must only open for the following purposes:

Individual prayer

A person, or single household, entering the venue to pray on their own.

The number of individuals or households permitted in a place of worship at any one time will be dependent on the size of the building and ability to socially distance therein.

Communal worship, including prayers, devotions or meditations led by a Minister of Religion or lay person

Limits for communal worship should be decided on the basis of the capacity of the place of worship following an assessment of risk.


Funerals must have no more than 30 people.

Anyone working is not included as part of the 30 person limit. Please refer to COVID-19: guidance for managing a funeral during the coronavirus pandemic.

Commemorative events to celebrate the life of a person who has died

These are events which commemorate or mark the deceased’s passing. Examples include the scattering of ashes and stone setting ceremonies. Such events must now have no more than 6 people in attendance. Anyone working is not included as part of the 6 person limit. These limits on attendance do not typically apply to communal worship services, where prayers for the deceased may be said.

Significant life cycle events, outside of marriage ceremonies and funerals

Where such events are an element of communal worship they may continue, but they are subject to the requirements for communal worship set out above.

Weddings and civil partnership ceremonies

Weddings and civil partnership ceremonies must only take place with up to 6 people. Anyone working is not included. You should only consider booking a wedding or civil partnership (or continuing with one that is already booked) in exceptional circumstances. This may be for example, an urgent marriage where one of those getting married is seriously ill and not expected to recover, or is to undergo debilitating treatment or life-changing surgery. Please refer to the guidance for small marriages and civil partnerships.

Broadcasting or filming an act of worship

Attending a place of worship for broadcasting or filming an act of worship is permitted but should only involve those people working or volunteering who are essential for the content of the service, and for technical support to enable people to watch and worship online or via a television or radio.

If musicians or singers usually form part of the act of worship that is being broadcast, they may participate but only if they are essential to the delivery of that act of worship. The numbers or people involved should be kept as small as possible to minimize risks and participants should follow social distancing guidance.

Childcare and education

For registered childcare:

  • where this is provided by a person registered on the Early Years Register under Part 3 of the Childcare Act 2006
  • where the child concerned is eligible to attend (as the child of a critical worker or a vulnerable child)
  • where the place of worship is used as part of a school

For supervised activities for children:

  • These activities are permitted to continue where the child concerned is eligible to attend (as the child of a critical worker or a vulnerable child)
  • Numbers should be limited to the number of people who can safely socially distance in the venue in line with COVID-19 Secure guidance. See guidance on providers of out-of-school settings.

Essential voluntary and public services

These will include the provision of food banks or other support for the homeless or vulnerable people, blood donation sessions, or support in an emergency. See COVID-19 guidance for voluntary, community and social enterprise organisations.

Support groups

Support groups that have to be delivered in person can continue with up to 15 participants where formally organised to provide mutual aid, therapy or any other form of support – but they must take place at a premises other than a private home.

Where a group includes someone covered by an exception (for example, someone who is working or volunteering), they are not generally counted as part of the gatherings limit.

Examples include support to:

(a) victims of crime (including domestic abuse)
(b) those with, or recovering from, addictions (including alcohol, narcotics or other substance addictions) or addictive patterns of behaviour
(c) new parents
(d) those with, or caring for persons with, any long-term illness or terminal condition or who are vulnerable
(e) those facing issues related to their sexuality or identity including those living as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender
(f) those who have suffered bereavement
(g) vulnerable young people, including to enable them to meet youth workers.

The limit of 15 does not include children under 5 who are accompanying a parent or guardian. Anyone working would also not be included.

[MHCLG has also published updated guidance on Celebrating religious festivals during coronavirus (COVID-19)]

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Singing, chanting and the use of musical instruments

COVID-19 spreads from person to person through small droplets, aerosols and through direct contact. Singing, playing some musical instruments, shouting and physical activity increases the risk of transmission through small droplets and aerosols. Safeguards should be put in place to minimize opportunities for the virus to spread.

  • Where singing or chanting is essential to an act of worship, this should be limited to one person wherever possible. Exceptionally, where it is essential to the service, up to three individuals should be permitted to do so. Strict social distancing should be observed and the use of Plexi-glass screens should be considered to protect worshippers, and each other.
  • Communal singing should not take place. This applies even if social distancing is being observed or face coverings are used.
  • Chanting, shouting and/or playing of instruments that are blown into should also be avoided in communal worship and and in rehearsals.

Where communal singing plays a big part in worship, and recordings are available, we suggest you use these as an alternative to live singing. If a place of worship hosts a professional group, for rehearsing or worship, you should follow the performing arts guidance.

  • Avoid playing recorded music at a volume that may result in people using raised voices or shouting to communicate when arriving or leaving for worship.
  • Spoken responses during worship should not be in a raised voice.
  • Good ventilation plays a crucial role in reducing transmission. Do what you can to improve ventilation whenever possible.

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Church of England Guidance

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The Guidance§

The Report of NERVTAG (New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group) of 18 December stated that the rate of transmission of the new SARS-CoV-2 variant was 71% higher than for other variants, and that it may also have a higher viral load. The BMJ notes that on 19 December, the Prime Minister announced that large parts of south-east England, including London, would go into tier 4 restrictions and that the relaxation of rules previously announced for Christmas would change.

On 22 December 2020, COVID-19: guidance for the safe use of places of worship was updated to incorporate the announcement of Tier 4 restrictions by the PM on 19 December 2020. It was twice updated on 11 December 2021, first to reflect the revised national lockdown regulations which came into force on 6 January 2021, and subsequently in relation to  guidance on singing, chanting and the use of musical instruments.

The response

On 12 January 2021, Kaya Burgess, News Reporter & Religious Affairs Correspondent at The Times reported that services had been suspended at Church of England cathedrals in Oxford; Lincoln; Lichfield; Truro; Wakefield; Hereford; Derby; Blackburn; Liverpool; Norwich; Birmingham; and Peterborough. The Cathedrals in Salisbury; Ely; Rochester; Chelmsford; Southwark; and St Paul’s are additionally closed for private prayer.

Cite this article as: David Pocklington, "COVID-19: guidance for the safe use of places of worship" in Law & Religion UK, 11 January 2021,


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