Coronavirus (COVID-19): places of worship in Scotland

On 27 May 2021, the Scottish government updated Coronavirus (COVID-19): guidance for the safe use of places of worship. Scotland follows a COVID-19 levels system (0-4), each with a different set of rules, described in Coronavirus (COVID-19) protection levels: what you can do, (21 May 2021)The current situation is:

  • most of mainland Scotland (and islands not at Level 1) are at Level 2
  • Orkney, Shetland, Na h-Eileanan Siar, all islands in Highland (except Skye) and the Argyll and Bute islands of Coll, Colonsay, Erraid, Gometra, Iona, Islay, Jura, Mull, Oronsay, Tiree and Ulva are at Level 1
  • Glasgow City council area remains at Level 3 – financial support will be provided to eligible businesses in this area.

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

Individual and congregational worship

Places of worship are able to open for the following purposes:

Any other use of the premises is subject to the restrictions and guidance for the relevant activity.

Opening for any purpose remains subject to physical distancing and hygiene safeguards, as set out under general principles.

Those responsible for running a place of worship should engage and communicate with worshippers and the wider community to explain what is permitted and what is still prohibited, and what measures are being taken by the place of worship to reduce the spread of the virus.

Faith-specific practices

Physical distancing and strict hygiene safeguards must be maintained at places of worship to minimise the risk of infection. Everyone should stay 2 metres apart and avoid face-to-face interaction as much as possible. Where absolutely necessary for a faith-specific requirement, interactions within a 2 metre distance may take place provided they are brief, kept to a minimum and face-to-face interaction is avoided where possible (for example work side-by-side or facing in different directions). These interactions should only take place when it is absolutely essential and it would be unreasonable to maintain physical distancing in the circumstances (for example, the laying on of hands in the ordination of new ministers). For any such interactions, face coverings must be worn, including by the individual leading the act of worship.

Faith leaders should set out policies reflecting how faith-specific rites and rituals can be carried out safely in accordance with this guidance.  Where such policies are established nationally or regionally, they may require those responsible for individual places of worship to carry out assessments to consider the particular features of their buildings.

In addition to the general principles, there is other more specific guidance, q.v..

Full immersion in water

Where full immersion is a necessary part of a ritual or ceremony, this is permitted with the following measures in place:

  • only one person should be immersed at any one time
  • where possible, the person being immersed should self-immerse, or be attended to by a member of their household only. Where this is not possible, they should be attended by a single officiant/clergy member
  • those being immersed should be at least 2 metres away from the congregation and officiants at all times, except as necessary in the case of clergy/the officiant, at the point of immersion (see below)
  • during the immersion, clergy/the officiant may place their hands on the head of the person being immersed, but they should not ‘cradle’ the person or touch them in any other way. They should wash their hands after each person is immersed with soap and water for the requisite duration. If this is not possible they should use hand sanitiser
  • during the immersion, the person being immersed should remove their face covering, however any officiant/clergy attending them should wear a face covering where it is safe to do so
  • where any contained body of non-chlorinated water is used, such as a baptismal font, the water should be drained and the font cleaned, after each immersion
  • where a swimming pool is used, this should be maintained according to Swimming Scotland guidelines
  • immersion may also take place in a safe external space of open water. In this case, 2 metre physical distancing should be maintained where possible and any person attending the individual being immersed should retain their face covering where it is safe to do so

Singing, chanting and the playing of instruments 

Singing, chanting and/or the playing of instruments is permitted in small groups in level 2 – 0 areas. For example, a small choir and/or band would be permitted to perform.  Congregational singing, both indoors and outdoors, is permitted in areas that are in levels 0 – 1 and is permitted for life events if they are part of an act of worship

Congregational singing

Where congregational singing is permitted, a risk assessment should be carried out to consider any mitigating measures that may be put in place.

Individuals/households in congregations are advised to wear face coverings (see exceptions below that relates to performing or persons leading the worship) and observe 2 metre physical distancing between each participant/household and between participants/households and any others attending,

Small group performances

Singing, chanting and playing instruments There is no definition of ‘small group’ and it will be down to individual places of worship to determine how many people would constitute an appropriately small group given the size and layout of their building (e.g. how many could fit, physically distanced at the front of the congregation). Individual places of worship should consider physical distancing, undertake risk assessments and put in place mitigating measures where appropriate.

Scientific studies indicate that it is the cumulative aerosol transmission from both those performing in and attending events that involve singing, chanting and the playing of wind and brass instruments, that is likely to create risk.

For areas in levels 3 – 4, where it is essential to an act of worship for an individual to sing or chant indoors, a single individual may do so behind a plexiglass screen without the need for a face covering to be worn. Any screen used should be cleaned regularly and extended physical distancing should be considered

For areas in levels 3 – 4, where it is essential to an act of worship for an individual to sing or chant indoors, a single individual may do so behind a plexiglass screen without the need for a face covering to be worn. Any screen used should be cleaned regularly and extended physical distancing should be considered

With regards to instruments, all types can be played in areas within levels 0 – 2. For areas in level 3 – 4, only instruments that do not require breath to operate may be played (for example, church organs, tambourines and other percussion instruments). In all cases, instruments used by more than one person should be cleaned between users.

Face coverings are not required for the purposes of performing where:

  • there is a partition between the person and other persons, or
  • a distance of at least two metres is maintained between the person and other persons

Life event ceremonies

Ceremonies that take place within places of worship to mark life events and that form part of a wider congregational service (including baptisms, christenings and coming-of-age ceremonies) are permitted in accordance with the guidance Restrictions on Capacity.

Consideration should be given to how faith-specific rites and rituals during life event ceremonies can be adapted in accordance with this guidance to ensure the safety of those present.

Separate rules are applicable to marriage ceremonies and funeral services within places of worship.

Hospitality

If food or drink is offered after (or before) a service, this must be done in accordance with the guidance for hospitality businesses. What is permitted will depend on the protection level which the place of worship is subject to. Note that places of worship are not eligible to apply reduced distancing of 1m. At all protection levels, worshippers must remain seated and be served in their place, and they must wear face-coverings (unless exempt) when not seated, for example arriving and departing or moving to toilets. 2m distancing must be maintained between people from different households, and groups of people eating at one table must not exceed the current restrictions for the area.  Those responsible for the place of worship should ensure that people do not mix between tables, and that physical distancing is maintained when moving from the service to where the hospitality is provided.


Cite this article as: David Pocklington, "Coronavirus (COVID-19): places of worship in Scotland" in Law & Religion UK, 27 May 2021, https://lawandreligionuk.com/2021/05/27/coronavirus-covid-19-places-of-worship-in-scotland/

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