Law and religion round-up – 12th December

“Legislation on mask-wearing is seemingly contradictory in places”

Diocese of Oxford

An initial response to the rapid spread of the Omicron variant of coronavirus, (B.1.1.529), has been to require the wearing of face coverings in “relevant places” defined by regulations; these have now been amended to include places of worship and the Church of England has updated its 13-page guidance COVID-19 Opening and managing church buildings, v 2.3.  Whilst for some this has been a TL;DR item, it is more informative than the brief but tortuous legalese of the “Face Covering Regulations (Amended)” Regulations, which states:

“(5) In regulation 5 [of the principal Regulations], after paragraph (i), insert — (j)it is reasonably necessary for P to sing, and P removes P’s face covering to do so, and for these purposes, the occasions when it is reasonably necessary for P to sing include singing as part of a choir, or during a service or rehearsal, or for performance.

However, matters were confused at a press briefing on the Regulations, where poorly-briefed officials had suggested that, to the letter of the law under the new rules, shoppers could be allowed to remove their face coverings in supermarkets if they walked around the store singing. Although this nonsense was later retracted, the story nevertheless gave rise to a number of fatuous headlines in the popular press.

Our post Church of England: Plan B guidance – face coverings summarizes the legislation and guidance – but not its implementation in churches, for which decision making lies with the incumbent. The recent Diocese of Oxford guidance recommends that wherever possible, there is a collaborative approach to local decision making. On mask-wearing and singing, it notes:

“[i]t is a legal requirement to wear a mask in services, but there is an exemption for singing even though singing increases transmission risk. We strongly recommend mask-wearing, including sung worship, though, of course, a choir or music group may wish to sing without masks”

It also recommends that all clergy, leadership teams and church officers take a lateral flow test ahead of services, to which could be added “all choristers and congregations”.

Plan B – update

Covid Regulations are to be debated in the House of Commons on 14 December, and the Hansard Society issued an updated briefing on 12 December. This observes: “amid backbench unrest, the occasion will be shaped by the interplay between delegated legislation scrutiny, parliamentary procedures, and raw politics. The outcome could have profound consequences for both public health policy and the Prime Minister’s position”. In addition to the SI on face covering, there are two there are two further coronavirus-related statutory instruments that pre-date the ‘Plan B’ announcement and have been laid before Parliament, but still require parliamentary debate and approval. A further two prospective ‘Plan B’ SIs (on testing instead of isolation, and ‘Covid passports’) have not so far been laid before Parliament or published.

Education (Assemblies) Bill

On Wednesday, the Education (Assemblies) Bill was given its Third Reading after an extremely brief debate. The Bill now goes to the Commons where, one suspects, it will have a much less easy ride. Russell Sandberg commented about the Bill at some length, here.

Archbishop of Wales

On Monday 6 December, the Rt Revd Andy John, who has served as the Bishop of Bangor for the past 13 years, was chosen as the 14th Archbishop of Wales. He succeeds the Most Revd John Davies, Bishop of Swansea and Brecon, who held the office of Archbishop of Wales for four years. Archbishop Andy was elected having secured a two-thirds majority vote from members of the Electoral College on the first day of its meeting at Holy Trinity Church, Llandrindod Wells.

The Electoral College is comprised of three clerics and three lay people from each of the six dioceses, in addition to the bishops, and is allocated three days in which to make a decision. Usually, the candidate with the fewest votes will withdraw if there is no clear winner, and then the process is repeated. If the College fails to choose within three days the decision passes to the Bench of Bishops.

The election was immediately confirmed by the five other diocesan bishops and announced at the door of the church by the Provincial Secretary of the Church in Wales, Simon Lloyd. The new Archbishop will be enthroned at St Deiniol’s Cathedral, Bangor, in due course; he will continue to serve as Bishop of Bangor.

Safeguarding in Scotland

The Roman Catholic Church in Scotland has appointed Lady Rae, a former Senator of the College of Justice, as the first Board Chair of the new Scottish Catholic Safeguarding Standards Agency (SCSSA). She will begin to recruit board members to the SCSSA – which will operate as a private company – in January 2022. The SCSSA will operate entirely independently of the Church, with its own staff and non-executive directors who will work in close collaboration with dioceses and religious communities to ensure that they are meeting safeguarding standards.

Bishop Hugh Gilbert, president of the Bishops’ Conference of Scotland, said: “When considering a number of possible candidates for this important post, the Bishops were united in their view that the SCSSA Board Chair must be able to act with impartiality, integrity and freedom from interference”.

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