On 18 July 2022, the Church of England issued “COVID-19 Opening and managing church buildings“, now at version 3.2. This was an update of the previous guidance (3 May 2022) to include a revised situation report and changes in government guidance on risk assessments. It is prefaced on the COVID-19 guidance page by: “[a]s national case numbers remain high it is important that, while we should continue to offer Holy Communion in both kinds, no pressure is placed on individual members of congregation to receive the sacrament if they feel unable to do so”‡.
In our weekly round-up on 3 July 2020, we noted that among faith groups, the guidance from the Church of England was perhaps the most up-to-date, and this was last updated on 3 May 2022; this changed the advice relating to the administration of Holy Communion “to clarify that unless there are clear and objective reasons not to, Holy Communion should now be offered in both kinds to communicants”. The new guidance is therefore to be welcomed, although at 12 pages in length* it risks being considered as tl:dr, and aspects some of the more important points are summarized below, under the following headings:
Since 3 May 2022, there has been no new legislation of relevance and the current position is:
- The legal limits on the numbers of people allowed to meet indoors and outdoors have been removed;
- Singing and musical performances of all kinds are allowed in churches, including congregational singing, and choirs and worship groups can perform without legal limitations;
- Government guidance no longer makes the questionable distinction between professional and non-professional singing. There are no limits on the number of people, including choirs or any other amateur performance groups, who can gather indoors or outdoors;
- There is no longer a legal requirement for people with coronavirus (COVID-19) infection to self-isolate;
- The NHS COVID pass is no longer mandatory for any event;
- There is no longer a requirement for people to register for test and trace or for churches to keep a record of who attends services and events;
- It is not a requirement to ask people if they have been vaccinated (the guidance adds “nor is it appropriate”).
The revised guidance is therefore of importance in providing churches with advice on how to respond to present levels of infection.
Underpinning the guidance is the section: Who makes the decision on what happens in church settings and at events held in church buildings?. Version 3.1 has been changed and now reads:
“The fact that there is now a need to consider the coronavirus risk as a factor in many decisions does not change who has to make a specific decision. The responsibility for acts of worship is on the incumbent, so they must decide if, for example, there may be a need to conduct an act of worship in a different way to how it was done before the pandemic. By contrast, an event run by the PCC in a church hall which it owns is for the PCC to make decisions about. A pastorally sensitive and consultative approach is always to be preferred.
Incumbents and PCCs should feel empowered to make locally appropriate decisions, including taking different approaches to different types of services and events where the risks may vary. Your archdeacon may be able to help if you would appreciate support with this.
All incumbents and PCCs are encouraged to review their local arrangements regularly, in particular taking into account infection rates and the vulnerabilities and needs of their particular communities.”
The Guidance states:” [w]hile we are in the phase of moving from a pandemic to an endemic situation places of worship may decide to bring in optional precautions based on their own risk assessment to protect others and themselves…Local feelings about activities and risk will vary, but referring to a risk assessment continues to provide a clear rationale why additional measures are needed”.
“There is no longer a requirement to do a specific COVID-19 risk assessment. You can choose to include COVID-19 in general risk assessments for events and activities. There is useful information on risk management available from Ecclesiastical and Trinitas insurance providers”.
For church run events, “We would always recommend carrying out a specific risk assessment for any event, whether in a pandemic or not, to identify any health and safety risks, and measures that should be taken to mitigate them”.
For third party hiring of a church venue, “[i]t is not a requirement for all events and venue hires to provide a specific COVID-19 risk assessment but all general health and safety requirements need to be considered. Details on this are available from the Health and Safety Executive”. “It is the activity being performed, rather than the building itself, which needs to be assessed for risk when running events. The person responsible for hiring out the venue should satisfy themselves that they have seen a competent risk assessment for events, and check that those completing it have referred to the relevant guidance for their event or organisation”.
The section Current and future situation with COVID-19 is important, and now reads:
“The UK is currently seeing a number of waves of increased COVID infections throughout the population due to fast-spreading sub-variants of the Omicron version of the virus, called BA.4 and BA.5. These sub-variants can reinfect people even if they have had COVID previously”,
Under What should someone do if they have symptoms of COVID-19 or have been in close contact with someone with the virus? the link leads directly to a government document that was withdrawn on 1 April 2022, although this provides a further link to a more recent document which was last updated on 10 June 2022. However, symptoms are changing as new variants become more prevalent, and earlier in the year, in an editorial the BMJ warned “the UK should expand its official list of symptoms for defining covid-19 to prevent cases being missed and help improve the UK’s pandemic response”.
“There is now no bar to shared vessels being used in public worship, and many churches have returned to the use of a common cup to administer the consecrated wine”.
“It is important for churches which are not currently administering Holy Communion in both kinds to keep this practice under active review.”
The section on Holy Communion includes the statement:
“It is important to highlight that this is guidance, not instruction; those directly responsible for activities in churches and other buildings are advised to make decisions in the light of this and guidance from local public health bodies in accordance with their specific circumstances”.
However, we assume that this is generally applicable to other guidance in the document.
“Face coverings are no longer mandatory in any setting but are recommended in enclosed or crowded places, particularly where you come into contact with people you don’t normally meet. Coronavirus (COVID-19) can spread predominantly by droplets and perhaps aerosols (which can linger in the air) from coughs, sneezes and speaking. The best available scientific evidence is that, when used correctly, wearing a face covering can reduce the spread of coronavirus droplets and aerosols in certain circumstances, helping to protect others. Because face coverings are mainly intended to protect others, not the wearer, from coronavirus (COVID-19) they are not a replacement for social distancing and regular hand washing”
‡Other guidance and resources on this page are unchanged, and specific enquiries should be addressed to firstname.lastname@example.org.