Of course the church has been very much open the past few months. Our Changing Church’ report based on a survey of almost 900 leaders shows more people checking out church online and the church continuing to meet the needs of the most vulnerable in their community. 

However, church buildings have been largely shut for some months now and so as we begin to plan to enjoy the freedom to meet again and consider the responsibilities this brings, here are some reflections…. 

Commitments for Reopening

As we make difficult and challenging decisions, here are three commitments that should influence our thinking: 

Love — Our decision making should be driven by our love of Jesus and for our neighbour (Mark 12:31). This will drive us towards opening some aspects quickly for those who are isolated and lonely, but also to proceed with caution remembering those who are particularly at risk. 

Wisdom — We need to stay up to date with the latest information, government guidance and scientific findings. However, these will not always tell us the wise way to proceed in our context — that requires prayerful deliberations and collective decision-making.

Grace — We are going to have to make different decisions in this season. We need to humbly reflect on our own possible biases, influences and pressures. We need to honour others who chose a different path and have the grace to acknowledge there will often not be a right’ way.

What do we know?

  • Church and faith leaders, including our Head of NI David Smyth, have been able to meet virtually with Minister Gordon Lyons and Minster Declan Kearney and with the Chief medical Officer and the Chief Scientific Officer on Wednesday 23rd June and on several occasions over the past few months. A summary note of this advice has been published by the Executive and is still largely relevant — it is available here.

  • Churches and other places of worship were permitted to reopen again for services from 29 June, provided they can adhere to social distancing and public hygiene requirements. This applies to all services and gatherings relevant to the life of the church, not just Sunday services.

  • The basic approach being taken is to give churches quite a bit of freedom and flexibility to make decisions about the their own buildings and congregations within the current government advice concerning social distancing, cleaning, hygiene etc. 

  • We welcome this freedom and the fact that the government is not seeking to micro-manage the life of the Church. However with this freedom comes a responsibility for the Church to care for the wellbeing of those who come to gather and worship in Church buildings.



Numbers

  • There is generally no fixed maximum number of people that can be accommodated in a church building.

  • Weddings and funerals are limited to 25 people as per the regulations of 16 October 2020

  • The number of people will be determined at a local Church level and will depend on an assessment of the building and current social distancing guidelines. It is important to keep in mind however that the number of people should be manageable. The greater the number of people and the greater the length of time that people are together, the greater the risk so it might be helpful to consider a shorter service initially. 

  • Remember that household groups can sit together. 

  • The use of halls for streaming of services is permitted. 

  • It would be advisable to carry out a risk-assessment which shows how the church has determined a safe and manageable number of people, how people will be managed as they enter and exit, plans for cleaning and stewarding etc. It would be wise to keep this under review. 



Track and Trace

  • There is no requirement for churches to keep a register of those who attend however it could be helpful to do so. Many churches may wish to adopt a form of booking system to regulate and manage the number of people attending once they have established how many people can be safely accommodated in their building. 

  • You will need to consider spacing at entrances and in corridors, thinking about the flow of people as well as total capacity.

Singing

  • Singing is permitted. However the scientific evidence suggests a higher risk of spreading the virus is associated with louder/​stronger communal singing or corporate recitation. As below the wearing of face coverings, particularly while singing is strongly recommended.

  • Quiet pieces of praise, a small socially-distanced choir or praise group may be worth considering. Churches will have to determine their own approach alongside alternative ways to engage in worship using music without singing or silence.



Cleaning and safety

  • Buildings may not have been used for some time and will require an initial clean and checks to areas such as water supply. 

  • There is no need for a specialist deep clean before or in between services. However cleaning is obviously very important and it would be helpful to have a very clear plan in place which is communicated appropriately.

  • Toilets can be used. Good ventilation is important and disposable hand towels rather than hand-dryers and communal towels are advised. Cleaning these areas regularly is important.

  • Surfaces should most likely be wiped immediately after use including chairs, tables, microphones and door handles. However if the space is not being used for at least 72 hours then normal cleaning routines will suffice. 

  • The virus likes’ cold, dark, hard surfaces and can survive here the longest. So some heat and good ventilation could help reduce the risk of spread as well as cleaning. 



Face coverings

  • As of 16 October 2020 face coverings must be worn entering and exiting church buildings. However the use of face-masks is strongly recommended in indoor settings and it is recommended they are adopted in places of worship as a good principle while inside Church buildings. 



Communion

  • Communion is possible but obviously sharing/​passing a collective cup or loaf of bread is not. Thought would need to be given about individual communion cups and bread portions, their preparation and cleaning. Changes might also have to be made to how it can be administered and distributed safely and with respect to the relevant theological/​Church tradition and practice.



Kids

  • There is no prohibition on children at church, youth activities, Sunday school etc. It is advised that those organising children or youth activities acquaint themselves with guidance for schools which may be of assistance in terms of planning and risk assessment. 

  • Keeping very young children apart in a crèche scenario would appear to be very difficult.

  • Churches will need to consider the size of the space and the availability of volunteers and the nature of the youth setting. A teenage bible study will look different to a primary school age gathering. 

  • Activities which encourage a lot of running around in an enclosed space and the sharing of resources/​equipment would not be advisable. 

Governance

  • Churches are governed differently, but most have trustees or another body who have responsibility for governance and in particular risk.

  • Those who are part of denominations or streams will need to understand their governance role and responsibilities in the context of any wider guidance issued by their denomination. 

  • Churches should be clear on who is responsible, accountable, consulted and informed about each decision. 

  • Churches should consider informing their insurers of their plans. They also need to consider the reputational risk of opening (and an outbreak occurring) or not opening (community and media interest in churches remaining closed).

  • Those who do not own their building may face further challenges and it would be advisable to speak to your landlord.

Other points

  • Passing any type of offering plate would appear high risk and should be avoided.

  • Serving tea and coffee is higher risk in terms of physical distancing, hygiene and cleaning. The purpose is often to encourage people to remain together in pro-longed conversation and it would probably be best avoided at least in these early stages. 

  • Many churches have seen more people engage online. How do we continue to serve those who have always struggled to attend church in person perhaps due to a disability or because they thought they would feel unwelcome? We also need to recognise that many who are vulnerable will not be willing to meet in person for some time. Most churches will need to consider running a blended ministry, while acknowledging the extra workload that will entail. 

  • Drive-in religious services are still permitted as long as people remain in their cars and follow the social distancing and public hygiene advice. 

  • Ministers can still provide pastoral care to congregants in their homes subject to to this being limited to a single household and social distancing. This should be helpful in terms of pastoral visits etc.

  • Churches should stay alert to any changes and the latest and best advice and abide by them including any social distancing requirements. 

  • It will be really important to communicate these changes clearly and appropriately to the congregation. Help them to understand what to expect before they arrive at Church and make your procedures and the reasons behind them clear to avoid confusion and frustration.

Final thoughts …

Church building may have been closed, but the church never shut. In fact, the church has shown incredible agility and creativity in moving online and our survey found that more people than normal engaging online, interested in faith and making first time commitments to follow Jesus. Gathering is an incredibly important part of church life. However, we remain in a time of significant uncertainty and flux. Remember to:

  • Build on a strong theological foundation as you grapple with issues such as mission, fear, protecting the vulnerable, and providing hope. 

  • Prayerfully reflect on how God might continue to guide your church in light of COVID-19 and considerations for the reopening process. 

  • Use collective decision-making to consider health, policy, community and ecclesiological factors in reopening. Be really clear on who gets to decide what.

  • Make sure you are complying with the regulations and best scientific and health advice available. 

  • Create a realistic plan for cleaning, infection response, volunteer and staff health and he needs of the most vulnerable. 

  • Reopening is likely to involve a step-by-step approach. It is likely to be a marathon rather than a sprint — pace yourself and protect your staff who have already made huge transitions. 

  • Churches within your town, area, stream or denomination will open at different stages for different reasons specific to their buildings, congregation or form of church practice.

As Christ’s disciples, we are learning to live out our calling to worship, pray, encourage, witness, disciple, and serve in creative ways that minimise the risk of spreading the virus. As we respond to this situation with love, wisdom and grace it provides another opportunity for the church to shine and give glory to Jesus. We are still the people of God; we — not our buildings — are the real church. 





This resource draws on:

An advice note from the Northern Ireland Executive.

https://​www​.pres​by​te​ri​anire​land​.org/​g​e​t​a​t​t​a​c​h​m​e​n​t​/​9​f​8​c​b​7​d​b​-​7​d​c​5​-​4​f​74​-​8​e​4​b​-​d​08​d​39​a​8904​e​/​G​u​i​d​e​l​i​n​e​s​-​f​o​r​-​g​a​t​h​e​r​i​n​g​.​p​d​f​.​a​s​p​x​?​l​a​n​g​=​e​n​-​G​B​&​e​x​t​=.pdf

https://​www​.eauk​.org/​c​o​r​o​n​a​v​i​r​u​s​/​p​o​l​i​c​y​-​g​u​i​d​a​n​c​e​-​a​d​v​i​c​e​/​e​m​e​r​g​i​n​g​-​f​r​o​m​-​l​o​c​k​d​o​w​n​-​a​d​v​i​c​e​-​a​n​d​-faqs

https://​www​.reopen​ingth​echurch​.com