The Scottish Government’s guidelines on places of worship are constantly evolving as the nation gradually moves out of lockdown. This page will be updated regularly to keep you abreast of the latest developments.

Last updated: 26 March 2021

This article is not intended to replace government guidance but to supplement it with useful information for our members.

The guidance detailed here is based on the new strategic framework for moving out of the lockdown declared at the beginning of 2021. For a more detailed look at the general guidelines currently in place, please see the Scottish Government’s lockdown guidance. The details listed below apply to all current level four areas, consisting of all mainland Scotland. To check the level of restrictions in your area, please see the Scottish’s Government postcode checker.

After the Scottish high court ruling on 24 March, churches are now allowed to reopen earlier than planned under the Scottish Government’s new strategic framework.

After the last week of April, Scotland is expected to return to the five-tier system, with each area of Scotland starting at level three. While the rules for churches are expected to be different than under the 2020 level three restrictions, you can see our article on the five-tier system for a summary of the previous church rules at level three; this will give you perspective on how the rules could change in the future.

The Scottish Government’s guidance currently states that church buildings are able to open for a number of permitted purposes including, but not limited to:

  • individual prayer;
  • congregational and worship services;
  • broadcasting acts of worship;
  • funeral services;
  • marriage and civil partnership ceremonies; and
  • religious life event ceremonies, such as baptisms, christenings and coming-of-age ceremonies.

Church services

Churches are able to open for normal church services, but are subject to the legal requirements for social distancing, the wearing of masks indoors, and for those organising acts of worship to take due regard of the guidance.

Exceptions to these social distancing rules do apply in a limited number of cases where faith-based practices are deemed absolutely essential and it would be unreasonable” to maintain distancing; the Scottish Government gives the example of the laying on of hands in the ordination of new ministers. Churches are encouraged to assess the necessity of such practices and plan accordingly.

The Scottish Government guidance also suggests that churches should impose a cap of 50 people attending in-person church services.

A number of other suggestions are made by the Scottish Government:

  • Communal resources, such as Bibles, song sheets and orders of service should not be used. Single-use alternatives that worshippers take home themselves can be used but should not be handed directly to worshippers.
  • The consumption of food or drink should be avoided where it is not essential to worship. Where it is essential, shared vessels should be avoided. For churches, this advice applies to communion. Speaking across food or drink is also to be avoided.
  • When services end, worshippers or staff should leave the building promptly.

Currently, travel outside of your local area to either attend or facilitate (generally referring to church leaders, worship leaders, and those needed for technological support etc) is allowed. The Scottish Government does recommend travellers consider whether this travel is essential and worth the risk involved.

For more details, exceptions and guidance, please see the Scottish Government guidelines on individual and congregational worship.

Worship

Singing as part of a church service, both indoors and outdoors, should be avoided at this time. This guidance also applies to the playing of wind and brass instruments as part of a worship band. 

The Evangelical Alliance, as well as other faith organisations, has been in constant dialogue with Scottish Government officials since the first iteration of congregational singing rules. We will continue to advocate for such an important part of Christian worship to be possible in Scotland as long as this is safe and supported by good evidence. The Scottish Government uses the evidence of scientific studies that indicates risk in aerosol transmission through singing and wind instruments. 

Where it is essential for an individual to sing or play a wind instrument indoors, one individual may perform behind a screen in order to reduce the risk to others within the building. Instruments other than wind/​brass instruments may be played within a church but should be cleaned regularly and not shared. 

Different rules apply for professional performers and if the activity is taking place outdoors: please refer to the Scottish Government’s performing arts guidance.

For more details, see the Scottish Government’s guidance on worship and services.

Weddings

Under the current restrictions, weddings may take place but attendance is limited to the legal minimum: five people with the possibility of an interpreter attending in addition to this if deemed necessary. This limited number consists of the couple getting married, the celebrant and two witnesses. 

These restrictions remain in place regardless of whether the marriage is taking place indoors or outdoors. As mentioned in the travel section, attending a wedding is listed as an exception to the stay-at-home guidance, local travel restrictions and restrictions on travel across UK national boundaries; all domestic travel to attend or officiate a wedding is permitted. 

Notably, post-wedding celebrations (i.e. wedding receptions) are not permitted under the current rules.

These rules for weddings are expected to change as Scotland returns to the tier system at the end of April. Details on these changes are not published yet.

For more details, see the Scottish Government’s guidance on weddings and civil partnerships.

Funerals

Funerals may continue to take place under the current restrictions, with attendance limits of 20 people including children; this number does not include a funeral director, celebrant or venue staff but does include any person hired by the family.

Post-funeral gatherings, such as wakes, are not permitted under the current rules; however, funeral-related commemorative events (the Scottish Government gives the example of ashes scatterings) may take place subject to the same rules on distancing, attendance, and health assessments. 

As mentioned in the travel section, travel to attend a funeral is listed as an exception to the national travel restrictions; the Scottish Government is requesting funeral organisers to make funeral arrangements as local as possible during this time. 

These funeral restrictions are subject to social distancing and the wearing of face coverings, the latter not being necessary during the giving of a eulogy for example. Notably, the attendance of a funeral is subject to the space capacity of the venue in question to allow for sufficient social distancing. 

Scottish Government advice also notes:

  • The carrying of the coffin, and family and/​or friends’ participation in this, is subject to the expertise and risk assessment of the funeral staff as distancing requirements remain in place. The Government advice notes that family involvement could take place under certain circumstances such as where the coffin could be carried as a single household. These assessments are to be made by the funeral director on a case-by-case basis in conversation with the burial/​cremation authority.
  • Singing during a funeral service is subject to the same restrictions and guidance as those for worship services; attendees should not sing, chant or play wind instruments. Government guidance does note that a bagpiper could be permitted subject to distancing, health assessments and consent from the venue.
  • Orders of service may be distributed but should not be handed to attendees; these should be left on seats for attendees to use and take home or dispose of themselves. 

For more detail on funeral guidelines, please see the Scottish Government guidance on funeral services.

Other life events

Christenings, baptisms and other coming-of-age ceremonies, defined by the Scottish Government in its guidance as​“other life events”, are subject to separate guidance to weddings and funerals. For churches, these may take place as part of normal church services.

For more details, see the Scottish Government guidance on other life events.

Travel

Under the current lockdown, a stay-at-home rule applies for all but a limited number of exceptions; travelling to attend or lead at your normal church is one of these exceptions. This means that you can travel through council boundaries, something that is prohibited under the current lockdown rules, to attend church services.

The Scottish Government guidance does not explicitly state whether this travel exemption also applies to small groups or prayer groups meeting within a church building (as meeting with people outside your household bubble inside a home is still restricted). Church leaders and prayer group leaders should make decisions on this based on the Scottish government advice to stay at home except for essential activities.

Travel to attend a wedding or funeral is allowed, subject to the restrictions on the attendance of weddings and funerals. Please refer to the Scottish Government’s guidance on weddings and funerals. Travel to attend or deliver support services and other essential services (such as foodbanks) is also permitted under the current restrictions. See the current list of exceptions to the Scotland travel rules.

It is worth noting that travel between Scotland and the rest of the UK is restricted except in the case of a limited number of exceptions. Please see government guidance on inter-UK travel.

Support services

Support services, defined by the Scottish Government as any services supporting people’s wellbeing (the examples of drug/​alcohol support, victim support and group therapy, among others, are given), can take place under the current restrictions. The Scottish Government does encourage these services to move online where possible and that people only meet in person where this is not possible. See the Scottish guidance on support services for more details.

Youth work

There is a great deal of debate within different faith groups and denominations on the classification of typical church youth and children’s work; whether these are deemed​‘acts of worship’ or​‘unregulated childcare’ indicates whether youth work can take place under the current lockdown.

As the Scottish Government’s guidance on unregulated childcare and unregulated activities states that such activities should not take place under the current restrictions cannot take place under the current restrictions, youth and children’s work being designated as unregulated childcare’ would mean that such activities could not take place. As acts of worship’ can take place under current restrictions (assuming that these activities take place within a church building and include social distancing and the wearing of masks), youth and children’s work being designated as such would mean that such activities would be able to take place.

The Scottish Government does accept that it is not possible to fully classify every subcategory of children’s activities and states that it will be up to each organisation or individual to assess [which] guidance applies to their activity”. Please refer to the Scottish Government’s guidance on organised activities for children for the full statement.

Different organisations have taken different approaches. The Church of Scotland, for example, considers its Messy Church’ to be an act of worship and so subject to the guidance on church services. Please see the Messy Church guidance.


Please continue to check www.gov.scot/coronavirus-covid-19 for updates. For further clarification on the guidelines, or to help share best practice, please don’t hesitate to get in touch by emailing scotland@​eauk.​org