What can churches do as regulations and guidelines change?

UPDATED: 15 October 2020

Significant changes have come into force in England, Scotland and Northern Ireland that limit social interaction and the operation of hospitality business. These changes do not stop churches from meeting. 

Places of worship that have conducted a risk assessment and operating in a COVID secure manner will be able to hold public worship services as one of the listed exemptions. From the 14 September there has been a new legal limit in England of six people in social gatherings. This restriction is now supplemented by a three tier system with enhanced restrictions in the second and third tiers that prohibit any indoor social interaction. In Scotland there is currently a ban on household mixing for much of the central belt, this is also the case in NI and in the areas of Wales subject to local lockdowns.

With this new legal requirement it is particularly important for churches to consider how they can restrict social interaction between groups larger than those permitted, or at all if applicable, before and after services. 

General advice for restarting in person church services

Since July churches across the United Kingdom have been able to reopen for public services. Each of the four nations of the UK have relaxed restrictions at different paces and the rules and guidance relating to churches and church activities vary. Throughout this document we endeavour to cover the regulations applicable in all four nations.

As churches reopen they need to pay attention to legal restrictions, government guidance and some key principles as to how to limit the spread of the virus. 

Understanding the rule of six

In England it is now legally prohibited for more than six people to gather in the same place unless there is a valid exemption. Attending a place of worship and participating in a worship service is a valid exemption, but people must not attend in groups larger than six unless they are solely from one household group. 

Within these groups of up to six people social distancing should still be maintained between household groups. Social interaction, before, during and after church services or other activities must be restricted to groups of six. The legislation actually says that while attending a place where more than six people are permitted a person cannot: otherwise mingle with any person who is participating in the gathering but is not a member of the same qualifying group as them”.

Practically this means if churches want to facilitate or allow social interaction in or around their services they will need to be stringent in ensuring people do not do so in groups larger than six. This applies in England for those areas in the Tier 1: medium category. For areas in Tier 2 and 3 there must be no social interaction between households indoors. 

Legal obligations

The legal restrictions on churches as they restart public services are fairly minimal, in England and Northern Ireland there is no fixed limit on the number of people attending regular worship services, while in Wales this is dependent on venue capacity indoors, and outdoors capped at 30, and in Scotland at 50 regardless of whether indoors or outdoors. 

In England there is a general legal limit on gatherings of six people — the rule of six’. However, for events organised by businesses and charities (including worship services) this can be exceeded if there has been an assessment of risk and the venue can safely accommodate a greater number while social distancing is maintained. In Scotland and Wales, the numerical cap is a maximum limit that may be more than can be used for certain venues.

There are helpful templates for risk assessments that churches can use as they develop their own, these include those from the Baptist Union of Great Britain and the Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches.

Face coverings are legally required to be worn in places of worship in England, Wales and Scotland, in Northern Ireland many church leaders have also strongly recommended that they are worn. 

Understanding government guidance

In England, Scotland and Wales there is strong guidance on how churches and other places of worship can operate safely, in Northern Ireland there is less specific guidance but the principles from the other nations still apply and may be helpful for churches deciding how to operate. While the guidance does not in and of itself carry the same criminal sanctions as the points noted above, there are three reasons why it should be followed.

First, the health and safety executives of the respective nations have enforcement powers, and in the absence of a risk assessment, or an inadequate assessment of risk, they can shut down premises and potentially bring criminal charges. 

Second, failure to follow clear government guidance may invalidate insurance, and therefore if churches intend to deviate from the guidance this should be discussed with insurers and there should be clear and agreed justification on how you will mitigate against any increased risk. 

Third, churches have a responsibility to care for their congregation as well as the wider community and therefore should place a high value on keeping people safe. 

The variety of guidance that churches need to follow as they reopen can be bewildering and complex, and it is important to consider how legal restrictions and guidance interact. 

Principles for keeping churches safe

The guidance produced by the governments of the UK seeks to permit activities to resume but restrict social interaction between households.

This is the case even in contexts where people are permitted to gather together in greater numbers for certain purposes. This creates a tension for churches as most activities include a social component, it is therefore helpful to think about three key principles that can make the activities and services churches run either safer or more likely to lead to infection. 


The longer people are in the same space as other people, the greater the risk that infection will be transmitted.


Ensuring people are well spaced out minimises the risk of infection. The government guidelines continue to encourage social distancing of 2 metres between households but accept that where this is not possible this can be reduced to 1 metre, and especially if further mitigating measures are taken.


Similarly, while it is not possible to gather small groups in homes in the way many churches have historically done, this can be done in church buildings where there is likely to be more space and better ventilation. This is safer because the density of people to space is lower. 

Frequently asked questions

Working for the long haul

This guidance touches on some of the key issues that will probably need to consider as you plan for the future. It’s not designed as an exhaustive list, and we are not being prescriptive in how you respond, but hopefully these FAQs, and the further questions below help you prepare. 

Before proceeding into the specifics it might be worth taking time to review your activities and meetings. What have you stopped during lockdown that you want to resume, what have you stopped that you might not restart? Likewise, what have you started during this crisis that will now fade away, and what might become a lasting part of your activity?

What does the witness of the church look like in the next season? How can we contribute to our local community and share the Good News of Jesus? What is a sustainable approach to support your congregation and bless your neighbourhood?

On more practical matters as has been noted above the framework for churches to operate in will vary depending on which nation of the UK they are in, as well as any specific guidelines and restrictions from their denomination.

Church leaders’ checklist

These are some questions for you to bear in mind as you plan and prepare:

  • How many people can you safely gather together in a single meeting – once such meetings are allowed? This may need to be flexible to account for household groups.
  • What modifications to the layout or building arrangement may you need to make?
  • What additional cleaning protocols need to be put in place?
  • How can you provide facilities for hand-washing or sanitising?
  • What meetings will you as a church prioritise happening in person once they are allowed?
  • What will gathered meetings look like if you are not able to accommodate the whole congregation?
  • Will you meet together on Sundays if you are not allowed to sing?
  • How will you continue to accommodate those unable to attend because they are particularly vulnerable or advised to continue shielding?
  • How might hybrid services, both in-person and online work?

Specific advice from the Evangelical Alliance for the nations of the UK

Official guidance documents

England advice and guidance on reopening places of worship: https://​www​.gov​.uk/​g​o​v​e​r​n​m​e​n​t​/​p​u​b​l​i​c​a​t​i​o​n​s​/​c​o​v​i​d​-​19​-​g​u​i​d​a​n​c​e​-​f​o​r​-​t​h​e​-​s​a​f​e​-​u​s​e​-​o​f​-​p​l​a​c​e​s​-​o​f​-​w​o​r​s​h​i​p​-​f​r​o​m​-​4​-​j​u​l​y​/​c​o​v​i​d​-​19​-​g​u​i​d​a​n​c​e​-​f​o​r​-​t​h​e​-​s​a​f​e​-​u​s​e​-​o​f​-​p​l​a​c​e​s​-​o​f​-​w​o​r​s​h​i​p​-​f​r​o​m​-​4​-july

England advice and guidance on community and multi-use: venues: https://​www​.gov​.uk/​g​o​v​e​r​n​m​e​n​t​/​p​u​b​l​i​c​a​t​i​o​n​s​/​c​o​v​i​d​-​19​-​g​u​i​d​a​n​c​e​-​f​o​r​-​t​h​e​-​s​a​f​e​-​u​s​e​-​o​f​-​m​u​l​t​i​-​p​u​r​p​o​s​e​-​c​o​m​m​u​n​i​t​y​-​f​a​c​i​l​i​t​i​e​s​/​c​o​v​i​d​-​19​-​g​u​i​d​a​n​c​e​-​f​o​r​-​t​h​e​-​s​a​f​e​-​u​s​e​-​o​f​-​m​u​l​t​i​-​p​u​r​p​o​s​e​-​c​o​m​m​u​n​i​t​y​-​f​a​c​i​l​ities

Scotland guidance on places of worship:


Wales guidance on most recent changes:


Northern Ireland guidance letter on church reopening: https://​www​.reimag​in​ing​faith​.com/​b​l​o​g​/​l​e​t​t​e​r​-​f​r​o​m​-​t​h​e​-​e​x​e​c​u​t​i​v​e​-​o​f​f​i​c​e​-​t​o​-​f​a​i​t​h​-​l​e​a​d​e​r​s​-​o​n​-​t​h​e​-​r​e​o​p​e​n​i​n​g​-​o​f​-​p​l​a​c​e​s​-​o​f​-​w​o​r​s​h​i​p​/​2020/6

Helpful church resources on reopening