UPDATED 26 MARCH 2021

Churches in England, as with those in Wales and Northern Ireland, have been permitted to continue to meet during the current lockdown.

However, the majority of churches are not meeting and many churches will be considering when they will resume in-person meeting and what criteria they may choose to judge that by. In Scotland places of worship have been required to close, but following a successful court case were allowed to open with immediate affect, but subject to ongoing restrictions and guidance, on 24 March Read more about this judgment and how it affects churches in Scotland.

It may appear obvious but because churches in England, Wales and Northern Ireland – and other places of worship – were not stopped from meeting there will be no point at which they are allowed to meet once again. Nor do I expect there to be a thumbs up’ from the government encouraging churches to resume services. This is a good thing; giving churches the freedom to make their own choices preserved a vital aspect of religious freedom and meant that churches were not closed by state legislation, but rather because of local decisions usually centred on care for the community. This does, however, mean that deciding when to come out of lockdown is harder.

The roadmap out of lockdown in England, announced by the prime minister on 22 February, set out four steps at which different areas of society are able to reopen and activities resume, the aim being that all legal restrictions are removed by late June. The only fixed dates provided were for the reopening of schools on 8 March and limited other changes from 29 March. The second step, which will be no sooner than 12 April will see all shops allowed to open, outdoor hospitality allowed and groups of six people or two families allowed to meet outdoors. The third step which will be no sooner than 17 May will allow indoor hospitality, two households to meet indoors, larger events with limited numbers and potentially international travel.

The government will amend legislation to permit very small weddings (up to six people) for any couples from 8 March – at present they are only allowed in exceptional circumstances when one party is severely unwell and not expected to live. The number permitted at weddings and receptions will increase with the cap lifted from late June at the earliest.

One key factor that will affect churches’ ability to resume meeting in person is providing supervised children’s activities. Step two of the government’s roadmap sets out that all indoor children’s activities will be allowed, including activities with up to 15 parents attending. This will be a significant change that will make it easier for more churches to meet. 

When should churches resume meeting?

Given the roadmap announced by the prime minister, when should churches which have paused in-person meetings look to resume them? How do churches develop their own roadmap for the months ahead? 

I think there are some simple questions which help to clarify exactly what decision needs to be made, and then judgement calls will need to be made that will vary from church to church.

First, are there any practical or legal restrictions on you meeting where you want to meet? For example, is the venue required to stay closed at present, or is it otherwise unavailable? You may wish to look at alternative venues if this situation persists and you wish to meet. Either way, it’s vital to consider the most practical aspects.

Second, are there logistical reasons why meeting for a main weekly meeting might be challenging? For example, the inability to provide children’s work at present may make holding a worship service difficult. Many churches that are meeting will have found ways to navigate this, often by holding simple, shorter services where the whole congregation is together.

Once those issues are clarified, along with a recognition of the ongoing limitations of meeting together – namely not being able to interact beyond your own household, requirements to socially distance and strong guidance against congregational singing – what is left is a discretionary choice for individual churches. Some churches may also have denominational guidance that they have to follow, or are encouraged to do so.

When the current lockdown was announced in the new year I commented that different churches in different settings will reach different conclusions on whether or not to meet. This is still the case, but in the current setting churches should work towards meeting together when it is safe for them to do so.

And safe is a difficult criterion to navigate.

In early January cases were soaring and deaths far exceeded the original peak in spring 2020; this context was vital for many churches in driving their decision not to gather in person. As case numbers and deaths recede, and as vaccinations roll out, especially to those who are most vulnerable, there will be significant pressure to get the pace of reopening right. There is hesitancy in not wanting to repeat the yo-yoing of last year, but also not delaying reopening for too long because of the consequences of doing so. For many areas of society the drive to reopen is financial; businesses want to start bringing in money once again, holiday firms want to be able to sell packages with confidence that people can travel. There are also physical and mental health considerations. And for churches, the spiritual welfare of congregations is of utmost importance as well as our witness to Jesus to the community around us.

The work of churches to maintain services online is remarkable and has reached places traditional services did not. There are lessons to learn and aspects that will surely change how churches operate in the longer term. But something is missing when the people of God are not gathering together.

When will all the other restrictions be lifted?

In other words, when can we sing together and hug each other?

Many of the most significant limitations on how churches operate are not directly covered in the law, but they are required to take account of guidance if they choose to open so it is not something that can just be ignored. This includes the strong advice against congregational singing, requirements to socially distance and other hygiene and space management precautions. 

While the roadmap set out by the government targets late June for the lifting of all legal restrictions (which would enable people to legally have unlimited social interaction indoors), there is less clarity as to when guidance around social distancing might be lifted or advice against congregational singing changed.

Government guidance has recently been updated so that from 28 March performers’ are allowed to sing when necessary for an act worship, and if the act of worship is taking place outdoors in the grounds of a place of worship then the congregation may join in with the singing. We have sought clarity as to whether and how this dispensation applies to other outdoor spaces that might be used by churches. 

It is likely that some guidance on social distancing will continue after the final, step 4, changes which are anticipated by the end of June, this means that churches and Christian events over the summer will likely need to navigate reduced capacity.

The requirement to wear masks in most indoor spaces is in legislation, so that is something that would need to change for the government’s target of lifting all legal restrictions in late June to be fulfilled. 

As these changes are introduced to ensure that more aspects of society can resume, the Evangelical Alliance will continue to engage with the government on both the legal regulations and guidance that affects how churches meet. As the risk from coronavirus is considered to diminish, the relaxation of measures affecting churches should be accelerated, and churches should seek to resume what they have paused for much of the last year.

Within this movement to reopen and resume, it is vital that churches also pay attention to what might have changed and won’t resume in the same way. How, for example, will the experience of using Zoom for prayer meetings and small groups affect what these meetings look like for the longer term? What new opportunities for mission have developed in the past year? What activities are no longer such a priority?

The gradual pace of reopening over the coming months gives churches a chance to resume their activities in a way that provides a confident witness to our communities. It also provides a chance for us to review and rebuild, asking God to work through us to see His kingdom come.