Across the UK the proposed Christmas relaxations to enable families and friends to meet have been scaled back.

In a press conference on 19 December the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, announced that for London and large areas of the south-east of England households must now stay at home in a newly created Tier 4 that largely replicated the rules from November’s lockdown. For the rest of England the Christmas rules were significantly scaled back to only permit up to three households to gather together on Christmas Day. A major difference to the November lockdown is that places of worship are permitted to remain open in Tier 4 areas. 

In other parts of the UK similar changes were also introduced. Wales entered a nationwide lockdown on Sunday, and likewise places of worship are permitted to open for communal worship. In Scotland the Christmas rules only apply on Christmas Day and on Boxing Day all of mainland Scotland will enter Tier 4, where places of worship are capped at 20 people in attendance. Northern Ireland had previously announced a six week lockdown beginning on Boxing Day, and the executive have agreed that while people should only meet together on one day there can be flexibility between 23 – 27 December to accommodate those working on Christmas Day.

Places of worship to stay open

A notable difference in all nations of the UK from previous lockdowns is that places of worship are permitted to continue to meet for communal worship. The framework for Scotland already set out the reduce attendance cap required if areas move into Tier 4, whereas for areas of England and Wales, this is a positive change of policy. The Northern Ireland lockdown previously announced also included this exception. 

The legislation governing the new Tier 4 in England, which applies to all of London and many surrounding counties, adds in two important exceptions. First, while it is now required to stay at home unless you have a reasonable excuse, one has been added which is to attend a place of worship. Second, an exception to the limit on gatherings has been included which permits places of worship to open for the purposes of communal worship. 

As with previous lockdowns there are also exceptions for the provision of essential charitable or voluntary services, and support groups can continue to meet (with a maximum of 15 people not including children under 5 or those working). As with the November lockdown there is also a specific exception for parent and children groups which can meet under the same rules as support groups. 

Sunday schools and other associated activities for churches will depend on the particular circumstances and activities on offer. For younger children (under 5) churches can offer stay and play groups under the exception noted above. For older children and youth where they are meeting for worship, it can be classed as communal worship in a place of worship which is specifically allowed. This will need to operate in the same way as a main church service with social distancing, no congregational singing and masks (for over 11s). The rules will mean that some children’s activities in church will probably not be able to operate within Tier 4 areas.

Acting wisely

The freedom for places of worship to meet requires churches to respond with wisdom and responsibility.

This new approach is an important recognition of the importance of churches gathering in person to worship, to the spiritual, mental and emotional welfare of their congregation, and as a witness of hope to society. The closure of places of worship in November was met with widespread frustration, not least following the extensive measures put in place to ensure they can operate safely. 

Churches have placed limits on their capacity based on their venue and a compulsory assessment of risk, this ensures that social distancing can be maintained. The risk assessments that churches have done put in place measures such as one way systems and guidance on use of shared facilities and toilets. Additional restrictions have also been put in place and followed diligently, for example the compulsory wearing of face masks and following strong recommendations not to sing as a congregation. 

It is only because of the care taken to operate safely that churches should consider staying open in Tier 4. The new measures have been introduced because of the rapid acceleration in case numbers seen in and around the capital, and therefore churches should act wisely in deciding how to meet in the coming weeks. For some churches with a high proportion of elderly or vulnerable people in their congregation it may be wisest to not meet in person but make use of technology to maintain connection. For other churches, in light of the precautions in place, offering an in person worship service may be the best way of supporting the congregation and community. 

Many churches have already taken the decision not to meet in person over Christmas — one of the primary points in the year when gathering together to celebrate is most cherished. The freedom for places of worship to meet requires churches to respond with wisdom and responsibility.