The vast majority of legal restrictions put in place throughout the coronavirus pandemic end in England on 19 July.

The Prime Minister has set out how England would proceed to step 4 (the removal of all legal limits on social contact) from 19 July. Advice will replace most legal restrictions and decisions on whether to uphold certain measures will be left to personal conscience. 

Despite case numbers continuing to climb, possibly reaching levels seen in January over the next two weeks, the relaxation is based on the vaccination programme significantly weakening the link between infections, hospitalisations and deaths. By the 19 July more than 90 per cent of the adult population are expected to have had one shot of the vaccine and close to 70 per cent will have received both jabs. 

The primary areas where a change from legal restrictions is likely to have an impact are as follows:

  • The requirement to socially distance, and for permitted gatherings to operate with limited numbers, will be removed.
  • The requirement to wear a face mask in enclosed spaces will be removed.
  • The limits on the number of people who can gather will be dropped, so more than six people can interact indoors and more than 30 outdoors.
  • It will no longer be required to keep a record of who was present at a venue or event.
  • Venues that have been required to remain closed throughout the pandemic (such as nightclubs) can now open.

What does this mean for churches?

The legislation passed in January governing the 2021 lockdown will lapse just before midnight on the 19th, and this means that a large amount of guidance will become downgraded because the law requiring venues and organisations to take account of it as part of their precautions will fall away. For churches, this mean quasi-legal restrictions on congregational singing, administration of communion, baptism, laying on of hands and many other regular parts of worship services will no longer be regulated by the law.

What should churches do?

Sing hallelujah!

We’ve joined with many others in recent weeks in pressing the Government to address the ongoing restriction on congregational singing, so it is great to see that this will be lifted. A situation of inequity between different types of venues had been created and the Government needed to address this undue restriction on places of worship. 

Likewise, the relaxations to other aspects of Christian worship will enable churches to operate more freely. The changes to distancing requirements will allow some churches to meet together for the first time in nearly 18 months.

But what churches can do isn’t necessarily what they should do. Like when churches were given the freedom to continue to meet during early 2021, the removal of legal restrictions shifts responsibility from the Government to the local church (or denomination). While this is a positive step, it also brings with it challenges – no longer is there a government rule setting what you can or cannot do safely. 

Wisdom and caution advisable

It is important that churches use these freedoms responsibly. Churches will manage their exit from lockdown differently, owing to, for instance, differences in the size and make-up of their congregation and their place of worship. But, with infections rising, it is clear that risks remain, so a cautious approach is probably called for. 

If cases are very low, there are few reasons for continued mitigating measures because there is so little of the virus in circulation, but as now, when many people are contracting the virus, there are reasons to continue some measures that limit the spread of the virus. Similarly, a church that meets in a large cavernous warehouse or ancient stone building has far better ventilation than a church meeting in a stuffy function room or local community centre. The key factors of density, duration and distance still make a difference and should inform church decision-making. 

The removal of the requirement to where face masks in enclosed spaces is perhaps the most controversial of the Government’s proposed changes. Very few people like wearing masks, but their impact is primarily on the spread of the virus to other people rather than protecting the wearer. The CONFESS study from UCL showed the high effectiveness of face masks in limiting droplet spread from singing, so as churches have the freedom to sing together as a congregation, the continuation of mask wearing may be a sensible precaution.

The next steps for churches will likely be varied, some churches will want to embrace all the freedoms that they are given, and other will be far more cautions. Some will know that not all their congregation will come to in-person services, perhaps especially if precautionary measures are lifted all at once. Other churches will continue to think how they can make use of online engagement to reach new people who might not come into the building. 

As we emerge from this pandemic, let’s make grace our primary value. As churches take different steps, we need to show compassion and understanding as people wrestle through the implications and come to differing conclusions. Let’s celebrate that we can worship together more freely, but also continue to love and care for our neighbour. Our churches have been beacons of welcome and hope for so many in our communities. As our society prepares to embrace life post-pandemic, my prayer is that we continue to show the world how to honour, value and be gracious to all those around us, whatever that might look like. 

This article, first published on Tuesday, 6 July, was updated on Wednesday, 14 July.