Governments across the UK have announced changes this week to coronavirus regulations affecting how churches can meet.

In England and Northern Ireland churches can now open for individual prayer, and in Scotland and Wales this will be permitted from 22 June. This is a permissive move so individual churches and denominations will make decisions as to whether they can open their buildings. Any opening will need to ensure physical distancing can be maintained and appropriate hygiene and cleaning measures in place. 

Aside from weddings in exceptional circumstances, for example when one partner is critically ill, no weddings have been allowed to take place since the lockdown began. This has now eased to permit open air weddings in Northern Ireland with Wales and Scotland following suite on 22 and 29 of June respectively. These allowances place tight restrictions on the number of people involved. There is currently no provision for even small outdoor weddings in England and the Evangelical Alliance has continued to press the UK government to permit this. 

With all four nations of the UK moving at different paces in their relaxation of restrictions the Evangelical Alliance has drawn together guidance and advice and addressed some common questions churches will have as they take measure to reopen their buildings and plan how and when corporate gatherings will resume. 

We’ve summarised some of the key changes in Scotland and Northern Ireland as well as drawn together key guidance in Wales.

One key challenge will be the likely restriction of corporate singing

It is likely that further changes will be announced in the coming weeks and that churches may be able to open for small gatherings as will be permitted in Northern Ireland from 29 June. There will be a range of key issues for churches to consider as restrictions are relaxed, and gatherings are permitted. One key challenge will be the likely restriction of corporate singing as evidence suggests this, along with any loud vocal activity such as chanting or cheering, transmits the virus further and will be advised against or even prohibited. 

Together with ongoing requirements for all gatherings to ensure appropriate physical distancing between household units church services may be unrecognisable for some time to come. Churches will need to put in place measures to ensure venues are regularly cleaned and for people who are especially vulnerable they may not be able to attend large gatherings even when they are generally permitted. 

An added complication for many evangelical churches will be that they do not own the building they meet in and will therefore need to discuss arrangements and consider how they can meet. 

Churches have seen the essential need not to gather in recent months, however, with the rate of infection reducing and as society slowly starts to return to a semblance of normality it is essential churches can find ways, and are permitted, to meet together once again. In the same way that we have seen an incredible wave of innovation in how churches have shifted services and meetings online, there may well need to be a similar shift to new forms of meeting that look different than we are used to. Small groups have been a feature of churches dating back to Wesley’s classes, but may be about to see a step change in their importance as the core of how churches meet. 

The Evangelical Alliance is pressing the government to provide advice and guidance for churches on when and how they may be able to meet, and for measures to be relaxed for places of worship in line with other areas of society. However, the absence of this – particularly in England – doesn’t prevent churches from starting to plan and prepare for what church will look like in the coming months.