The UK Government has announced wide-ranging changes to the lockdown regulations and guidance applicable in England as the number of coronavirus infections and deaths decline.

Of principal interest for churches will be the allowance to meet for services and other meetings in church buildings from 4 July.

In his statement to parliament on 23 June the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, also announced that wedding ceremonies in England will be able to take place from the 4 July with a cap of 30 people. Alongside this are other changes permitting the reopening of restaurants, pubs and many, but not all, other commercial venues. There is also a relaxation of measures relating to private dwellings which will enable one household to visit indoors and stay overnight with another household. 

Each of the four nations of the UK are lifting restrictions at their own pace and in slightly different order: in Wales weddings can already take place but church services can’t; in Northern Ireland it is anticipated that the loosening of regulations will permit church services to happen soon, and weddings can already take place outdoors; Scotland will permit weddings outdoors from 29 June, but no announcement has yet been made as to when church services can resume. 

How should churches prepare?

In each nation there will be an emphasis on maintaining physical distance and ensuring that places of worship are COVID secure’ when they are allowed to reopen; however, in this article I’m focusing on what churches in England might want to consider or put in place. Consistent with other reopening measures most legal restrictions will be removed and replaced with guidance. This is likely to include the need for churches to undertake risk assessments and other measures introduced to limit the risk of infection. While specific guidance for places of worship will be issued shortly, the guidance for workplaces provide a starting point for churches thinking about how they will resume gathered services.

The absence of detailed guidance from government for churches and other places of worship makes it challenging for detailed planning to take place, but a few key principles are already clear. 

First, as already mentioned, churches will need to ensure physical distancing can be maintained. The changes apply to the venue not to the activity within the venue, so there is currently little information on how this will affect churches which hire venues for use for services and meetings. Nonetheless, much of the below comments are likely to be relevant, but also contingent on agreement with whoever you hire the premises from.

This will involve limiting capacity and addressing pinch points such as entrances or exits – ideally a one-way system will be in place. While it is not entirely clear from the Government’s announcement whether the cap of 30 applies to all services or just to weddings, our understanding at this point is that it only applies to weddings. 

Second, and probably most challenging for churches, the scientific advice suggests that singing is an activity which carries a higher risk of transmitting the virus. Public Health England is currently reviewing this and will soon publish the results of their investigation. The guidance, when published, is likely to include strong advice against incorporating corporate sung worship into services. 

Third, are there vulnerable people in your congregation who either cannot attend in person, are advised against joining gatherings, or who are anxious about coming into contact with other people? Alongside the restrictions in capacity posed by physical distancing requirements, it may well be necessary to develop hybrid models of church services which provide for those attending in person and those online. 

Fourth, the new regulations and guidance make only limited changes to what is allowed in private dwellings, so mid-week groups in people’s homes are unlikely to be possible unless they only include people from two households. It is already possible for groups of six people from different households to meet in public places or private gardens, so this is an option for small groups.

Fifth, it is not expected that churches will be required to keep records of who attended church meetings, however, this might be something you want to consider, especially if you are to have large numbers attending (at a physical distance) or holding multiple meetings in quick succession (with cleaning in between). 

Finally, churches will need to think through their activities and practices and consider which they can introduce from 4 July and which require more planning or might be safer to implement at a later date. This might include sharing communion: it is unlikely that this will be specifically addressed in guidance, but practices that involve multiple people touching the same items are inherently more likely to transmit the virus. Similarly, baptism is unlikely to be specifically addressed, but churches should think through whether they can do this in a safe manner. For all churches, consideration should be given to whether items that are used by multiple people (for example, Bibles, hymn books, children’s toys) need to be removed. 

So how should churches respond?

Churches in England will respond differently to these announcements; many will have denominational guidelines and advice to help them think through their decision-making. 

As churches consider their activities and how they might resume gatherings in person, it is unlikely that there will be strict rules on how this happens, but that doesn’t mean everything should be restarted at once. We would encourage churches to prioritise those meetings they have confidence they can do safely and which will provide spiritual support to the congregation. It might be that the logistical and numerical challenges of Sunday services mean that these remain primarily online for now while mid-week prayer meetings or similar provide an opportunity to get used to how to operate in this new context. 

The likely advice against singing is one churches should take seriously but will significantly impact what church meetings look like. There are also anomalies in the Government’s position because it is built around places of worship rather than activity, so there will probably not be any formal advice against singing if you are outdoors with a small group, but churches should still take seriously the scientific advice.

There are other aspects of guidance that will prove challenging for churches; for example, in the overall guidance announcing the changes from 4 July, people are advised not to interact socially with anyone outside the group with which they are attending any given place. Restaurants, community centres and places of worship are the three examples provided, so while churches may well have accepted that refreshments before and after the service won’t return yet, the idea that a congregation shouldn’t socially interact’ will be incredibly difficult. 

Over the past 14 weeks of lockdown churches have quickly innovated to continue their services and to reach out to their communities. Many people have got to know neighbours in a way they haven’t before, even if they’ve lived on a street for years. This is a moment for churches to continue to reach out and make Jesus known. Church services might be different to what we’re used to, but our mission is still the same.