No rushing headlong into this week-end, but ensuring we are thinking about our individual contexts and settings, will be key to the safe re-opening, which may take some time, despite our natural desire to want to ‘gather to His name’ in the flesh. Here Simon Ladd, Partnership’s regional Coordinator for East Anglia, who has Church leadership experience in a variety of contexts, give his personal assessment of the situation.
On Monday June 29th the government published to guidance for places of worship allowing them to re-open after Saturday 4th July.
Here is the link to the guidance
The document is 16 pages long and can initially seem confusing – partly because it is trying to cover traditional churches and mosques and synagogues all in one document. Re-opening church buildings isn’t going to be easy – but do you really want a situation when the pubs are open but the churches are not?
Some of the guidance may seem to be a little ‘over the top’. For example, what is proposed here is stricter than the guidelines for a visit to the supermarket. But churches have a responsibility to both obey the law and do everything reasonable to minimise the risk of passing the virus.
Jesus asks the question in Luke 10:26 “What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?”. Among other things Jesus is challenging the person to whom he is speaking, to go back to the original source – and not reply on second hand opinions. The trustees of your church are ultimately responsible, and they or the person they designate as ‘venue manager’ must go back to the government guidance and be sure that they are understanding and applying it correctly in their context.
Here is a digest of the main points for our type of churches
- Anybody showing symptoms, or self-isolating must not attend. Over 70’s are advised not to attend.
- a COVID-19 risk assessment should be completed by each place of worship.
You could be liable to prosecution under Health and Safety legislation if this is not done adequately. At it’s core, a risk assessment identifies possible hazards and dangers and proposes mitigating actions to reduce risk to an acceptable level. There are templates that you can use.
- Somebody should be designated ‘venue manager’ – they will have discretion over when they consider it safe to open and should decide to remain closed if they are not able to safely adhere to the guidelines outlined below.
- Try and familiarise people with the new arrangements before they arrive – maybe an email, or a ‘walk through’ video on YouTube.
- A ‘welcomer’ should greet people outside the building and the ‘welcomer’ only should touch door handles to open doors – all the while maintaining 2m separation.
- People will probably arrive in household groups and ‘bubbles’. Households and bubbles are not required to maintain 2m separation – hopefully the ‘welcomer’ will recognise people and know when it is right to remind people about 2m separation and when it is not needed.
(2m separation is the recommendation – but 1m plus mitigation can be substituted where 2m is not possible)
- If possible, arrange a separate entrance and exit with a one way flow.
- Any ‘pinch points’ should be marshalled
- The service leader should explain all the arrangements and remind people of their responsibilities
- If you expect more people to be coming than your venue can accommodate – then a pre-booking system will be needed. Find a way of giving everybody an equal opportunity to attend.
- An opportunity to ‘hand sanitise’ should be offered to all as they arrive.
- Seating should be set out to leaving 2m separation in each direction. Walkways also should allow 2m separation.
- No communal singing. Singing, chanting, shouting and/or playing of instruments that are blown into should be specifically avoided in worship or devotions and in rehearsals. This is because there is a possible additional risk of infection in environments where individuals are singing or chanting as a group, and this applies even if social distancing is being observed or face coverings are used. There is provision for ‘call and response’ participation from the congregation.
- Worship leading. One individual only should be permitted to sing or chant, and the use of plexi-glass screens should be considered to protect worshippers from them, as this will further prevent transmission and the screen can be easily cleaned.
- Musical instruments
You are advised only to play musical instruments that are not blown into. Any instrument, such as keyboard, that is used by more than one person should be thoroughly cleaned between people.
- No ‘communal handling’ – nothing can be passed around such as a single cup for communion or a communion plate.
- Individual portions of bread and wine should be prepared in advance with gloved hand. Organise the distribution of the elements to observe the ‘no communal handling’ rule. No passing of the plate.
- The serving of refreshments is not banned – but in a large church it seems impractical for now. If you are a smaller fellowship, it is possible, following similar guidance to take-away restaurants. There is nothing to stop people bringing their own refreshments, but it is advisable not to use church crockery – and don’t share it with anybody else.
- Discourage cash donations
- Face covering
Evidence suggests that wearing a face covering does not protect you. Face coverings should not be used by young children or those who may find it difficult to manage them correctly. For example, primary age children unassisted, or those with respiratory conditions.
- Almost nothing is said in the guidance about children apart from advising that any ‘soft’ (and therefore hard to clean) toys should be removed. Clearly the management of children is the responsibility of parents, who must ensure that they can conform to safe distancing arrangements so as not to compromise their safety, or that of others.
- Households and ‘bubbles’ can interact at church as they would at home – but it might be worth mentioning this if you use social media – otherwise you may appear to be flouting the rules.
- Keep services short.
- Toilet facilities. To maintain 2m separation most churches will only be to allow one person to use the toilet facilities at a time. A queueing system should be set up with 2m separations marked on the floor. The queue should not be where people are passing closer than 2m or in a ‘pinch point.’
- Encourage people to ‘move on’ after the service rather than stay and chat.
- Don’t neglect the needs of those who are still unable to gather physically.
The government document distinguishes between ‘must’ (it’s the law) and ‘should’ (this is considered to be safest practice). The government document is not designed to give a tickbox checklist. It sets out general principles and invites churches to apply them in sensible ways. The size of your church, for example, will dramatically affect which parts of the guidelines are going to cause you problems.
This digest is the result of careful analysis of the government guidance and following lengthy discussion with people better qualified than myself – but it remains a personal interpretation and is not the policy of Partnership or any individual church.
For Further Thought
Do you want things to go back to how they were? Some people seem desperate to ‘get back in the building’, to get things ‘back to normal’ and ‘how they were before.’ Is that what you really want? And more importantly, is that what the Lord wants? Hasn’t there been a divine ‘shaking’ in the nation and in the church? If we rush headlong back to ‘how things were’ are we listening to God? Are we hearing what the Lord wants us to hear? Are we learning what He wants us to learn?