Coronavirus – Re-opening Places of Worship – Updated 7th November 2020

Advice to IM Churches

*** 6th November Update – National Lockdown ***

At 5pm on Friday 6th November the Government updated COVID-19: guidance for the safe use of places of worship during the pandemic to reflect the new lockdown regulations.  The update states that churches MUST NOW CLOSE FOR PUBLIC WORSHIP, but does give advice on broadcasting services, involvement of musicians and singers, and on support groups, funerals and individual prayer among other things.  See our advice page for more details.


Salient Points from Government Guidance

  • There is an exemption from the 3-Tier System rules that covers places of worship making it possible for more than six people to gather for acts of communal worship.  However, it is not a blanket exemption and people must follow all the rules relating to the new 3-Tier System.
  • Communal worship means a service at which the general public can attend, not just an invited group, and normally means an advertised regular act of worship.  However, the Government have advised that a service to mark a ‘significant date in the Faith calendar’ can happen with attendance up to the Covid safe capacity of the building even though it is not a regular weekly or monthly service.  This means that annual celebrations or commemorations or services to mark special dates can be understood to be communal worship.
  • Wearing of face coverings are also required by law, therefore the wearing of face coverings by all those attending a place of worship, including ministers and worshippers, where there may be other people present is mandatory.  However, there are some exemptions to this, including for those leading a service.
  • An advisory maximum of 15 attendees has been set for weddings and and 30 for a funeral.  All other life event services, such as baptisms, are subject to the rule of six if they are private services and not communal worship.  This is all subject to the church carrying out a risk assessment and taking all reasonable measures to limit the risk of transmission of Coronavirus.
  • There is no numerical maximum on other services, but social distancing and public health requirements must be met during these services.
  • The two-metre rule applies for public worship except in situations where closer contact cannot be avoided; if this is the case, extra public health precautions must then be taken.
  • Consideration should be given to keeping numbers below the maximum possible to further minimise risk.
  • People attending a gathering in church must not be part of a group of more than six unless they are from the same household or support bubble.
  • While those at extra risk and the ‘clinically extremely vulnerable’ should be advised of the risks of attending public worship, a decision to do so is theirs alone.
  • Government guidance includes a request for names of attendees to be recorded and kept for 21 days to assist ‘track and trace’ if required (further details from the government are expected to help churches who wish to do this).
  • Congregational singing and playing of brass or woodwind instruments are not permitted.  Guidance has been issued for small groups of professional and non-professional performers to sing/play in a physically distanced and safe way, but you must follow the recommendations set out by the Government in their Performing Arts guidance
  • Detailed instructions on ‘consumables’ suggest that Sacrament services can be held if specific guidance is followed, including a suspension of using a common cup for wine – if your church uses this practice.
  • Public worship guidance includes not only the church building but surrounding grounds (including car parks and courtyards); meetings in other places should follow other guidance for people meeting in public spaces.
  • Refreshments can only be served at tables if a café is included in the church building.
  • Government advice about use of churches and other church buildings for non-religious activity is available and should be consulted before any other activity is allowed in your buildings.

Detailed Questions & Answers

The government has advised that our church buildings can be opened for public worship from July 4th as long as this can be done safely.

No, there is no requirement to open.  You should only open if you consider it safe to do so.  All churches are encouraged to consider starting or continuing to stream worship or other events, both to avoid large gatherings and to continue to reach those individuals who are self-isolating or particularly vulnerable to COVID-19 as well as to  those who have joined worship for the first time online during the lockdown period.  Whatever is decided, please consider how to communicate this to your members and community.

The government has defined a place of worship as follows:

"A place of worship refers to a building used for regular religious ceremonies, communal worship or similar gatherings by religious organisations.  It includes the use of surrounding grounds, for example, adjoining car parks, courtyards or gardens for which the venue managers are also responsible.

The guidance also covers premises when being used for religious gatherings, even when their primary purpose is not for religious gatherings, such as a community centre.  These premises will only be able to be used where they are permitted to be open and additional guidance may be applicable.

This guidance does not cover public parks, private homes, cultural sites or other open spaces, such as woodlands which may be used for religious purposes.  If people do want to engage in worship in these spaces, then the guidance relevant to that place should be adhered to."

You should take the actions on the Building Checklist that was sent to your church and undertake a risk assessment to look at your own situation, as each church building and the local circumstances there are different.  If you need help with either of these, please contact the Resource Centre in the first instance and help will be provided.

The government has advised the following:

  • For communal worship, limits should be decided locally on the basis of the capacity of the place of worship, following a risk assessment
  • For weddings there should be no more than 15 people in attendance without observing the "rule of six"
  • For funerals there should be no more than 30 people in attendance without observing the "rule of six"

For other life event ceremonies (for example, baptism) are subject to the rule of six if they are private services and not communal worship.  If they are part of communal worship then they are subject to the physical building restrictions for public worship.

You should undertake a local risk assessment to gauge the capacity of the building, allowing for safe entry and exit points and communal areas.  The number of people permitted to enter at any one time should be limited to ensure at least 2 metres (or 1 metre with risk mitigation where 2 metres is not possible) between households.  The sorts of things to consider include:

  • Size and layout of the building, including ventilation
  • Total floor space, pinch points, busy areas, entrances and exits, and where possible alternative or one-way systems should be used
  • Travel to and from the church building - whilst it may be possible to safely seat a number of people in the building, it may not be safe for them all to travel to and from, or enter and exit, and so numbers may need to be reduced to allow for this
  • What other venues are open locally and whether to stagger entry times with other venues to avoid queues or congestion in surrounding areas
  • Travel routes and whether it may be necessary to consider one-way travel routes, including between transport hubs and churches.

This needs to be addressed as part of the risk assessment.  Things to consider include:

  • For frequently used places, mark areas using floor tape to help people to maintain social distancing. If your floor surfaces are historic or delicate even so-called ‘temporary’ adhesive products can cause damage if they are left in place for an extended period.  Advice is normally available from the manufacturer’s website
  • Consider additional mitigations such as: avoiding face to face seating, reducing the number of people in any one area, improving ventilation, using protective screens and face coverings as appropriate, closing non-essential social spaces, one way flow, staggering arrival and departure times to avoid congestion at entrances and exits including such things as exiting one row at a time, using alternative rooms to separate worshippers
  • Queue management to reduce congestion and contact
  • Clear signposting or assistance with sufficient “stewards” to help maintain compliance
  • Those leading worship reminding worshippers of the need for social distancing and hygiene.

This may be necessary for some churches and you may consider introducing a booking system to help with managing numbers, particularly where demand will be high and space limited.

This is not mandatory, but in line with other government guidance for other venues you are advised to keep an accurate temporary record of visitors for 21 days, in a way that is manageable for your church, that can assist NHS Test and Trace with requests for that data if needed for contact tracing and the investigation of local outbreaks.  The government is working with faith leaders to make the process for recording these details compliant with data protection legislation and as manageable as possible.

On entering and leaving the church building everyone should be asked to wash their hands thoroughly for at least 20 seconds using soap and water or to use hand sanitiser if hand washing facilities are not available.  There should be signs and posters on safe hygiene practices.  You should provide hand sanitiser in multiple locations in addition to toilet facilities.

Toilets should be kept open if at all possible and carefully managed to reduce the risk of transmission.  Steps that will usually be needed to make the use of toilets as safe as possible:

  • Signs and posters about safe hygiene (there are many types available)
  • Social distancing marking in areas where queues normally form, and the adoption of a limited entry approach, with one in, one out (whilst avoiding the creation of additional bottlenecks)
  • If possible, make hand sanitisers available on entry to toilets where safe and practical, and ensure suitable handwashing facilities including running water and liquid soap and suitable options for drying (either paper towels or hand dryers) are available. Communal towels should be removed and replaced with single use paper towels
  • Agree clear use and cleaning guidance for toilets, with increased frequency of cleaning in line with usage. Use normal cleaning products, paying attention to frequently hand touched surfaces, and consider the use of disposable cloths or paper roll to clean all hard surfaces.  Special care should be taken for cleaning of portable toilets and larger toilet blocks
  • Keep the facilities well ventilated, for example by fixing doors open where appropriate and safe to do so
  • Putting up a cleaning schedule that is kept up to date and visible
  • Providing more waste facilities and more frequent refuse collection.

Certain groups of people may be at increased risk of severe disease from COVID-19, including people who are aged 70 or older, regardless of medical conditions.  Individuals who fall within this group are advised to stay at home as much as possible and, if they do go out, to take particular care to minimise contact with others outside of their household.  You may want to consider whether, based on your local circumstance, you have set times when churches are open solely for those particularly vulnerable to COVID-19, such as those over 70 or clinically vulnerable.

Those who are considered to be extremely clinically vulnerable to COVID-19 will have been advised to shield and are currently advised not to meet more than one person from outside of their own household, and therefore not currently advised to attend places of worship.  From Monday 6 July, those shielding individuals may choose to gather in groups of up to 6 people outdoors and form a support bubble with another household, they will therefore still be advised not to attend places of worship indoors.

Anyone showing symptoms of COVID-19 (a new continuous cough, a high temperature or a loss of, or change in, their normal sense of taste or smell) should not attend the place of worship due to the risk that they pose to others; they should self-isolate at home immediately with other members of their household.  Remote participation should be considered, for example by live streaming.  This applies equally to any individuals who work at the place of worship.

Where individuals are self-isolating due to a possible or confirmed case of COVID-19 in the household, or because they have been requested to so by NHS Test & Trace, they should participate remotely.  See stay at home guidance for households with possible or confirmed COVID-19.  Guidance is different for funerals, see guidance on managing a funeral during the coronavirus pandemic.

We should warmly welcome all children and young people; they are part of the worshipping body of Christ.  Young children should be supervised by the parent or guardian and appropriate hygiene precautions followed.

Separate children’s activities being organised by the place of worship alongside or within a service or at other times during the week should follow principles in the general guidance from the Department for Education on Out of School Settings.

In outline, these recommend that, to reduce the risk of transmission, children and young people who attend should be kept in small, consistent groups, and of no more than fifteen children and at least one staff member.  Children should be assigned to a particular class or group and should then stay in those consistent groups for future sessions and avoid mixing with other groups in your setting.

If possible, those attending should practise physical distancing in line with the government’s current guidance.  As the risk of transmission is considerably lower outdoors, providers who normally run sessions indoors should consider whether they are able to do so safely outside on their premises.

Particular attention should be paid to cleaning frequently touched surfaces by children and those that are at child height.

Any shared facilities for children, such as play corners, soft furnishings, soft toys and toys that are hard to clean, should be removed and/or put out of use.

Where young people or children are coming unaccompanied then we would advise adding a safeguarding assessment as part of the overall risk assessment for opening, with a particular focus on young people who attend church activities without their parents.

If you are collecting data for NHS Test and Trace the details of the parent or guardian of an accompanied young person or child need only be collected.  For unaccompanied children or young people aged 13 years old or over, they can be asked to provide their details and sign the consent form, or make an individual booking where consent is
required.  You may need to explain to them what the data is being collected for so they understand what Test and Trace is about, rather than relying on them reading and understanding the privacy notice on their own.

If you only have one service on Sunday, then it would be sensible to clean the church after the service.  If you are having more than one service cleaning the whole church may not be possible.  In this case, we suggest wiping down those surfaces that are likely to have been touched, paying particular attention to those frequently touched surfaces.  You will need to ensure you have identified people to undertake the cleaning.  A decision should be made locally on how frequently cleaning should take place based on an assessment of risk and use of the building.  If the church is not going to be used for 72 hours there is no need to clean it.

It is best not to use communal service sheets or books that can be touched repeatedly by different individuals, and which may be difficult to clean.  Individual service sheets should not be handed out at the entrance as this is likely to breach social distancing.  However, they may be placed on pews/seats before the service, and then taken home by worshippers.

Alternatively, people could print off their own service sheets and take them home afterwards.  Similarly, people should be encouraged to bring their own bibles and take them home with them.  In circumstances where worshippers cannot bring their own books, churches should keep a selection of clean books for individuals to use.  Clean books should be quarantined for 48 hours since their previous use and should be quarantined for 48 hours again after use.

Yes.  Organs can be played for services, practice, and general maintenance, but should be appropriately cleaned before and after use.

It is now permissible for both professional and non-professional singers and musicians to perform in small groups to people inside and outside of buildings in line with the recommendations for physical distancing and hygiene set out by the Government in their Performing Arts Guidance.

This includes those who regularly volunteer to do music and singing, as part of a choir for example, to perform as a part of worship.

Congregations are still not permitted to sing as part of worship.

Wherever possible people should continue to physically distance from those they do not live with, venues, performers and audiences should be matched to ensure 2 metre distancing applies.  The number of performers should be limited and if there are more than 6 singers/musicians only rehearse and perform in separate sub-groups of no more than 6 people in a way that ensures that there is no mingling between sub-groups at any time.  If a non-professional group is unable to ensure that mingling does not take place between these sub-groups (including when arriving at or leaving activity or in any breaks or socialising) then the activity should not take place.

Those assisting with worship through music or singing do not always need to wear a face covering, but face coverings or screens should be used if physical distancing cannot be maintained.

The Royal School of Church Music (RSCM) has produced more detailed resources on singing and music, which can be found here.

Yes, please see the guidance on singing above and the Government guidance on performing arts.  Players need to be appropriately physically distanced and divided into sub-groups of no more than 6 where there are more than 6 performers.  There should be no mingling between sub-groups and the music should not be so loud that it encourages people to shout above it.

Yes, if you have one then you should make use of it.  Ideally individual lapel microphones or static (fixed) microphones should be used rather than hand-held, and those using them should not touch the microphone to reduce the risk of transmitting the virus, especially if it is a fixed microphone – for example on a lectern - that will be used by multiple people through a service.  Lapel microphones should only be touched by the person using them and should be cleaned (for example with alcohol wipes) or left-untouched for 72 hours between uses.

People from the same household or “bubble” can sit together.  Everyone else will always need to observe appropriate social distancing.  It may be helpful to remind people as they enter, and to supervise this if needed.

Face coverings are currently mandatory on public transport and in a range of indoor venues including Places of Worship and church halls.  While there are exemptions this is a legal requirement.

Those who are leading services or events in a place of worship, and those who assist them (for instance by reading, preaching, or leading prayer) do not always need to wear a face covering, although one should be worn especially if physical distancing cannot be maintained.

These exemptions are made to enable communication, particularly with those who rely on lip-reading, facial expressions or clear sound; they do not exempt leaders from wearing face coverings in other situations or during other activities.

Where possible cash donations should be discouraged.  Where this is not an option, cash should be collected in a receptacle that is set in one place and handled by one individual, as opposed to being passed around.  Regular cleaning and hygiene should be maintained, and gloves worn to handle cash offerings where giving continues.

Hospitality spaces within a place of worship, such as cafés, are permitted to open but should be limited to table-service, social distancing should be observed, and with minimal staff and customer contact in line with government hospitality guidance.   Other mitigations should also be considered, for example, foodstuffs should be prewrapped, and a system should be in place to prevent individuals from coming into contact with consumables and any dishes and/ or cutlery other than their own (for example the use of shared bowls).

We would suggest at the moment churches do not consider using café spaces or coffee areas to reduce the potential for transmission.

If anyone becomes unwell with symptoms of COVID-19 in a church building they should go home immediately and be advised to follow the stay at home guidance.  If they need clinical advice, they should go online to NHS 111 (or call 111 if they don’t have internet access).  In an emergency, call 999 if they are seriously ill or injured or their life is at risk.  They should not visit the GP, pharmacy, urgent care centre or a hospital.

Other people who may have been in contact with the person who has become unwell should wash their hands thoroughly after the interaction, but they do not need to take any other specific action unless they develop symptoms themselves or are advised to do so by NHS Test and Trace.  If they do develop symptoms, they should follow the stay at home guidance.

The church should be cleaned in line with Government guidance where a suspected case of COVID-19 has been recorded.

Other groups must undertake to conduct their own risk assessment and observe physical distancing and public health guidance.

We’ve been advised to improve ventilation to reduce Covid-19 spread.  So, as it gets colder, is it safe to turn on the heating?
Yes.  It is safe to operate nearly all forms of church heating.  The types of heating that present a Covid-19 risk are those that take air from one occupied space in a building and move it into another occupied space, i.e. from one room to another.  If your heating or ventilation system has this feature is must be turned off so that air is not moved from one space to another.  The system can be used with the feature turned off.  It is extremely unlikely that a traditional church building will have such a system, but if in doubt ask the company that services your heating.  They will know what, if any, adaptation is needed to operate in a Covid-secure way.

No Covid-related concerns have been identified with the use of traditional hot water radiator systems, electric heating (including under pew), underfloor heating, gas heaters, including gas convector heaters and, in a ventilated space, fan convector heaters.  In a ventilated space fan convectors can assist with reducing pockets of stagnant air.

If your heating type is not listed and if you have any doubts about it being appropriate to use, please consult the company that maintains it, or another heating engineer.  The industry will be aware of requirements for Covid-secure heating operation in public buildings.

Can we really reduce the number of windows and doors open to be warm?
Yes.  You can be warm in a ventilated space.  The cooler autumn and winter weather will promote some forms of natural ventilation, meaning that adequate ventilation will be achieved with a reduction in the number of windows open, and the amount they need to be open.  If there is high-level ventilation, such as a clerestory, ventilators built into the ceiling or roof or ventilation through the method of construction of the roof it will not usually be necessary to leave lower-level windows open.  It is suggested that any windows that are opened are open at least 15 minutes before the building is occupied.

In cooler weather cold air from outside is drawn into a warmer, heated, building.  Heated air will move up inside the building, drawing moving air around and promoting ventilation.  Where air can enter the building at a high level this will cool the air that has risen before falling and introducing further ventilation.  Even if these are not experienced as strong draughts heated air moves in the building and will cause natural ventilation with fewer, if any, windows open to admit fresh air.

Most church buildings are large spaces, compared with small shops, offices, pubs and restaurants, and well naturally ventilated.  It is not necessary to keep external doors open for added ventilation where this causes discomfort over the colder months where existing Covid-safe practice ensures physical distancing of 2m and the use of face coverings for example.

The Chartered Institution of Building Services Engineers  (CIBSE) do have some detailed guidance on their website - this may be a useful source for your church.

Can people touch the outer door to open and close it as they enter?
Yes - provided that you make hand sanitiser available inside the church to use after entering.  This will remove any risk of transmission of infection from shared use of the door handle.

Is it OK to leave fire doors propped open to increase ventilation?
No.  It is not appropriate to compromise fire safety.  Doors that display a sign saying "Fire door, keep shut" in a blue lozenge should never be propped open.  The only exception is where the door is integrated with a fire alarm and self-closes when the alarm is triggered.