Some churches will reopen soon, but keep your distance and no hymn-singing

Pic: Amanda Slater

By Tim Wyatt, 30 April 2020

Boris Johnson has pledged to unveil the government’s plan to begin to relax the lockdown. He told the daily press conference that details would be published next week. Although the prime minister gave no specifics, attention is now turning to how places of worship could be reopened.

The conversation is already under way in Northern Ireland, where one government minister said churches could be involved in a gradual tapering of the lockdown, as long as they adhered to the two-metre social distancing. Some could even reopen as “drive-through” services, said Edward Poots, environment minister of the province’s legislative assembly.

Mr Johnson said the government would focus on getting children back into schools and restarting the economy, but some faith leaders have insisted resuming acts of worship was just as important.

Cardinal Vincent Nichols, the Archbishop of Westminster and the most senior Catholic cleric in England and Wales, has told Sky News the “spiritual needs of people are essential” and that churches were ready to reopen as soon as it was safe to do so.

But without more guidance from the British government, few other denominations or faiths in the UK have yet broken cover to suggest ways public worship could resume. The scattered voices calling for churches and other places of worship to reopen have tended to be politicians and columnists, rather than figures within faith institutions.

Around the world, however, many other countries are already beginning to ease restrictions that have mostly kept the faithful cooped up at home for six weeks or more.

In Germany, the government has opened talks with faith leaders about relaxing the lockdown ban on public acts of worship. A number of denominations have already agreed rules barring any physical contact, including kissing the Torah or sharing communion bread and wine, and other measures to uphold some social distancing.

But they appear to be drawing at line at suggestions that all congregational singing could be prohibited. Virologists suspect singing spreads droplets of virus over a large area, and the government may allow places of worship to hold services only if they abandon hymns. Some denominations have opposed the idea, especially the Roman Catholic church in Germany.

Mosques in Germany have already been permitted to reopen gradually during Ramadan, although only for the under-65s as long as they wear a face covering and have at least 10 square metres of space to themselves.

Other nations are also inching towards lifting parts of the lockdown for places of worship. In Spain, religious services will be permitted from 11 May, although in line with similar rules for restaurants and theatres, they can be only a maximum of one-third full.

In South Korea, which has managed to get its Covid-19 outbreak well under control, churches and other religious buildings have been allowed to hold services since last Sunday. All worshippers must wear face masks and stay away from each other, though. Some large congregations are making members sign up online in advance if this want to attend so they can control numbers.

Churches in Austria will be allowed to recommence services from 15 May, as long as each worshipper has 10 square metres of floor space and wears a mask.

Not all governments agree that churches should be among the first to reopen, however. In Italy, which has suffered some of the highest casualty rates from the coronavirus in Europe, some businesses and factories will be allowed to reopen from 4 May, but not churches. This has provoked an angry backlash from the country’s Catholic hierarchy, which has accused ministers of compromising religious freedoms.

In the United States, the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have issued draft, non-binding guidance for faith communities about how they might go about reopening places of worship. Where possible, churches should use outdoor venues or drive-through services, as well as having worshippers wear face masks.


Cardinal Vincent Nichols via Catholic Communications Network

David Paton, Professor of Industrial Economics at Nottingham University Business School and a Visiting Professor at St Mary’s University, Twickenham, suggested in an article in the Catholic Herald, various ways of emerging slowly from the lockdown:

“There is a strong case for re-opening churches for personal prayer straight away… It’s possible that in a few weeks the government will ease the lockdown, while maintaining some social distancing requirements. If so, let’s try to be flexible: insisting on social distancing might mean a limit of 20 people in a small church, but 100 or more could be workable in a large cathedral. Thought could also be given to whether our Sunday obligation can be temporarily transferred to any day of the week, so that attendance is spread out over more Masses.”

An American project led by an influential evangelical, William Vanderbloemen, is also generating discussion on how to reopen churches.