Return to worship and sooner yet, return to individual prayer

Until last weekend, Faith organisations have been working to government directions that Churches, Mosques, Temples, Synagogues and other places of worship in England would have to remain closed and reopen no sooner than 4 July. This remains the case for group worship (see below), but as of this last weekend the voices of Faith organisations have seemingly been heard and assurance has been given that – contingent on the 5 coronavirus tests being met – places of worship may open for private individual prayer on 15 June.

Especially in these times, this will be hugely welcome to many who have felt real loss in being faced with their Place of Worship having its doors locked.

What prompted this?

The shift in policy is being seen by many as a success of the voices on the Places of Worship Task Force which had been set up as a consultee body for the Ministry of Housing and Local Government (MHLG), to inform the Government’s approach to the pandemic. Observations had been made that it seemed hard to see the public health logic of a member of the public being able to go into non-essential shops but not into the Place of Worship opposite. It is a decision perhaps also informed by the fact that Northern Ireland has already chosen to take this step. Wales and Scotland are currently choosing to keep to a later date.

So, what are the rules?

Be it the sooner opening for private prayer (expected from 15 June), or the later moment when larger group worship may restart (no sooner than 5 July) the ability to do so successfully will all be contingent on the 5 coronavirus tests continuing to be met at the relevant time in the relevant place (and that the act of reopening is not shown to cause breach any of them: see test 5).

As a reminder these tests are:

  1. Making sure the NHS can cope
  2. A sustained and consistent fall in daily death rate
  3. Rate of infection being at manageable levels
  4. Ensuring PPE and test supplies can meet future demand
  5. Being confident any adjustments would not risk a second peak that would overwhelm the NHS

It seems that Government is happy that individual private prayer will meet these and so the 15 June date looks firm (at the time of writing this we await the regulation putting it into law). However, the later date is very much “no sooner than” (recent MHLG meetings with the Churches’ Legislation Advisory Service underlined this) and we will need to await Government approval nearer the time. It might easily be deferred and one can readily see why there is concern about the Coved risk of group worship.

So, what should we do next?

When we first drafted this note before the recent announcement, the note was intended to help support Faith Organisations in developing thinking about the next steps, given the Government guidance then available. At time of writing there is still no detailed Government guidance on how to implement a return to places of worship and there are some very detailed considerations that faith organisations will need to consider in managing the health and safety aspects of the re-opening of places of worship. Whilst it may be too soon to have any for the initial opening for private prayer, we anticipate that Government guidance for the later opening - for more regular worship - will be forthcoming in due course but rather than simply wait for that, we are sure it is wise to start planning ahead of that.

Is there any other guidance that has been prepared already?

Many of the larger Faith organisations have been developing internal guidance relating to Covid and re-opening, specific to their Faith denomination. Of course most, if not all, have already had to address some – occasionally very testing - doctrinal questions over how to maintain the practices of their Faith in the time of Covid.

Indeed in very recent days (since first draft of this note) the following have been produced/updated (and we are sure similar for other Faith groups)

  • The Catholic Bishops’ Conference guidance can be found here
  • The Church of England can be found here
  • The Muslim Council for Britain has issued guidance which can be found here

We know from our many Faith client contacts that they have had to accelerate their plans in light of the recent announcement. Readers that are directly interested in the issue of reopening are encouraged first to look at what may have been developed by their central bodies, to suit the practices of their particular Faith and denomination.

Those responsible for the reopening are naturally keen not to disappoint expectant worshippers'; but they are also naturally anxious to have systems in place that care for the worshipper’s well-being (and those of the religious leaders, employed staff, volunteers, and others who will be involved in running the place of worship). It will be at the forefront of their minds that one of primary sources of cross-infection in South Korea – otherwise a Covid success story - were churches who ignored guidance on social distancing.

Stone King’s view?

Stone King has been closely involved in the issue of advising a wide range of voluntary sector bodies which have either remained open or re-opened already and it is our recommendation that Faith organisations should be early in planning for return, including to places of worship.

This was always likely to involve some phasing. It is helpful to start with a smaller step both a) to test how a plan operates in practice in a lower risk context and b) to allow those who will have to get used to a “next normal” to experience the change through small steps of reopening. The “next normal” will no doubt then move on again. Now certainly there will be phasing.

Key to that planning will necessarily be the consideration of health and safety (as is shown in the guidance referred above). Faith organisations like any other employer have a duty of care to their employees and also have health and safety duties of care to other people affected by their activities to ensure insofar as it is reasonably practicable to do so the health, and safety of all those people and this will cover worshippers and other visitors but also volunteers and office holders. In the case of employees, the duty also extends to a duty of care for their welfare.

So where to start?

As noted above, readers that are directly interested in the issue of reopening are encouraged first to look at what may have been developed by their central bodies.

Beyond that we recommend that in preparation for the return organisations concentrate on 3 key documents.

  • First, one should draft a return to work plan. This can incorporate more than just the health and safety aspect of a return, and also take in the operational aspects that need consideration. This is likely to have variations Faith denomination by faith denomination; Faith Activity by Faith Activity; and place of worship by place of worship. At present there is a dearth of detailed Government guidance on how to plan a return to worship. There is however detailed guidance (https://www.gov.uk/guidance/working-safely-during-coronavirus-covid-19/offices-and-contact-centres) on the return to office space and this may in any event cover what you need to take into account in relation to the admin and office- based staff, if and when they are to return. At present the position remains that employees should work from home unless it is not possible to do so.
  • Secondly, it is a legal requirement to draft a suitable and sufficient risk assessment in relation to the risks associated with Covid. This will need to encompass arrangements made in relation to hygiene, cleaning and social distancing for all those affected. You should also consult with your employees in relation to the preparation of this document. This is likely to have variations for different Faith denominations, Faith activities and individual places of worship.
  • Thirdly, we would advise drafting a social distancing policy. This will set out what steps you are taking in relation to that issue. We believe that drafting such a distinct policy will enable organisations to focus on the factors they need to consider in relation to that distinct issue. Again, there will be particular matters to address for different Faith denominations, Faith activities and individual places of worship.

We shall be very happy to consider with any Reader the particular issues and policies that they are concerned to address and/or to steer them to example thinking and frameworks that may help inform their thinking.

Many Readers will also wish to speak with their insurers (and they are encouraged to do so to ensure they are not inadvertently exposing themselves to uninsured risks). We shall be interested to hear how contacts find insurers approach the matter, as we are very aware that faith organisations will be keen not to find that they are prevented from serving the pent-up hopes of expectant worshippers by conditions/exclusions imposed by their insurers.

If you want to know more

We shall follow up with further commentary and other resources on this issue as it develops in coming weeks and months.

For further information please feel free to contact Andrew Banks our head of Health & Safety/Regulatory team or Hugh Pearce head of Faith team. 

You will also find our many podcasts/webinars and other resources on Covid matters here, and our website carries past editions of the Faith Bulletin and many other connected resources. For relevant Faith client events we are involved in, please click here. 

We also always welcome your feedback as to topics on our bulletins and topics you would like to address.

The law and practice referred to in this article or webinar has been paraphrased or summarised. It might not be up-to-date with changes in the law and we do not guarantee the accuracy of any information provided at the time of reading. It should not be construed or relied upon as legal advice in relation to a specific set of circumstances.

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