At this stage, it is not possible based on infection rates or other criteria to give a definite point at which a local United Reformed Church should close as Covid-19 rates increase. Current Government guidance in England, Scotland and Wales allows places of worship to remain open even when higher levels of alert and restriction are in place, although the “fire-break” lockdown in Wales WILL require places of worship to close to the public, which includes for acts of worship.
However, the United Reformed Church stresses that whilst Governments allow churches to remain open, this is permissive, and not an obligation. The Elders’ Meeting (and equivalent council in LEPs) are best placed to understand and assess the risk locally, bearing in mind the nature of the premises, and the activities that take place (including worship and other church-related meetings and groups) and external lettings. Due consideration needs to be given the vulnerability of the people. Without the appropriate volunteers to manage activities and the premises, churches will not be able to maintain Covid-secure buildings, in which case activities must cease until that can be remedied.
Further, churches are reminded that Risk Assessments are not documents to be created and then ignored. It is essential to actually put into place the mitigations identified in order to open and operate safely. Equally, when risks alter, the “venue managers” or “person responsible” (in Government terminology) – almost always the Elders’ Meeting within the United Reformed Church – will need to consider whether the changed circumstances require changes in practice to further reduce the risks prevailing, which might include closing for a time. When a church enters the Tier 3 (Very High) risk level in England and any equivalent state should a similar system be developed for Scotland and Wales, we strongly encourage the Elders’ Meeting to consider whether it is now appropriate to close for worship and other non-essential activities (which would leave foodbanks, support groups for vulnerable people, etc. able to continue to operate as they did during the national lockdown). Whatever decision is taken by the Elders, they should document the reasons for their decision. This does not place an obligation on churches in the highest risk areas to close, but it is a strong encouragement that this is considered.
In all cases, if Governments tighten up their position, churches must follow that Government policy and regulation, and nothing here is intended to supersede that guidance.
The Synod Moderators