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Church leaders talk of 'ongoing caution' as restrictions lift in English places of worship

by Chantalle Edmunds

Religious leaders have met with Lord Greenhalgh, the Minister for Faith, at a round table discussion to talk about the implications of lifting Covid restrictions on places of worship in England.

July 25th will be the first Sunday that singing is permitted in churches in England since restrictions were placed on communal singing because of the Coronavirus pandemic.

During the round table discussion, Lord Greenhalgh listened to how church leaders intend to move forward. John Stevens, National Director of The Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches (FIEC), was also in attendance. He told Premie decisions will vary from church to church.

"This time, of course, the government has decided to set aside the legal restrictions on churches and on worship, including the requirements of mask wearing, social distancing, singing has been reset. Government ministers and officials are really saying this is now a matter devolved to local churches to decide for themselves, what is appropriate in the light of the risks. So, most of the discussion was actually the ministers and officials listening to what church leaders are saying is happening in their particular contexts. 

"I think quite a lot of the church leaders were expressing an ongoing kind of concern and caution. So not moving rapidly from the restrictions in place at the moment to setting them all aside. I think quite a number of the groups and churches are seeking to continue to recommend social distancing, to recommend continuing of the wearing of face masks, particularly out of concern for the clinically vulnerable and for those who haven't been vaccinated. So I'd say the general overall tone was of ongoing caution, but with a desire to gradually open up. Some were a little bit more bullish in terms of the concern of congregations to want to get back to singing and mingling and mixing with one another."

The numbers of people within a building will also have an impact on what measures are put in place to control any possible spread, Stevens added. 

"Of course, the other key factors are the makeup of the congregation, whether there are elderly and more vulnerable people, whether people within the congregation have been vaccinated and are protected. And therefore I think churches have got to think both about this particular situation, the prevalence of the sort of virus within their immediate context, and who makes up their particular congregation, so that they can decide what will most help people to be able to gather together because we yearn to be together to be able to worship God and support and encourage one another, but actually to do so in a way that people have confidence. And that minimizes the risk of infection being spread."

During the discussion, it was stressed to Lord Greenhalgh that the government should not restrict the practice of worship in churches, including singing, if it became necessary to re-introduce Covid restrictions.

Stevens told Premier there is the possibility that for many churches, discussions over restrictions could lead to greater division within members of the community.

"So in many churches, you've got people with different views about Covid, different views as to what strategy should have been adopted, different views of what should be done now. And up until now, church leaders have in some sense, been able to say, well, we are doing what the government is telling us to do. And in a way you can pass the blame to the government, whereas now it will fall on church leaders. And I think that is going to be complex and difficult. In many church situations, I think church leaders are wise to consult their congregations, and ask people what they feel comfortable with, what would most encourage them to return. 

"But I think the church members are also going have to extend a great deal of grace and support to their church leaders at this particular time. So church leaders face making some very difficult decisions that they've got to make in the interests of the body as a whole. And there will be people in churches who disagree with those decisions. I think I would urge those people to be supportive of leaders to respect their authority to think the best of them and why they've made the judgments that they've made, and not to become a cause of stirring dissent in the life of the church," Stevens said. 

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