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Churches in England to decide for themselves whether to enforce mask-wearing

by Kelly Valencia

Many places of worship in England will soon have to decide whether or not to enforce the use of mask-wearing in their buildings. 

It comes as the lifting of coronavirus restrictions on 19th July will be mean face coverings will no longer be a legal requirement but guidance. The Government is expecting each organisation to make its own rules on coronavirus mitigations. 

But the issue is causing division within churches across England as some Christians feel the mask is "a hindrance to fellowship" while others feel it is too soon to stop wearing them. 

Speaking to Premier, Graham Nicholls, CEO of the fellowship of churches called Affinity, said people and churches should have the freedom to choose whether or not to use face coverings, depending on their own circumstances. He disagrees with it becoming a reflection of how good of a Christian someone is. 

"What I don't think is that we should oblige people to wear masks when they're no longer mandatory. And particularly in a church setting where it's a hindrance to fellowship, we do a lot of non-verbal communication.

"And, for those fully sighted people, seeing other people is part of the joy of fellowship. So, I think to restrict that when there's not an obligation on us legally, to do that, and to play some kind of moral conscience issue to say, basically, 'you're not very loving if you don't wear a mask'. I think that is wrong."

Nicholls is also the lead pastor of Christ Church Haywards Heath and has decided not to enforce the use of face coverings in his church from 25th July. 

"We are going to give people freedom from Sunday week, to not wear masks, to be able to sing. But because it is obviously a nervous time, we're going to maintain some of the social distancing options, maintain the hygiene, maintain the really good ventilation. And so [we'll] work out a way towards being more 'huddled', as it were, in a slow way." 

The Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan has announced mask-wearing will be compulsory in all public transport in London. From Monday, social distancing measures will be removed though. 

For John Stevens, National Directorof the Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches, it's important to recognise that the divisions amongst Christians over Covid restrictions have already existed, over singing for example, and he thinks church leaders should focus on the unity and avoid division in the church. 

"I think it's really important for church leaders to lead their churches for the benefit of the congregation as a whole, to try to maintain unity across the congregation, not to be divisive. So, some churches, the congregation may well have a common view where everybody thinks that they shouldn't be wearing masks, or they should be wearing masks - where it will be most difficult is where there's significant division within the church itself." 

Stevens went on to say the congregants have also a responsibility to support their leaders as they make this very difficult decisions. 

"I think there's a particular responsibility on the part of church congregation members to help and support their leaders, as they navigate this very difficult challenge. This could be a time in which people who disagree with what the leaders decide or recommend could be very divisive within the life of the church. I think it's really important that church members understand the difficulty of what church leaders have got to decide, and for the benefit of the body as a whole." 

Neither Affinity nor FEIC will be issuing guidance on how to proceed with mask-wearing but will encourage each church member to decide what's best for their own congregation based on their own situations. 

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