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House groups, prayer meetings, youth work: extensive guide on how new gov restrictions impact churches

by Marcus Jones

This week, the new 'rule of six' was implemented meaning people across the country are now limited in terms of their social engagements. 

While the laws differ slightly for those in Wales, Scotland, England and Northern Ireland - it's hoped the new guidance simplifies the situation. 

One area of confusion is how this impacts churches. 

The following Q & A has been compiled using information provided by the government for churches in England which is regularly updated. For full guidance click here. 

Am I allowed more than six people at a Sunday church service? 

Yes, gatherings for worship within a designated place of worship are exempt from the rules. There is no limit on the size of a congregation, however all those attending must adhere to social distancing (ideally 2m). One area a church should be conscious of is people interacting when leaving or arriving. They should not mingle in groups larger than six. 

Do you still have to social distance if your worship gathering only consists of six people? 

Yes everyone should continue to practice social distancing when mixing with people they don't live with or are not in a support bubble with, even within a group of six.  

Can I still hire a building for communal worship, such as a school or community centre? 

Yes the act of worship is exempt at any hired venue as long as that building is Covid-19 secure and takes into account same restrictions as regular places of worship. 

Can I meet inside a house as a small group for study or prayer? 

Yes - but only when meeting in groups of six or less. Homes and gardens are seen as private dwelling spaces meaning the 'rule of six' applies. The government has been forced to change the regulations given the public health risks associated with private houses and gardens. One other thing to take into account is whether children are in the house. Even if they are sleeping they count as part of the six. 

Can my church meet outdoors? 

Once again the exemption for worship stretches to make this ok. This means that a faith group can host a prayer service or communal worship in an outdoor public space, with the same restrictions as a fixed place of worship. Risk assessments need to be carried out and strict social distancing must be adhered to. This exemption does not include gardens or homes. 

Do midweek prayer meetings or Bible studies have to be capped at six? 

No. There can be multiple groups of six people doing the same activity provided that these groups do not mingle. That means several small groups could meet together in a church for prayer or study. All attendees should provide contact details for the purposes of NHS Test and Trace. 

Can I run my regular youth group? 

Yes. Activities for children organised by a business, charity or other public organisation, taking place at a COVID-19 secure premise, will be able to continue without applying the 6 person limit to the children involved or to the organisers. Such activities also must not take place in private dwellings. Only 15 children or young people should gather together with at least one staff member being part of that group. If at a hired venue or outdoors, you must undertake a rigorous risk assessment for the event and social distancing must take place at all times with contact details given for the purposes of NHS Test and Trace. 

Can our church run activities such as keep fit, weight loss groups, job clubs or addiction support groups? 

Formally organised groups to provide mutual aid, therapy or any other form of support are exempt from the rule of six. As usual, social distancing and contact details are needed. 

What's the rule for weddings, funerals and life-cycle events? 

The gatherings rule of six does not apply to weddings or religious life cycle ceremonies or funerals given their importance in people's lives, but attendance continues to be limited to 30 for such standalone events. This means people can mingle with other guests present beyond the numerical limit of six, though should continue to practice social distancing when mixing with those they don't live with or outside of their support bubble. However, people and venues must strictly follow the guidance on conducting these gatherings safely. Anyone working is not included as part of the 30 person limit. Receptions can only take place for weddings. 

Can worship bands/choirs over six perform in my church? 

Professional musicians/singers will be free to do so as they are regarded as being at their place of work but will need to follow additional guidance published on the performing arts. The government is still finalising details for those who are not employed. 

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