Church buildings and other places of worship were closed in March 2020 in response to the Covid-19 outbreak in the UK.
The archbishops of Canterbury and York published a joint letter to parishes on 17 March 2020 calling on Church of England churches to put public worship on hold in response to public health concerns. Other religious bodies also announced that public worship would be suspended.
On 23 March 2020, the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, announced that places of worship such as churches should close to help prevent coronavirus spreading. Separate announcements were made in Scotland, Wales and in Northern Ireland.
Places of worship began to re-open in June and July 2020. Since 15 June 2020, places of worship in England have been able to host individual prayer and funerals. Public worship was allowed to resume in England on 4 July 2020. However, certain restrictions remain in place under the current guidance for England. For example, group singing is not allowed inside places of worship. Certain ceremonies, including weddings and funerals, remain limited to 30 people.
Discussions between Government and religious authorities
The reopening of churches and the extent to which the Government has consulted with religious organisations is the subject of an oral question in the House of Lords taking place on 22 July 2020.
Lord Lexden (Conservative) will ask the Government:
[…] further to the Written Answer by Lord Greenhalgh on 26 May (HL4184), what discussions they have had with (1) the Church of England, (2) the Catholic Church in England and Wales and (3) other Churches about the reopening of church buildings for private devotional prayer and public worship.
Lord Lexden’s question refers to an earlier written question tabled by Lord Roberts of Llandudno (Liberal Democrat) during the period when places of worship were closed. Lord Roberts had asked the Government what discussions it had had with religious authorities on reopening places of worship for personal private devotions, formal services, and funerals and weddings. The Minister of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, Lord Greenhalgh, said meetings had been held with Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Sikh and Hindu faith leaders and representatives since the outbreak. He also said officials maintained regular contact with the leaders of major faiths.
Lord Greenhalgh also confirmed the Government had created a taskforce to consider how to reopen churches safely. He said:
As part of the recovery strategy, the Government has launched a Taskforce to look at the possible re-opening of places of worship. The Taskforce will be led by the Secretary of State for Communities, or the Faith Minister [Lord Greenhalgh], and comprise of representatives from the country’s major faiths. The aim of the Taskforce is to work towards the safe reopening of places of worship, including for private devotions, services and ceremonies like funerals and weddings. It will address the specific issues that places of worship face in the course of reopening safely.
The taskforce Lord Greenhalgh referred to was the Places of Worship Taskforce. It included representatives of religious bodies, such as the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Vincent Nichols, and others.
On 15 June 2020, Lord Greenhalgh confirmed the secretary of state had held a series of meetings with this taskforce about places of worship safely reopening.
Financial impact on churches
Concerns have been raised about the financial impact of the closure of churches. For example, during a question for short debate on 21 May 2020, Lord Bhatia (Non-Affiliated) raised concerns about the financial impact of the closure of historical church buildings requiring ongoing maintenance. The Government responded saying eligible listed churches were able to access financial support as part of existing schemes, including the listed places of worship grant scheme.
In an oral question on 9 July 2020, Lord Black of Brentwood (Conservative) asked the Government what assessment it had made of the impact of the closure of churches and places of worship on their financial sustainability. Responding for the Government, Lord Greenhalgh told the House that faith organisations would be able to apply for existing government-backed financial packages, such as grants made available to charities and to businesses. Lord Greenhalgh also said the Government was in discussion with religious organisations. He said the Government sought to ensure “the long-term sustainability” of places of worship, where possible.
During the 9 July oral question, Members raised the impact of restrictions on music in places of worship. Lord Glenarthur (Conservative), the chair of the trustees of the Royal College of Organists, said that restrictions on the number of people who could be in a place of worship had made it impossible to give organ recitals. He argued this had denied funds for churches and fees for the organists.
Lord Greenhalgh told the House that the Government intended to publish guidance for the performing arts during Covid-19. This guidance was subsequently published on 10 July 2020. He also said that Public Health England was researching how to minimise transmission of the virus through singing and chanting.
Support for Church of England parish churches
On 25 June 2020, Bell Ribeiro-Addy (Labour MP for Streatham) asked the Second Church Estates Commissioner, Andrew Selous, what steps the Church of England had taken to provide financial support to parish churches required to close during the Covid-19 pandemic. Mr Selous responded:
In March, the Church Commissioners and Archbishops’ Council announced over £75 million of liquidity support to dioceses and cathedrals. This money included allowing dioceses in financial need to access up to three months forbearance on sums required for the national clergy payroll [or clergy stipends] for a limited period and paying monthly grants in full for 2020. In May the National Church Institutions announced a diocesan grant scheme supported by the Church Commissioners, which totalled up to £35 million of sustainability funding.
- House of Lords, ‘Written Question: Religious Buildings: Coronavirus’, 26 May 2020, HL4184
- Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, ‘Covid-19: guidance for the safe use of places of worship during the pandemic’, 15 July 2020
- Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, ‘Working safely during coronavirus (COVID-19): Performing arts’ 10 July 2020