You will be aware of the announcement that with the return on Tuesday next, 1 December, to Level 3, special provisions have been made to allow the reopening of Places of Worship for religious services. You will find below details of the new government Religious Services Guidance and the Religious Service Restrictions that will apply until January next.
Due to particular circumstances in their parishes, some priests have been anxious about such reopening. I believe, however, that there is a general welcome for reopening on the part of our congregations, along with a commitment to ensure that this reopening will be carried out responsibly and safely.
You will notice that the document speaks of reopening of Places of Worship for religious services. Church buildings may not be used for other events or purposes apart from private prayer.
The numbers permitted to attend services remain the same: 50 worshippers, except where the size of the Church allows for greater capacity, while respecting a number of circumstances. Among these there is the obligation that there be no movement of people between the sections before, during or after the service. The wearing of facemasks is obligatory.
One new element is the requirement that services should not exceed one hour (including entrance and exit times) and that there should be at least one hour between services to allow for cleaning, ventilation and to avoid crowding or overlap.
Further guidance on the place of choirs, chanting and congregation singing has yet to be published. My feeling is that it will not permit choirs during services, but that one or more cantors will be permitted. It is most likely that Carol Services will have to be carried out on line. It should also be remembered that choir members would have to be included in the limit of 50 persons.
The numbers permitted at Funerals and Weddings will remain at 25 for ceremonies and receptions. This is a specific decision that applies not just to religious funerals or weddings. It flows from concerns that have emerged about gatherings where social distancing has not been respected. This would include some instances around the outside of Church buildings.
We should be careful not to do anything that might compromise safety during the re-opening of Churches. We have to be especially careful not to be fostering any concentration of ceremonies involving gatherings of large numbers of children, especially in this winter season. Reducing the number of gatherings is a key element in the fight to curb the spread of the virus.
The responsible reopening of our Churches will be of great benefit to individuals and congregations. It is interesting to note that the WHO guidelines on religious worship during the current pandemic stresses the contribution to personal and spiritual wellbeing of participation in prayer and worship.
Over the next days, I will return with some reflections on how we should be preparing for the celebration of Christmas. We should be reflecting on how we celebrate Advent, on facilitating the celebration of the Sacrament of Reconciliation, on how we can encourage families to help their children experience the wonderful mystery of the birth of the Christ Child as well on preparations for the celebration of Mass during the Christmas period. We should also be reflecting on how we can ensure that our parishes reach out to the many who will feel lonely and distant from their families this year. In that light, I am sending you also a message from Crosscare on the need to provide support for our food centres over this period.
Religious Services Guidance
Special concession for Places of Worship to reopen for religious services at Level 3, from 1 December, in light of the upcoming Christmas period, to be reviewed in January.
This will allow for up to 50 worshippers to attend Services with the following protective measures:
- 2m social distancing guidelines adhered to (members of the same household can sit/stand close together)
- Wearing of face coverings
- Where possible separate points of entrance and exit, clearly marked
- No congregation by people outside the premises before and after any service
- Stewards on site to assist in this regard
Additional measures to be put in place to address overcrowding, to include scheduling additional Services, increased stewarding and an advance booking system, where necessary.
Where the size of the premises allows for a capacity of greater than 50 this may be permitted only where:
- Social distancing guidelines are adhered to
- The premises can be subdivided into distinct sections (cordoned or marked appropriately) of not more than 50 persons in each section
- There is a minimum of 4m between sections
- Each section having its own entrance/exit route
- There are separate arrangements for elements of the service involving close contact, e.g. the distribution of Holy Communion
- Strictly no movement of people between sections before, during or after the service
- The premises is well-ventilated.
Duration of Service
Services should not exceed one hour (this includes entrance and exit times) with at least one hour between services to allow for cleaning and ventilation and to avoid crowding/overlap.
Choirs (as part of the Service), chanting and congregational singing
Specific Guidance on this will be provided.
Funerals and Weddings
Numbers permitted at these events remains at 25 (as per Level 3) for ceremony and reception.