The journey ahead

As lockdown restrictions are eased, what should churches expect during the next few weeks?

Graeme Pringle, Director of Communications for the Diocese of Coventry, reflects on how the past few weeks may shed some light on the journey ahead.

On 10 May 2020 the Prime Minister addressed the nation and announced the three steps of the Government's COVID-19 recovery strategy.


A month ago we were in the middle of Step 1, and people were speculating about what Step 2 this might mean for the Church.

Most of the predictions turned out to be fairly accurate.  As expected, the process of coming out of lockdown has proven to be much more complex than going into lockdown.  However, there have been some surprises along the way.  For example, it was widely expected that the Government would allow weddings from the beginning of June.

During the past few weeks, the COVID-19 death rate has steadily declined; but the virus hasn't gone away, and there are concerns about a second wave.

We now find ourselves in the middle of Step 2, and people are speculating about what Step 3 this might mean for the Church.

Observations about Step 2

Before we think about Step 3, I want to summarise my observations about Step 2:

Not everything happened at the same time.

The Government originally said that the earliest date for Step 2 would be the beginning of June.

Some restrictions were lifted then, but others were lifted at a later date.  For example, we had to wait a further two weeks before church buldings could be opened for individual prayer.

There are many anomalies

“Why can we have funerals in church, but not weddings?”

“If we can do X, why can’t we do Y?”

The main reason is that Government is adopting a ‘suck it and see’ approach.  They are relaxing a few restrictions, waiting to see how this affects tthe spread of the virus, and then reviewing other restrictions.

Government guidance arrived very late

On Sunday 7 June the Communities Secretary, Robert Jenrick, announced that “Places of worship across England will be permitted to reopen for individual prayer from Monday 15 June.”

The following Wednesday, the Prime Minister unexpectedly said that churches could reopen at the weekend.

On Thursday, the Government confirmed that churches could open in two days’ time.

On Friday, the Government finally issued their detailed guidance for the following day!

The Church of England’s guidance is both detailed and evolving

There’s a lot to read!  …and, for very good reasons, some documents have needed to be updated several times.

Incidently, if you've not spotted it, all the changes are listed in the Version Log at the bottom of the following page…

The latest guidance is more permissive than directive

When going into lockdown, much of the guidance was very directive – “Thou shalt not…”
Coming out of lockdown, the guidance has been more permissive – “You may open your church for individual prayer, but only if you can do this safely.”

It all involves a great deal of extra work

Not only is there a lot to read, there’s also a lot to think about, a lot to plan and a lot to do.

A few churches were keen to do as much as they could as quickly as possible.  However, most churches are taking time to assess the situation and to prioritise what needs to be done.



Expectations for Step 3

On Tuesday 23 June, the Prime Minister announced that church buildings will be able to reopen for public worship from 4 July, providing physical distancing remains in place.  However, the Government have not yet published their detailed guidance.

These are my best guesses, based on the above observations about Step 2.

Not everything might happen at the same time

Just like with Step 2, it's possible that only some activities will be allowed on 4 July, with more to follow at a later date.

Government guidance might arrive very late

Public expectations have been raised by the Prime Minister's announcement; however, when it arrives, Government guidance might make this impossible or impractical for many churches.  Furthermore, this guidance might only be issued at the last minute 

We therefore need to be careful not to further raise expectations until the detailed guidance has been published.

The Church of England’s guidance will keep evolving

I’m not aware of any additional papers that are being prepared, but the current guidance is likely to keep being updated in response to feedback from parishes and changes in the Government’s guidance.

New guidance will be more permissive than directive

It’s likely that Step 3 will include permission for limited public worship, but there will be no instruction that churches must open.  It’s also very difficult to imagine how larger congregations will be able to comply with the current social distancing requirements.

Step 3 will involve a great deal of extra work

Once again, it’s likely that there will be plenty to read, to think about, to plan and to do.

A few churches will be keen to do as much as they can as quickly as possible.  However, most churches are likely to want to take time to assess the situation and to prioritise what needs to be done.


Frustrating times

I know that some people feel frustrated with the complexity of the current situation; others feel frustrated with the waiting.

Please pray for all those in the Government and the Church of England who are making decisions and writing guidelines that will have a significant impact on our lives.


Graeme Pringle is the Director of Communications for the Diocese of Coventry.

23 June 2020

First published on: 22nd June 2020
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