The Westminster Government has confirmed that churches in England can remain open for public worship, so long as they are COVID-secure, although some councils are requesting voluntary closures.
Churches in Ealing, Lancashire, Bath and Essex have all reported receiving letters from their local authorities asking them to voluntarily cease holding services.
However, all churches outside Scotland are still free to remain open where appropriate action has been taken to minimise risk.
A spokesperson for the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government said: “Faith communities have provided support and solace during these very stressful times, and have worked hard to ensure they have been able to do so safely following the COVID-secure guidance for places of worship.
“In line with national guidelines, places of worship can remain open for communal worship and individual prayer, as long as they follow strict social distancing guidelines.”
While some are pushing for places of worship to be forced to close by law, when Cabinet Minister Michael Gove was asked about this possibility, he said: “It’s absolutely vital that traditions of public worship can continue and I think it’s a very important part of the life of the nation.”
The Christian Institute’s Director Colin Hart said: “Some are saying that churches should be closed again by law, but particularly weighty reasons must be given for interfering with a basic right to attend church.
“In London and Northern Ireland, a voluntary approach has been adopted that asks rather than requires churches to stop public services. This is a more reasonable and targeted approach.”
He continued: “There is still no medical evidence that churches are a particular risk. When asked by MPs, the Chief Medical Officer and Chief Scientific Officer admitted there were no proper studies, only anecdotes.
“Churches have been taking stringent efforts to make themselves Covid-secure. They are very structured environments. Far more able to comply with the rules than supermarkets.”
‘Beyond legal restrictions’
But a letter signed by Julian Bell, leader of Ealing Council, states: “Given this very worrying situation and the urgent need to reduce infection rates and protect the NHS, I am urging all places of worship to voluntarily agree to go beyond the legal restrictions imposed by the government.
“Acts of communal worship remain legal, but I am asking that Ealing’s places of worship make the voluntary step to go further and close for communal worship and individual prayer.”
Churches in Scotland have been forced to close, prompting 200 church leaders to write to First Minister Nicola Sturgeon to protest.
In Northern Ireland, leaders of the Church of Ireland, the Presbyterian and Methodist churches, and the Roman Catholic Church in Northern Ireland all announced they would be voluntarily ceasing church services until 6 February, following a meeting with senior NI health officials – meaning no Sunday Services for four weeks.
The Free Presbyterian Church has now followed suit, with the Revd John Armstrong explaining that the decision was made by the presbytery as a whole.
He said: “Being confronted with a health crisis that has affected our congregations, we must exercise a duty of care toward our own church members and toward society in general.”
He added: “The presbytery will continually review the situation in order to determine when our churches will return to worship.”