Moving forward as a congregation
A guidance for the safe operation of church buildings, worship, events and support services as we move out of the COVID-19 pandemic.
- Last Updated: 2 May 2022
Scottish Government’s COVID Current Threat level: Medium. You can find out more about the threat level framework from the Scottish Government.
The Scottish Government have removed all COVID rules and restrictions, but the virus has not gone away. Instead of legal constraints the government are asking people to use ‘COVID sense' to help protect themselves and others. The same principal of using ‘COVID sense' should apply to our church buildings, congregational activities and the support you offer communities.
For individuals, including ministers, staff and volunteers in churches this would include:
- Getting your vaccine when offered to ensure you are fully protected
- Staying at home and resting if you have symptoms
- Opening windows when meeting indoors
- Wearing a face covering in indoor public places and on public transport, and encouraging the use of face coverings in church buildings wherever possible
- Washing your hands to protect yourself
- Taking an LFD test before visiting someone in a hospital or care home
In this updated guidance, the COVID-19 Working Group has sought to bring an integrated approach to looking after church buildings and safely developing congregational life as we move into the next phase of the pandemic.
Looking after and reopening your church buildings
The vast majority of Church of Scotland buildings across the country have reopened since restrictions on places of worship lifted in late 2021. Although a number of significant legislative controls remained in place, from April 2022, Kirk Sessions will be able to decide for themselves what additional control measures will be required to control the risk of transmission of COVID-19.
This guidance has been updated to support congregations moving from a COVID-19 specific risk-management approach to an integrated risk-management approach. This means that Kirk Sessions must consider the risks of COVID-19 within their church buildings as part of their wider risk management and governance arrangements. Not all sections of this guidance will apply to every Kirk Session, and care should be taken to select those areas most relevant to your buildings to ensure that health and safety risks are managed effectively.
For those congregations who have yet to reopen their buildings, the Kirk Sessions must speak with their Presbytery at the earliest opportunity in order that a discussion can take place on the circumstances around the building and the needs of the congregation.
It is expected that all Presbyteries will play a role in supporting congregations and ministers in the reopening of their church buildings. This may vary across Presbyteries, but as a minimum standard Presbyteries will ensure that every congregation has completed a reopening of church buildings checklist (property checklist) and an integrated risk assessment. This will demonstrate that the congregation can meet the legal requirements expected of a church building open to members of the public, including all necessary professional safety checks on, for example, gas and electrical systems.
We would recommend that Kirk Sessions also seek the advice of the General Trustees before reopening their buildings so that specific risk factors such as water hygiene and safety can be discussed and advice given.
In the meantime, it is important that the congregation take reasonable steps to ensure that the church buildings they are responsible for are maintained in a suitable and safe condition. This is a requirement of your insurance cover and congregations will have to demonstrate that reasonable care and attention has been taken to look after their church buildings. Please contact Church or Scotland Insurance Service by email (firstname.lastname@example.org) to discuss your particular context.
COVID-19 risk assessment and Health and Safety management
It is the responsibility of every Kirk Session to ensure that there are suitable and sufficient arrangements in place to comply with health and safety legislation. Full guidance on the roles and responsibilities of Kirk Sessions towards health and safety can be found in the Health and Safety Toolkit.
Previously, the Kirk Session would have to complete a stand alone COVID-19 risk assessment which included the identification of specific COVID-19 transmission risks and control measures. The Scottish Government and the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) have now issued updated advice which states that organisations will no longer be required to have separate arrangements or risk assessments specific to COVID-19 risks in place. In practical terms, this means that the risks of COVID-19 transmission from congregational and community-based activities must be integrated into your normal risk management and risk assessment procedures.
The Church of Scotland General Trustees have published detailed advice on how to carry out a risk assessment and this can be accessed in our online Health and Safety Toolkit. An example integrated risk assessment is also available, along with and a blank risk assessment template.
In summary, Kirk Sessions must now consider the risks of COVID-19 transmission as part of the wider risk assessment for the congregation which will include other hazards such as electrical safety, working at height, asbestos management and manual handling.
As part of the risk assessment process, Kirk Sessions must identify suitable control measures to reduces the risk of COVID-19 transmission. The Scottish Government is clear that all congregations must implement reasonable control measures that must include:
- Hand hygiene – Kirk Sessions must ensure that there is adequate provision in place so that everyone who attends of visits their church buildings can demonstrate good hygiene practices. In practical terms, this means that they must ensure that there is adequate provision of and washing facilities and a good supply of hand gel. Kirk Sessions should ensure that adequate signage is in place throughout their buildings to encourage good hand hygiene practices.
- Ventilation – There is a higher risk of COVID-19 transmission whilst indoors and it is important that congregations take reasonable steps to ensure that their church buildings are well ventilated when in use. Both the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the HSE state that good ventilation and increasing the supply of fresh air can reduce risk of COVID-19 transmission. It is a legal requirement that all buildings are adequately ventilated to improve the health, safety and wellbeing of everyone inside the building.
Ventilation removes stale air, which may be carrying the virus, and replaces it with fresh air. There is strong advice that we should be supplying as much fresh air as possible to indoor spaces to limit the spread of COVID-19.
The best way to achieve this is by opening doors and windows wherever it is possible to do so safely, to increase total airflow and bring in fresh air. This advice applies to both small rooms and to the Sanctuary itself. Natural ventilation, by opening windows, should be implemented. A window open at either side of a room will give good cross ventilation. High-level openings can often be less draughty but equally effective. If the windows need some maintenance to enable them to be used, then this should be carried out. However, fire doors must not be used as a means to improve airflow and ventilation.
For large spaces such as the sanctuary and church halls, it may be possible to close doors and windows whilst the space is being occupied to ensure that people are not exposed to low temperatures which may impact on their health. To do this safely, the spaces must be well ventilated for a period of time before occupation, and immediately ventilated after use. As face coverings are a legal requirement, it is important that people do not remain in enclosed indoor spaces for an overly extended period of time when natural ventilation has been reduced to support thermal comfort.
Once this activity is finished, the indoor space must be thoroughly ventilated by opening windows and doors, when appropriate and safe to do so. Please note, smaller rooms such as meeting rooms must still be ventilated when in occupation alongside all spaces which support physical and exercise activities.
Congregations should let everyone who is attending or visiting their church buildings know that the reason for increasing the level of fresh air within the building is to help control the risk of COVID-19 transmission. Visitors and those attending the church building can then decide if they should wear warmer clothing whilst inside the church building.
Where there are mechanical systems for ventilation or heating, these need to be adjusted to maximise fresh air. Recycled air should not be used. Advice from the specialist servicing the heating and ventilation equipment can be sought to make the necessary adjustments.
Please note, heating systems can now be freely used inside church buildings. However, all heating systems must be inspected and/or serviced before first use and the Kirk Session must confirm the suitability of their heating system with a competent person to ensure that the system will not increase the risk of Covid-19 transmission.
- Cleaning and disinfection – The cleaning and disinfection of all church buildings are important infection prevention and control measures against COVID-19. Congregations should consider what arrangements and resources would be required to clean and disinfect their church buildings whilst and after their church buildings have been used. The following principles should help you prepare for the cleaning and disinfection of your church buildings:
- Church buildings should be cleaned as normal with a detergent and all hand touch sites disinfected with a disinfectant that is active against bacteria and viruses. It is important that the correct dilution rates are used, and contact time is followed as different cleaning chemicals may have different instructions. You should also follow any instructions on the use of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) such as gloves, face coverings and/or apron.
- Particular attention should be given to the all hand touch sites such as door handles, grab-rails, light switches, chairs and tables. These should be cleaned and disinfected regularly throughout the day whilst the church building is open, and not just before closing the building.
- You may find it beneficial to implement a cleaning schedule for each area of your church building to assist those involved with cleaning.
Kirk Sessions will also have to consider additional control measures that may be necessary due to the individual/specific circumstances and needs of their congregation and the layout and design of their buildings. Such control measures may include the reintroduction of a one-way system, signage, separate or physically distanced setting or closing specific areas of their buildings off.
Congregations might consider supporting the Distance Aware scheme and encouraging those who feel the need for more space or care to have a badge or lanyard.
The COVID-19 Working Group is currently working with the Scottish Government on a new online signage creation scheme which will allow individual congregations to print posters with the Scottish Government Logo for use in their premises based on the mitigations the Kirk Session feel important to keep, such as face coverings in certain areas, maintaining a distance or using hand sanitiser. More details of this will be published as soon as the Scottish Government online pilot scheme goes live.
COVID-19 emergency procedures
The congregation should ensure that they have a procedure in place to deal with emergencies, including what to do if someone falls ill when visiting your church buildings. Health Protection Scotland (HPS) has produced an accessible guidance on how to respond to a COVID-19 incident in a non-healthcare setting and congregations should familiarise themselves with this document.
Considerations for worship
Congregations are encouraged, wherever possible, to consider all points of view, including celebration and concern as worship begins to return to normal. Kirk Sessions, as part of their Risk Assessing process, are encouraged to consider how they might ensure that all people can find a home in worship, especially those who feel more at risk. Kirk Sessions may consider an area of the building where distancing is kept or where all are asked to wear a face covering. Equally, the Kirk Session may consider it is more practical to revert to their former practice of allowing people to sit where they like and if they wish to wear a face covering it will be their individual choice. The need to be more nuanced in how we deal with such situations is going to continue over the months, and years that lie ahead.
Whilst restrictions have ended there are still some challenges to consider with worship.
Currently, it is still not advisable to share common elements. Therefore, common cups should not be used and, wherever possible, plates should not be passed from person to person. Instead, it may be that those serving, after observing good hygiene practices and washing their hands, hand a glass of wine or pass a piece of bread (perhaps in an individual glass) to individual worshippers.
Ordination and Confirmation
The laying on of hands can take place during an act of ordination; however, it is still recommended that only a small, representative group take part in this act. Those participating should demonstrate good hand hygiene practices as close as possible to the act and contact should be brief and for as short a time as possible. It is not advised at this time to allow the right hand of fellowship, instead welcoming the newly ordained person with a round of applause or making use of sign language.
Uplifting the Offering
Similar to our guidance on communion, it is not advisable to have plates passed around the entire congregation. Kirk Sessions should consider encouraging worshippers to make their offering as they enter the church. Consideration should be given to the use of contactless terminals and individuals are encouraged to donate online on either a congregational website or the Church of Scotland website. Cash offerings can be made, and offering envelopes can be left; however, care should be taken when counting these offerings. Gloves should be worn when handling money and the areas where any money has been handled should be thoroughly cleaned and disinfected afterwards.
Considerations for ministry
Those involved in ministry can resume all activities to provide support to individuals. This may include visiting homes of the bereaved or ill or visiting hospitals and care homes. Ministers and others who visit hospitals and care homes may access free COVID-19 rapid lateral flow tests from the Government with the recommendation to test twice weekly.
Care should be taken when going into people’s homes and those being visited may prefer for face coverings to be worn. In all cases good hand hygiene should be observed.
Considerations for congregational activities
At this time all activities can resume in church buildings. For congregational activities and meetings, the Kirk Session should consider any mitigations in their Risk Assessment which may include face coverings, limitations on numbers due to fire regulations etc.
Meetings of all bodies in a congregation can resume and people should be encouraged, wherever possible, to wear a face covering. Congregational meetings, such as Stated Annual meetings or meetings to agree a Basis of Adjustment can now resume.
Considerations for non-church groups using church premises
At this time there is no restriction on groups meeting within a church building. Kirk Sessions should make each group aware of their Risk Assessment and any recommendations the Risk Assessment may place on the group. Each group should also undertake a Risk Assessment and this should be part of the terms and conditions of hire of the space. The approval and review of a Risk Assessment for a non-church group lies solely with the group in line with their operating principals, however not having a Risk Assessment in place may be a breach of the hire terms and conditions. In the same way a Kirk Session may refuse a group access if they do not demonstrate adequate public liability insurances, the same might be said for not having a valid Risk Assessment.
Considerations when providing hospitality
Congregations can resume hospitality in all forms; however, the Kirk Session must ensure that the activity is fully risk assessed and the appropriate operating principles are in place. This should include:
- A suitable risk assessment is undertaken specific to home baking and suitable control measures are identified and implemented. This risk assessment should be shared with everyone who bakes at home.
- Everyone who bakes at home on behalf of their congregation must be provided with suitable training in food safety and hygiene. The General Trustees are offering free access to an Introduction to Food Hygiene course by e-learning and congregations are encouraged to enroll home bakers on this course. Further information can be obtained by emailing the General Trustees.
- All home bakers should be regularly reminded of the importance of good hygiene practices, personal hygiene and cleaning and disinfection
- Home bakers who feel unwell should not provide home-baked products to the church until they fully recover.
As congregations begin to think again of events where food is served in order to reconnect with congregation and community, they should also note that the Scottish Government has published new legislation relating to food allergens and the labelling of prepacked foods. This legislation came into effect on 1 October 2021.
The majority of Church of Scotland congregations are unlikely to be affected by this change in legislation; however, there are a number of congregations who operate commercial food businesses or offer prepack food items (such as a Cake and Candy Stall) which may be affected. The new legislation will require food businesses in Scotland to include the product name and a full list of ingredients (including allergens) on food items sold prepacked for direct sale (PPDS). This applies to food that is prepacked in advance, mainly at the same place where it’s sold before being offered to consumers. For example, if your congregation makes sandwiches or filled rolls and packages these up before placing in a chilled display cabinet for consumer to pick their own sandwiches, then this new legislation will apply. However, if you are displaying or offering cakes and biscuits for sale at a coffee morning and the consumer picks their own products and asks the server to place them in packaging, then the new legislation would not apply.
It is important to note that all food offered by a congregation, whether for consumption within the church building or for taking away, must comply fully with the standard regulations on allergens within foodstuffs. It is good practice that information relating to food allergens will be displayed, and if someone asks for additional information then this should be readily available.
Full details regarding the new legislation can be found by visiting the Food Standards Scotland website and congregations may find the resources from Food Standards Scotland on Allergens useful as activities resume.
Considerations when providing transport
Congregations may now consider re-establishing ‘travel to church’ schemes for those who struggle to attend otherwise. It is important that if people are sharing a car with anyone from another household numbers should be limited to as few as possible, ideally no more than two, and face coverings should be worn wherever possible. The car must be cleaned regularly and ideally after each person has been dropped off, with particular attention paid to high-risk touch points such as door handles, electronic buttons, and seat belts. A general-purpose detergent is sufficient to be used. All who collect individuals for worship and participate in such a scheme should ensure they have appropriate insurance and follow any safeguarding protocols.
Considerations when working with external partners
Many groups, including schools, are beginning to welcome chaplains and other visitors back into their premises. However, whether a school or a care home, an ATC hall or a workplace, those involved in providing support should ensure they are familiar and remain compliant with any Risk Assessment the partner has in place.
First Published: 2 May 2022