Reshaping Church Life
A guidance for the safe operation of church buildings, worship, events and support services during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Published: 8 Jan 2021
Last Updated: 19 March 2021
There can be no doubt that the COVID-19 pandemic has challenged churches and communities to work in new ways. Churches have risen to the challenge of developing online presence and worship, as well as supporting communities practically and prayerfully over the period. With the hope of a better day as different vaccines begin to rollout, but with the disappointment of tighter restrictions to protect the most vulnerable in our communities, it is important that congregations begin thinking about how they might reshape their life together during and beyond this pandemic.
The Scottish Government have developed a system of levels of protection to aid communities supress the COVID-19 virus and slow down transmission rates. These are categorised as Levels 0 – 4 with a new ‘enhanced’ Level 4, for communities in lockdown. We have provided a summary of each of these levels and what it means for churches and these can be downloaded here:
On 4 January 2021, the First Minister announced that mainland Scotland and Skye would move to a new temporary lockdown (referred to as ‘enhanced level 4’), with some of the islands remaining at Level 3. Church buildings could no longer open for public worship from 8 January 2021, although certain exceptions in relation to the use of buildings are allowed. The First Minister has announced the Government’s intention to allow Places of Worship to reopen for communal worship from Friday 26 March 2021, with a final decision taken on 23 March. Congregations are reminded that apart from communal worship, funerals and weddings no other activities should be taking place inside church buildings. Funeral numbers remain unchanged at 20 people and weddings at 5 in most areas of Scotland at this time.
The relaxation of the exemption for worship on 26 March does not grant permission for unregulated children’s work. No indoor children’s work or youth work outwith formal education in school can take place. At this stage, and until exemptions are relaxed further and we move back into the levels system, children, if attending worship, should sit with their parents throughout the service.
Before any church building reopens, congregations take note of the process for reopening of church buildings as outlined in the buildings guidance. This includes an amended process for those buildings that reopened after the first lockdown and have been undertaking the weekly inspections of their buildings.
At present in areas covered by enhanced level 4 church buildings must be closed for worship and private prayer. All worship must be moved online. In enhanced level 4 areas it is permissible to use a church building to record or broadcast a service of worship and the worship leader is allowed to leave home to fulfil this activity. It should be the absolute minimum number of people in the church for the task in hand, fully risk assessed and there must be a clear justification for why each person is present.
The First Minister has announced the Government’s intention to allow Places of Worship to reopen for communal worship (including outside spaces operated by the congregation, but not parks or other public spaces) from Friday 26 March 2021, with a final decision taken on 23 March. If such permission is granted a maximum number of 50 people (the maximum capacity in church buildings will differ subject to physical distancing) will be allowed in the church building. People of all ages count towards the maximum number and includes the minister, musician, ushers and volunteers stewarding the service. If churches reopen those attending and organising should remember that all other restrictions are still in place such as no singing, maintaining physical distancing, wearing masks and adhering to the travel ban between local authorities even to attend a regular place of worship. For those living in areas under 3, 4, and enhanced level 4 there is an exemption for Ministers of Religion traveling into another area to a place of worship, however at this time (and likely until late April) it is illegal for those attending a service of worship to cross a local authority boundary to travel to their normal place of worship.
For those living in areas under 3, 4, and enhanced level 4 there is an exemption for Ministers of Religion traveling into another area to a place of worship, however at this time (and likely until late April) it is illegal for those attending a service of worship to cross a local authority boundary to travel to their normal place of worship.
It is vital that all congregations take note of the process for reopening of church buildings as outlined in the buildings guidance. This includes an amended process for those buildings that reopened after the first lockdown and have been undertaking the weekly inspections of their buildings.
Individuals must continue to physically distance themselves from others not in their household/extended household group when in church building(s) or grounds and follow all other precautions put in place by the congregation. Balconies or Galleries in churches should not be used at this time, with the exception of AV operators, behind a plexiglass screen, if the equipment is located in the balcony. Congregations should bear in mind that a maximum number of people being able to fit into your church building may not be the limit set by the congregation and this could be lower. Care should be taken to ensure that the numbers attending do not exceed the maximum safe number for the building as defined in your COVID-19 risk assessment.
Resourcing online worship
The following is intended to help those seeking assistance with finding good music resources for their on-line worship.
- There are a number of audio files from CH4 hymns if you register for an account on the Church of Scotland Music Website
- For copyright reasons it is not possible to provide downloads of videos with words on them. However, a list of churches willing to share recordings of hymns is available on IT's for Ministry's Music webpage. The website is run by a Church of Scotland minister and is curating a list of hymns that churches have recorded and would be able to be used by other congregations with the appropriate licenses. These recordings would not be stored on the site; instead users can access a list of 'who to contact' to receive a copy. Churches willing to share files should visit the site and follow the instructions to participate. The more churches that participate the greater the library of resources will be for people.
General Guidance for Worship
- Ministers and worship leaders should not shake hands or offer any other form of a physical welcome or farewell to members of the congregation
- Singing should only take place if it is essential to the act of worship. To judge whether something is ‘essential’ to the act of worship ask yourself: ‘if this thing did not happen would it prevent the act of worship from taking place?’ If not, then it would not be deemed essential.
- Bibles and other shared items should be removed from the sanctuary and other areas where worship takes place
- The use of computer/television screens or boards as an alternative to bibles and other worship materials should be encouraged. Alternatively, church websites can be used to share information and members of the congregation or visitors could be asked to print out limited materials for their own use and bring them along with them to support worship.
- People should not share any materials that they have printed off at home under any circumstance.
Congregations should continue to consider how they will support members of the congregation who cannot attend church in person.
Where congregations wish to participate in responses such as the Lord’s prayer or prayer responses, care should be taken to ensure that these are offered at a low volume to avoid the spreading of aerosol particulates. Loud speaking would create the same concern as singing offers. Where responses are to be used, congregations may wish to consider strongly urging all who wish to participate to wear a face covering.
Music and Singing
The Scottish Government is clear that congregational singing must not take place at this time. Professional singers or wind and brass musicians are currently not allowed to perform within a church building in front of an audience, and this would extend to worship, marriages and funerals. However, where essential to an act of worship, one individual (non-professional) may sing or chant behind a plexi-glass screen, which must be thoroughly cleaned and disinfected after use.
Church organists are allowed to play during church services; however, the congregation must ensure that this does not encourage congregational singing. Church organists who wish to access their church building to practice or prepare for a service should discuss their needs with the local congregation and ensure that the principles relating to hygiene contained within this guidance document are followed.
Where music is being recorded for a streamed service, any recording of singing, chanting, shouting and the playing of wind, brass or other instruments that require breath to operate should only happen in the musician’s own home with no one except members of their household present.
In churches that have been approved to open and are not in enhanced level 4 areas, communion is able to be celebrated. However, the traditional arrangements of passing a plate/tray of elements or by intinction are not permitted.
Congregations will need to think about how the elements will be distributed to prevent cross-contamination and how physical distancing will be maintained when serving the elements. The use of the common cup is not permitted except for the celebrant. Similarly, the passing of plates or trays from individual to individual is not permitted. If congregations are celebrating communion then disposable individual cups should be used as most church building(s) will struggle to safely clean and disinfect large numbers of individual glasses. Congregations will need to think creatively about how communion is celebrated and the elements shared. One solution may be individual disposable glasses with a piece of bread on small disposable plates that could be collected by individuals from a table.
Those preparing the elements should be kept to a minimum, ideally one person, and good hygiene should be practiced. The celebrant should wash and sanitise their hands before distribution. If the elements are being handed to individuals then a face covering should be used by the celebrant and/or person distributing. In addition, those handing out and receiving the element should wash their hands before and after taking part in communion
Where congregations do not feel celebrating Communion under these circumstances is appropriate they may find it helpful to think how they might help people to deal with that emotionally and spiritually.
Baptisms are not able to take place in areas under enhanced level 4.
In all other levels of restriction, baptisms are able to take place within an act of worship, however physical distancing, good hygiene practices and the management of the number of those who will be able to attend will remain in place.
Ministers should consider whether the requirement for physical distance and the space available within the building would be able to support baptism. Ministers should not hold the infant, but ask a parent or guardian to do so for the duration of the service. Ministers should also demonstrate good hand hygiene practices by washing their hands before and after the baptism. The water used for baptism should not be used more than once. The Scottish Government have allowed for an exception to the physical distancing rules during a baptism to allow the minister to sprinkle water on the individual. However, this should be for a short a time as possible and other mitigation such as face coverings for the person holding the infant should be considered.
Within the Church of Scotland, a baptism normally takes place within an act of worship in the presence of the congregation with ‘private’ baptisms not being part of our tradition except in extreme circumstances. With reduced numbers congregations need to ensure that guests of the family can attend along with members of the congregation. A wider participation in congregational life may be possible by recording the baptism and showing it ‘as live’ in a broadcast service.
Children and Worship (including Sunday Schools and Bible Classes)
In areas under enhanced level 4 restrictions Sunday School, Bible Classes and similar are not permitted to meet in person but should meet instead online or using other technology.
Guidance for areas under all other levels, apart from enhanced level 4
When children are a part of the worshipping community, congregations should ensure that children sit in family groups and that young children remain close to the parent or guardian to ensure that physical distancing is maintained and risk to others is reduced.
Sunday schools and faith-based education can resume in church buildings that have been approved to reopen with congregations following the Scottish Government Youth Work Guidelines.
If Sunday school is provided at the same time as worship and the children and young people are in a separate part of the church building from worshippers throughout (i.e. dropped off and collected before and after worship), then children attending Sunday School are not included in the maximum number of up to 50 people allowed to attend worship. The principles relating to the safe access and egress of the church building must be followed. The maximum number of children who would be able to participate in Sunday school or other faith-based education will be 30 and this number includes the teacher, volunteers and helpers.
However, if the congregation wish to include children and young people in, for example, the first part of worship and take them to another area of the building for activities during the sermon, then they would be required to be counted within the maximum numbers of 50 people allowed to attend worship.
Guidance for areas under all other levels, apart from enhanced level 4, where Intergenerational ‘in person’ worship cannot take place.
Intergenerational worship such as Messy Church or Café Church are part of the worship life of the congregation and as such are able to resume in church buildings. However, congregations must ensure that best practice is followed for such activities including:
- No unaccompanied children should take part
- The number of households you can welcome to participate in intergenerational worship is dependent on the size of your space and should not exceed 50 people (including all children, parents, leaders, minister, musician and stewards)
- Spaces for household groups should be set out, for example tables and chairs, picnic rugs, taped-off zones with at least 2m between the closest points of these spaces (for example, 2m from a chair at one table to the nearest chair at the next table) and allocate a household to one space, having all the materials and equipment they require in a container within that space
- Each household group stays in its own allocated spot for the whole service
- No food should be included in the service, including food prepared and served by the congregation or snacks brought by each household.
Congregations should ensure that any such service is fully risk assessed and follows all the guidance contained in this document.
Further information on running Messy Church and other Intergenerational Worship can be found in our guide to Running Messy Church Sessions.
Ordination and Confirmation
In areas in enhanced level 4 Confirmations cannot take place; however, ordination of ministers and deacons are permitted to take place. The Scottish Government has allowed for an exception to the physical distancing to allow the laying on of hands during confirmation and ordination. In enhanced level 4 areas, an ordination can take place with three members of Presbytery and the Ordinand in one place with the remainder of the Presbytery meeting and others being on-line. Participants in the physical service should stay physically distanced, wear face coverings when not leading the worship and minimising the time spent in the laying on of hands.
In whatever area of COVID protection you are in, those participating should demonstrate good hand hygiene practices by washing their hands before and after the laying on of hands. All contact should be brief and for as short a time as possible. The shorter physical distance should be kept for as short a time as possible and other mitigation such as face coverings for those involved should be worn. In the case of an ordination to the Ministry of Word and Sacrament or the Diaconate, the Presbytery may wish to appoint a small number of individuals to lay hands on the ordained.
Taking the Offering
The traditional method of taking the offering by passing the plate should not take place. The Stewardship and Finance Department issued guidance on how members and adherents could continue to give while buildings remain closed and can provide advice to congregations who wish to receive offerings and other income by standing order, text message, use of a contactless terminal, or through the donate button on either the congregation or Church of Scotland website or from a Facebook page. Contactless terminals should not be passed from person to person and it may be appropriate to set the terminal to a predetermined amount to eliminate the need for the screen to be touched by donors. An appropriate cleaning solution should be used for cleaning contactless terminals. Where it is necessary to collect cash, consideration should be given to providing envelopes and discreet, secure deposit boxes. Gloves should be worn when handling money and the areas where any money has been handled should be thoroughly cleaned and disinfected afterwards.
Funerals and Weddings
The Scottish Government has set different limits for services dependent on the COVID-19 Protection Level in which a congregation or parish sits. For funerals, a limit of 20 people is in force no matter where the service is held (church, crematorium or cemetery). Weddings in Level 0 can have 50 people attend, levels 1-4 can have 20 people; however, in enhanced level 4 only five are permitted (see wedding section). Where these services take place in a church building the congregation have responsibility for ensuring these numbers are adhered to. When a minister or deacon conducts a service in another location they should ensure they are comfortable with the arrangements for controlling numbers.
Whenever church buildings are used for additional services such as weddings or funerals, care must be taken by the congregation to ensure that appropriate cleaning and disinfection of the church buildings takes place before the church building is reused. Where this is less than 72 hours after the funeral service, extra care must be taken.
The maximum number for weddings are as follows:
- Enhanced level 4 – five (couple, witnesses and celebrant) or six if an interpreter is required
- Levels 1-4 – 20
- Level 0 - 50
Whereas the maximum numbers at enhanced level 4 includes the celebrant, in all other levels the maximum number includes all those at the ceremony including the couple, the witnesses, photographer and guests but excludes the celebrant and those employed or volunteering at the venue to facilitate to marriage. The need for a 28-day notice period for a Marriage Schedule remains in place and couples should consult with their local registration office for more information.
As with worship, it is important that congregations ensure that arrangements are in place to ensure physical distancing and precautions are in place and adhered to, to reduce the potential spread of COVID-19. In addition, the Scottish Government has advised the following:
- Singing or chanting should not take place
- The minister or deacon should remain physically distanced from the couple when leading worship
- The couple can remove face coverings throughout the ceremony (when the minister or deacon is conducting the act of worship but not before of afterwards); however the minister or deacon should take extra care when standing in front of the couple during this period
- Individuals from other households should continue to observe physical distancing rules. This may have an impact on, for example, a bride wishing to be accompanied ‘down the aisle’ by a family member.
- The couple's spoken responses or vows should not be in a raised voice
- Where the couple exchange rings, these should be handled by as few people as possible. Those handling the rings should wash their hands before and after the ceremony.
- Ministers and Deacons leading the service should consider whether practices that involve breaking the physical distancing rules, or physical contact are necessary. Where it is felt that such practices need to continue for liturgical reasons, a shorter physical distance should be kept for as short a times as possible and other mitigation such as face coverings for those involved may wish to be considered.
- Consideration should be given to using different pens for signing the schedule. Where the same pen is used by the couple, minister or deacon and witnesses, following the conclusion of the ceremony all should wash their hands and the pen should be cleaned and disinfected.
Wedding receptions in levels 0-3 can be held in regulated premises, for example hospitality venues such as hotels, with maximum numbers mirroring the numbers allowed to attend a wedding ceremony. No receptions can take place in level 4 or enhanced level 4 areas. As those in level 3, 4 and enhanced level 4 areas are not permitted to travel outwith their local authority area, couples should not try to organize a reception in another area beyond their local authority boundary.
It is recognised that one of the most challenging aspects of the COVID-19 lockdown has been the inability of families to hold a funeral service in their church or community. Should a congregation agree to reopen their church buildings and have met all the criteria in the COVID-19 risk assessment, buildings checklist and secured the approval of Presbytery to reopen, a minister (or Interim Moderator) may agree to allow funeral to be held in their church buildings.
With the exception of Level 0 areas, the maximum number of people who can attend a funeral is 20. In Level 0 areas this number increases to 50 people. These numbers do not include the minister or person conducting the service, the funeral director and volunteers who will assist with people safely entering and leaving the building. Congregations should refer to the Scottish Government guidance when preparing for funerals.
The Scottish Government guidance on funeral services strongly discourages people who are not counted in the maximum number from going to the funeral service and gathering outside the crematorium, funeral director service room, or in the burial ground. In the event that this is allowed to happen, we advise that following the service, ministers should consider (if they believe it to be appropriate) expressing their concerns to the Funeral Director. Should ministers fail to be satisfied with the response from the Funeral Director, they should inform the Presbytery Clerk and the COVID-19 Group by email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
When arranging a funeral in an enhanced level 4 area, unless the threshold for pastoral visiting is able to be met (providing emotional support to someone whose wellbeing is at risk, including those who are isolated) funeral visits should be carried out online or by phone. If a personal visit is to be made to someone’s home only members of that household should be in attendance. Ministers, deacons and others leading funerals may also meet families in church buildings previously approved to open by presbytery if it proves impossible to meet using technology.
As singing is not permitted in church buildings for funerals at this time, the minister may consider the playing of non-wind/brass musical instruments during the service. As with worship and prayer, shared items such as bibles and hymnbooks must not be used and should be removed from the sanctuary.
Whilst it is permissible for coffins to be inside the church building, assuming that the funeral director has followed all professional guidance on managing the deceased, no coffin should be left in the church overnight and should only enter the church building a maximum of 30 minutes prior to the commencement of the service. The minister has the final say over whether or not a coffin can be placed in the church building. Family members may only carry coffins within churches where they form a single or extended household.
With the exception of enhanced level 4 areas where no gatherings are permissible, post funeral gatherings can be held in regulated premises, for example hospitality venues such as hotels, with the maximum numbers allowed mirroring the numbers permitted at a funeral service. Those conducting services should bear in mind that although they are not included in the maximum numbers at a service they are included in the maximum numbers at any post-funeral gatherings and if they attend, they should ensure there is sufficient space in the numbers for them to attend. The general principles for social gatherings would apply and further information can be found by visiting the Scottish Government website.
A number of congregations are issuing materials such as newsletters, service transcripts and DVDs. However, as with the previous period of lockdown it is important that every care and precaution is made in preparing and distributing materials. This means:
- One person, or as few people as possible, copies or prepares mailings and adheres to all proper hand hygiene guidelines
- Congregations can make doorstep deliveries utilising the minimum number of volunteers and ensuring that volunteers follow proper hygiene rules at all times
- If congregations are producing activity packs the minimum number of individuals possible should physically create the packs and follow all relevant guidance on hygiene and use of premises.
Some congregations have made use of a ‘dead drop’ box, putting a box with leaflets or items outside the church grounds with a notice to ‘sanitise your hands and help yourself’. In certain situations, this may prove a helpful tool to distribute materials.
Outdoor Live Events (including outdoor worship outwith church grounds)
Most events that a congregation will offer, including worship beyond church grounds, should be organised in line with the outdoor event guidance. What is allowable is dependent on the level in which the area is place
- Level 0 – Outdoor events permitted (with restricted numbers)
- Level 1 – Outdoor seated (but not grouped standing) events permitted (with restricted numbers)
- Level 2 – Only drive in events are permitted
- Level 3, 4 and enhanced level 4 – No outdoor events can take place
Any outdoor events will require permission from the landowner and consultation with the local Environmental Health Service. There may also be licensing issues and congregations should check with the licensing section of the local authority.
The Scottish Government has stated that every outdoor event must have a risk assessment and an operational guide and checklist which includes issues such as toileting, parking, entry and exit point etc. This is not an insignificant piece of work for a congregation to undertake and it must be completed prior to any event taking place, or even being given permission to take place by the local authority.
Congregations may wish to consider the challenges associated with the organisation of a larger scale outdoor live event, especially if they have not yet had much experience of dealing with the physical distancing and hygiene regulations inside a church building. As with other areas of this guidance, it may be helpful for a congregation to consider smaller events and scale upwards after a period of time.
For more details see the Scottish Government's operational guide and checklist for events.
Music and Singing
The Scottish Government has advised that professional singers and musicians can play indoors. However, due to entertainment venues such as theatres being closed in levels 2, 3, 4 and enhanced level 4 there should be no performances taking place. In level 1 and level 0 areas performances can take place but with restrictions on distancing and hygiene measures.
Non-professionals who are participating in an organised outdoor activity managed by an organisation such as a business, charity or club can meet outdoors in local authorities within levels 0 or 1. Organisers should undertake all distancing and hygiene requirements as well as a risk assessment. Groups can proceed with their activity if they can do so in a way that ensures that there is no interaction between individuals or individual households. If they cannot ensure that physical distancing is not compromised - including when arriving at or leaving an activity or in any breaks or socialising - then such non-professional activity should not take place.
Where children are involved, the Scottish Government has stated that choirs should not recommence at this point and where an activity involves singing, for example a toddler music class, due to adults also participating the guidelines state that this activity should not take place indoors and should only take place outdoors if the activity can be done safely.
More details can be found in the Scottish Government's guidance for the performing arts and venues sector.
We understand that those involved in providing Pastoral Care may wish to consider the reintroduction of ‘in-person’ visits. Pastoral Visits should be for a clear purpose, not simply a ‘social call’.
Where no exemption can be used for such a visit then the indoor socialising numbers as set by the Scottish Government for the area in which the visit occurs should be followed.
The Scottish Government has confirmed that the current restrictions on individuals visiting another person’s home apply to social visits and does not apply to visits for the purpose of providing essential care and support. This means that pastoral visits for purposes such as to give communion, or prayer, are permitted. However, if for any reason more than one household is present in the home a visit should not take place. No minister, elder or member of staff should feel compelled to visit another home at this time. Prior to an elder or pastoral volunteer undertaking such a visit they should ensure that they discuss the matter fully with the Parish Minister or Interim Moderator.
In an enhanced level 4 area Scottish Government guidance says that it is permissible to go to someone’s house to provide emotional support to someone whose wellbeing is at risk, including those who are isolated. Ministers, deacons and those undertaking pastoral care must make a judgement as to whether a personal visit is required as opposed to an online meeting or telephone call, bearing in mind this threshold. Where appropriate a minister, deacon or pastoral visitor may also meet an individual for pastoral care in a church previously approved to open by presbytery or a manse subject to the threshold above being met and protocols on pastoral visiting in the Church guidance being followed.
If you are within a level 3 or 4 area then pastoral care visits should only take place where they are deemed to be essential and, if possible, should be moved online. Extreme care should be taken if a visit is to take place in people’s homes, churches or manses and all relevant health guidance followed.
Those involved with visits should consider the following control measures:
- No individual should feel a pressure to enter another person’s home and conduct a visit
- The invitation to enter a home should always come from the person receiving the visit. This should always be arranged in advance and there should be no pressure felt by the person receiving the visit to allow access to their home should they not feel comfortable.
- Visits may take place indoors or outdoors subject to the rules on maximum number and physical distancing
- If a funeral is being arranged and the person leading the services wishes to visit the family in their home, they must ensure in advance that the family is aware of the limitations on the maximum number of people allowed to be present. The person leading the funeral may wish to meet the family in the church building if it has been granted permission to open, to ensure that they have more control of the maximum numbers.
- Should maximum numbers at any visit be exceeded the visit should not begin (if it has not started) or be brought to a swift conclusion and the visitor should then leave
- Good hand hygiene practices should be observed at all times, and it is recommended that the visitor takes a small supply of alcohol-based hand gel with them. The visitor or the person receiving the minister may wish to wear a face covering.
- If the visitor is concerned about the hygiene practices within the home they may wish to suggest a visit takes place in the church building if permission has been granted for the building to open.
Congregations must ensure that they follow any advice from the Scottish Government or local health protection teams, relating to the temporary restrictions or prohibition of pastoral visits as a result of a localised outbreak of COVID-19.
It may be possible to visit residents in Care Homes, but it is essential to check with the Care Home manager first. While the Scottish Government has said that faith representatives may visit a Care Home, not all Care Homes are allowing this.
Face-to-face advice services, including recovery community and mutual aid groups are permitted to resume in places of worship. Both professionally led and peer led services, one-to-one support or group support can take place. Examples of such services might be support for alcohol and drug services and mental health and wellbeing support groups, including groups for mental ill health, weight loss, bereavement support and victim support. Numbers for these groups can be set at the safe capacity for the venue in which they meet with all physical distancing measures in place.
In places of worship within a level 0, 1 or 2 area such groups can take place. In level 3 areas groups can take place but should be moved online wherever possible. In level 4 areas only essential activities can take place face-to-face where they are essential for people’s wellbeing and remote delivery is not possible. An essential support group is one where participants’ health (including their mental health) and wellbeing would be significantly impacted by non-attendance. If groups must take place in person, relevant guidance must be followed.
In areas under enhanced level 4, church buildings, if they have been previously approved to reopen by Presbytery, can still be used for essential support services and travelling to the building to provide these is an exception to the stay at home rule. In general, congregations must be able to justify the service as being essential and that the number of volunteers is the minimum required. For example, if a congregation hosts a meeting of Narcotics Anonymous for six homeless people who cannot meet online then they may continue with all the usual mitigations of masks, open windows etc. However, it is not acceptable to continue the Wednesday Bible Study, however important that may be to its regular participants.
Church Offices and Workplaces
Church offices should remain closed at the present time as they are not considered to be an essential service. Church employees such as secretaries and administrators should work from home. It is permissible for an employee to enter a church office in order to check on mail and undertake essential photocopying, but at no time should a church office be open to the public. Further information can be found in the Scottish Government's guidance on returning to work.
Teas and coffees after worship must not be provided at this time. Informal hospitality such as coffee mornings and lunch clubs can now resume; however, there are significant restrictions on the number of people who can attend such events and these events should follow indoor gathering (socialising) numbers.
Commercial cafes within church buildings are now able to reopen. Cafes have different rules at different protection levels, including restricted opening hours. Cafes in level 4 areas can only operate a take-away service.
Those who are responsible for the cafe must ensure that they have undertaken a COVID-19 risk assessment and share this with the congregation. Commercial cafes can only re-open once the congregation has completed their own COVID-19 risk assessment and buildings checklists. In addition, commercial cafes must comply with the Scottish Government’s guidance for the hospitality sector, including the requirement to comply with Trace and Protect. Full details can be downloaded from the Scottish Government website.
Commercial cafes and informal hospitality can only restart in church buildings when all of the guidance relating to cleaning and disinfection and hand hygiene and general precautions can be fully implemented. In addition, commercial cafes and those members of the congregation providing hospitality should also refer to Food Standards Scotland guidance on reopening food businesses.
A number of activities and groups such as lunch clubs or coffee mornings where specific exemptions do not apply must follow the guidelines for indoor gatherings in the relevant area. Care should be taken to ensure that the correct guidance is being followed as the Scottish Government have the ability to vary the numbers able to meet both indoors and outdoors within the different protection levels. It is the responsibility of the congregation and the group to understand what the rules in force at the time of the activity mean for numbers.
It is a legal requirement that anyone over the age of five years who attends a church building must wear an appropriate face covering at all times unless there is a reasonable excuse for not wearing one. Reasonable excuses are defined under the Health Protection (Coronavirus) (Restrictions) (Scotland) Regulations 2020 and members of the congregation and visitors to the church building should familiarise themselves with these exemptions.
Ministers and those leading worship may decide that it is not appropriate to wear a face covering during a service. Face coverings can be removed during a service as long as a distance of at least 2 metres is maintained between them and those attending church. However, a face covering must be worn at all other times when attending church. Similarly, the same rule applies to those leading a funeral or marriage ceremony. At a wedding, the couple can remove face coverings throughout the ceremony (when the minister or deacon is conducting the act of worship but not before of afterwards); however, the minister or deacon should take extra care when standing in front of the couple during this period.
Face coverings are only required to be worn indoors. However, congregations should respect an individual’s choice to wear a face covering whilst outside the church building. It is important to remember that whether a face covering is worn or not outside of the church building, physical distancing of 2m between individuals must be followed at all times. Congregations should also be aware that in some cases, sector-specific guidance published by the Scottish Government allows for the removal of face coverings whilst inside the church building, for example whilst undertaking some forms of exercise. Congregations must check with all organisations and groups that use their church buildings as to their professional bodies’ requirement to wear a face covering and with the Scottish Government's sector-specific guidance.
Travel and Transport
The Scottish Government has issued a series of travel restrictions under the protection levels system. Some limited exemptions from the restrictions not to travel into or out of Level 3, 4 and enhanced level 4 local authority areas, or to or from other parts of the UK exist. These should not be seen as loopholes.
For those living in areas under 3, 4, and enhanced level 4 there is an exemption for Ministers of Religion traveling into another area to a place of worship. There is also an exemption for travel for weddings and funerals.
Individuals may travel to and from a level 3 area to attend their regular place of worship. However, if they live in, or the church is located in a level 4 or enhanced level 4 area then it is illegal for individuals to travel outwith their local authority area to attend church, even if it is in the same protection level.
However, for services such as baptisms, ordinations and inductions there is no exception for friends or family to travel to the church in which the service is taking place if they live outwith that local authority area (unless the service is taking place in their usual place of worship).
Congregations should not run any ‘lifts to church’ schemes to collect people and bring them to worship. Equally, congregations should not put in place any schemes, or broker lifts between people for travel to appointments such as vaccination or hospital.
For more information, see the Scottish Government's guidance on travel and transport.
Schools (and School Chaplaincy)
At the present time, it is very unlikely that school chaplains will be allowed to enter a school to engage with pupils, regardless of which level an area is in. School chaplains should always check with the Head Teacher to ascertain the position. School Chaplains may consider alternatives such as recording talks for the classroom or an assembly.
We are aware that a number of congregations have either offered or have been approached by their local schools to see if their church buildings can be used to support children returning to schools. Congregations who are considering using their church buildings in this way are encouraged to have early discussions with their local schools and to contact the Law Department for advice and assistance on establishing a letting agreement.
Activity-Based Risk Assessments
It is good practice for congregations to ensure that an activity-based risk assessment is undertaken of any group or activity, both inside or outside of the church building which includes children, young people or adults. This risk assessment will help congregations and activity leaders understand the risks associated with the activity including the risks to the participants and how to appropriately manage and control those risks.
Such a Risk Assessment is substantially different in character to the COVID-19 Building Risk Assessment. Youth Scotland have produced a number of helpful resources that congregations may find useful in planning a return to indoor children’s and youth work:
Children and youth ministries, Sunday schools, faith-based education, non-regulated organised activities for children and face-to-face youth work are, in certain protection levels, able to resume in church buildings. The Scottish Government through Youthlink Scotland has produced in-depth guidance that congregations and service providers must consider before any children’s or young person’s work can resume. The Scottish Government has also published additional guidance relating to unregulated organised activities for children including carer and toddler groups. Congregations and service providers should note that not all activities can resume in church buildings at the present time, and you should refer to the Scottish Government sector guidance to ensure that your planned activity can safely resume.
General Youth Work Provisions
Before any activities can resume, congregations must ensure that the measures outlined in the Reopening and Looking After Your Church Buildings guidance are followed. In addition, the following general principles will apply:
- The default position is that all work with children and young people falls under the general guidance for activities for children and young people unless sector-specific guidance from the Scottish Government is in place for the activity
- Organised activities that do not hold other sector specific guidance will be limited group sizes set by the Scottish Government
- Level 0 – 30 indoors and 30 outdoors
- Level 1 – 30 indoors and 30 outdoors
- Level 2 – 20 indoors and 25 outdoors
- Level 3 – 10 indoors and 20 outdoors
- Level 4 – not permitted indoors and 15 outdoors
- Enhanced Level 4 – not permitted indoors and a maximum of 15 under 12s with up to 2 facilitators outdoors
- There should be no more than 50% parents or carers (18+) at any one time, where they attend an activity to support their child. Facilitators do not count towards these numbers.
- At Levels 3 and 4, under 5s do not count to overall numbers. They do at all other times.
- At this time indoor youth work activities are not permitted. From 12 March 2021, in enhanced level 4 areas, outdoor youth work activities, with a maximum of 15 individuals (inclusive of young people and youth workers/leaders) in any one interaction. The general approach should be to minimise the size of groups where possible. The expectations before delivery (as outlined in ‘What can be classified as Youth Work’ section below) should be in place including physical distancing for young people 12 and over (and between adults and adults and all children/young people). Groups may also wish to consider working with bubble groups based on age bands to manage the different physical distancing requirements for each age group. Organised outdoor youth work activities may include games and non-contact physical activity. Outdoor Youthwork activities may take place in an outdoor space within a Place of Worship if the Kirk Session and Presbytery have given approval for the reopening of the space. If using an outdoor space in church grounds then only one group of 15 individuals should be present at any one time.
- In circumstances where support to a vulnerable young person is required, this should be provided on a one to one basis (indoors or outdoors) with restriction measures in place.
- Congregations and service providers are encouraged to start with a small group of children and young people and build their service capacity up over a period of time. In areas under levels 3, 4 and enhanced level 4 restrictions digital youth work should be the norm with face-to-face being prioritised to those who need it the most.
- The capacity for how many people can participate in youth work may change depending on the type of activity being undertaken or its location
- Children under 12 do not have to physically distance, however young people over 12 and adults must maintain a 2m physical distance at all times. In exceptional circumstances where this cannot be achieved, then face coverings must be worn
- As with all activities in a place of worship, face coverings should be worn by all over the age 5 without a medical exemption. In certain instances face coverings may be removed by young people, however youth leaders, volunteers and adults should continue to wear a face covering at all times unless there is an exemption. The removal of the face covering in youth work sessions should be the exemption not the rule. The default should remain that face coverings are worn except when young people are actively engaged in exercise, physical activity or small learning groups.
What can be classified as ‘Youth Work’
Congregations should understand that not all work with young people aged 12-25 is classed as ‘youth work’. In order to be classed as ‘youth work’ and operate under that exemption and guidance, the group must be able to demonstrate a clear educational focus and a structured programme. This means that a drop-in youth club where there is no planned programme is unlikely to fall under the ‘youth work’ guidance and would therefore follow the ‘organised activities for children’ guidance. For more information on what defines a Youth Work Group or Activity there is useful information on the Covid FAQ page on the website of Youth Link Scotland.
It is important that congregations and service providers ensure that any activities provided within their church buildings are run safely. Scottish Government guidance states that before implementing any planned face-to-face delivery or re-opening of youth work spaces, youth work leaders should be able to demonstrate the following:
- That the Scottish Government scientific and medical advice deems it safe to proceed
- Youth work leaders have the ability to comply with Scottish Government and Public Health Scotland guidance
- Comprehensive risk assessment are in place relating to both the building/space being used and the activity undertaken
- Appropriate measures for infection prevention and control are in place
- Enhanced cleaning arrangements
- Adequate facilities, equipment and procedures for personal hygiene
- Measures are in place to comply with physical distancing requirements
- Ability to adhere to the Scottish Government Test and Protect COVID-19 guidance
- Specific measures to protect those who are at higher risk from COVID-19 infection
- Clear communication processes - to ensure staff, volunteers, service users and parents understand what measures have been put in place to manage risk of COVID-19 transmission
- Appropriate insurance cover
- That these arrangements and measures are monitored and reviewed regularly.
Sunday Schools and Bible Classes
For more information on Sunday Schools and Bible Classes please see the Worship section of the guidance
Congregations which provide a holiday club for children and young people can, in certain protection level areas resume a limited service within their church buildings within the maximum numbers allowed for within the Scottish Government regulations. The Youthlink Scotland guidance must be followed alongside the general principles outlined above.
Due to the nature of uniformed organisations and the educational model they provide, sections of uniformed organisations with children and young people of any age should comply with the Youthlink Scotland guidance.
Early Learning and Childcare (ELC) (Formal childcare)
Children’s nurseries and after-school care
In enhanced level 4 areas regulated early learning and childcare and school-age childcare services can only open to children of key workers and vulnerable children and further advice should be sought from your local authority education department.
Only those children’s services registered with the Care Inspectorate can return to using church buildings for the present time. Nursey providers must ensure that they can operate their service in accordance with the relevant Scottish Government sector guidance. The congregation must ensure that both the nursery and themselves have a COVID-19 risk assessment in place and that the congregation has completed the buildings checklist before the nursery can reopen.
As with registered nurseries, Care Inspectorate after-school clubs (child care provisions) from a church building are able to return. Service providers must ensure that they can operate their service in accordance with the relevant Scottish Government sector guidance which is available from. The congregation must ensure that both the nursery and themselves have a COVID-19 risk assessment in place and that the congregation has completed the buildings checklist before the nursery can reopen.
Unregulated Children’s Activities
Carer and toddler groups
Carer and toddler groups can resume in church buildings so long as the Scottish Government’s guidance on organised activities for children is followed alongside the general principles outlined in this section of the guidance document. The following principles apply specifically for carer and toddler groups:
- In levels 0-2 there should be no more than 50% of the maximum numbers aged 18+ at any one time. Children of all ages count towards the maximum numbers in levels 0-2
- Level 0 – 30 indoors and 30 outdoors
- Level 1 – 30 indoors and 30 outdoors
- Level 2 – 20 indoors and 25 outdoors
- In level 3 areas where all children in the group are less than 5 years old, the maximum number of adults who can attend indoors is 10 (where the space allows for safe physical distancing of that number). The children under 5 years do not count towards the maximum number of 10 individuals who can meet at the group in this situation.
- In level 4 areas groups can only meet outdoors and the maximum number of adults who can attend is 15
- In enhanced level 4 areas groups can only meet outdoors and the maximum number who can attend is seven adults within unlimited under 5s.
Face coverings must be worn at all times except when sitting down (excluding under 5s).
Further information can be found in the Scottish Government's guidance on organised activities for children.
Breakfast Clubs can resume within levels 0-4 (but not within enhanced level 4) as they form an important part of the day for children and families as well as providing accessible childcare options for working parents. Churches providing breakfast clubs should operate in line with the guidance provided for regulated school age childcare provision, including setting safe maximum numbers based on the guidance contained and the physical space available. Further information can be found in the Scottish Government's guidance on school-age childcare services.
Sport and Exercise Classes
Within different protection level areas there are different rules on what sport and exercise groups (including dance groups) can take place within a place of worship.
- Level 0 –Indoor and Outdoor classes for all ages are permitted to take place
- Level 1 –Indoor and Outdoor classes for all ages, except indoor contact sports for over 18s are permitted to take place (with exception of professional sports)
- Level 2 –Indoor and Outdoor classes for all ages, except indoor contact sports for over 18s are permitted to take place (with exception of professional sports)
- Level 3 –Indoor classes for under 18s only are permitted and outdoor classes are permitted with the exception of no outdoor contact sports for those 18 or over (with the exception of professional sport)
- Level 4 – No indoor activities are permitted and only outdoor classes for non-contact sports are permitted (with the exception of professional sport)
- Enhanced Level 4 – No indoor activities or outdoor classes are permitted
Congregations must ensure that arrangements are in place to ensure that physical distancing, hygiene and cleaning and disinfection measures are in place before any sports or exercise groups return to their church building. Congregation and activity leaders must also refer to sportscotland guidance on specific sport activities and to sportscotland guidance on leading physical activities. If specific COVID-19 guidance for a particular sport, or exercise activity has not been published by either the Scottish Government, sportscotland or a professional body, then this activity should not take place at this time.
Physical distancing requirements may be different for each individual sport and exercise activity and congregations must ensure that the appropriate guidance is followed at all times. In most cases, the 2m physical distance must be complied within all church buildings until at least certain sport and exercise classes/activities begin. In some cases, face coverings can be removed by those participating in certain sport and exercise activities, however it is the responsibility of the congregation and activity leaders to confirm whether is applies to their specific activity or not. Face coverings must be worn at all times and a 2m physical distance must be adhered to at all other times whilst inside a church building.
Many dance schools and teachers in Scotland are also members of the SDTA which has issued guidance to their members. Congregations may wish to ask their group for a copy of this guidance. In addition, congregations and dance leaders should refer to the Scottish Government’s guidance for the performing arts and venues sector.
Some congregations provide services such as community cinemas. In level 3, 4 and enhanced level 4 areas all such activities should not take place. However, in level 0-2 certain activities can take place following the relevant guidance. Congregations should check not only Scottish Government guidance but also with the local Environmental Health Managers to ensure compliance and all permissions are in place. It is not enough for a church to ‘deem itself’ a cinema, for example, it must follow all sector guidance for operating such activities.
Some congregations will wish to re-open their buildings during the day because they attract visitors and tourists. It is important to ensure that the building is cleaned before opening and regularly during opening hours and that the appropriate distance of 2 metres can be maintained between visitors. There should be access to hand washing facilities and hand sanitiser and items such as hymn books, visitor books, leaflets, pens etc should be removed. It is also essential to maintain records for Track and Trace purposes. Cash donations should not be accepted and alternative methods of giving should be considered.
Visitor Attractions can open in areas covered by levels 0-2, remain open in level 3 areas with protective measures as outlined on Scottish Government website but must remain closed in level 4 and enhanced level 4 areas.
Some congregations may be eligible for grant funding from the Historic Environment Recovery Fund, which is open to organisations which manage historic buildings and sites that are normally open to the public at least 28 days per calendar year. This includes buildings or sites that attract visitors as well as those which are open to the public for specific purposes.
Registering Attendance in Church Buildings
Each congregation will be required to provide the details of at least one person within the congregation who will be the main contact should the local Health Protection Team required details of who has attend their church buildings. Congregations should register their point of contact online at churchofscotland.org.uk/test-protect. Further information, advice and guidance is provided on our Assisting NHS Test & Protect page.
Furloughing Parish Ministers
Furloughing of parish ministers should not happen. Where a parish minister has young children at home they should feel able to alter their working pattern to allow for sufficient flexibility to share responsibility for children and ministry across the working week within the family unit whilst continuing to serve their parish and community. There will always be a willingness from colleagues to assist where genuine emergencies occur, but Presbyteries also need to balance the well-being of ministers who would be required to provide interim moderator cover for a furloughed minister. At a time when more in communities are seeking the support of our churches it is important that all employees and office holders within a parish setting are able to provide necessary support.
Church Buildings as Vaccination Centres
Congregations may wish to offer their facilities as Vaccination Centres at the present time. Other than in cases where use is only for a matter of days, it will be necessary for a suitable lease or licence to be put in place for such use and any congregation who is approached and willing to have their buildings used in such a way should contact the Law Department for more information and assistance.
Church Buildings as Polling Places
Many congregations let their church buildings to their local authority to be used as a polling place. The Scottish Government has confirmed that church buildings can reopen and be used as polling places and, therefore, it is up to each individual congregation to decide whether this is appropriate to do so.
In practical terms, congregations should only consider letting their church buildings as a polling place once they have completed the reopening of church buildings checklist and a COVID-19 risk assessment and submitted both documents to Presbytery for approval. Those congregations which have already reopened their church buildings after the initial lockdown in March 2020 should only complete the buildings safety declaration, review and update their COVID-19 risk assessments and submit both documents to Presbytery for approval. If the congregation has already been approved by the Presbytery for the reopening of their church buildings, then no further action is required.
Local authorities have been issued with guidance from the Electoral Commission about how to operate polling activities safely. Congregations who decide to let their church buildings as a polling place should be aware that the resources available to local authorities to support polling places varies considerably. Some local authorities may be able to assist with enhanced cleaning or pay for an external cleaning company to undertake enhanced cleaning after polling day; however, this is not guaranteed. Congregations must discuss with the local authority who will be responsible for cleaning and disinfection and the removal of waste from their church buildings once polling has ended. Congregations must also ask to see a written copy of their local authorities' COVID-19 risk assessment and assure themselves that adequate control procedures are in place to reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission whilst their building is been used as a polling place.
As well as the Scottish Parliament elections in May 2021, a number of local government by-elections are planned for throughout the year and the same guidance as highlighted above should be followed.
Insurance of Church Buildings during Lockdown
It is vital that congregations ensure that they keep abreast of insurance requirements for their buildings. More information, including a checklist for weekly inspections, can be found in our Reopening and Looking after Your Church Buildings Guidance. If you have any questions on insurance, please visit the COSIC website for the current situation and for details of how to contact the insurance team.
Maintenance of Church Buildings
You should continue to follow the guidance issued by the Church of Scotland Insurance Service (COSIS) and the General Trustees about regularly visiting and inspecting your church property. It is important that congregations continue to ensure their buildings are safe and in a good state of repair. More information can be found in our Reopening and Looking After Your Church Buildings guidance.
Useful Information and Appendices
We have produced other guidance on Reopening and Looking After Your Church Buildings which covers aspects of building management. We provide the following appendices on reopening church buildings, distancing, trace and protect policies, weekly buildings checks and health risks available as downloads:
- COVID-19 Buildings Safety Declaration
- COVID-19 Buildings Safety Declaration
- Reopening of Church Buildings Checklist
- Reopening of Church Buildings Checklist
- COVID-19 Risk Assessment
- COVID-19 Risk Assessment
- Reopening Church Buildings Physical Distancing Guidance
- Health Risks Assessment Tool
- Weekly Insurance Check Record
- Weekly Insurance Check Record
First Published: 8 Jan 2021
See All Updates
19 March 2021
Amended text in General Worship section highlighting travel restrictions, balcony/ gallery use and general safety provisions
Updated section in Youth Work section on outdoor Youth Work in Enhanced Level 4 areas
12 March 2021
Changes to introduction reflecting possible changes to communal worship from 26 March 2021
New Section on Holy Week and Easter
Changes to introductory text in Worship section reflecting possible changes to communal worship from 26 March 2021
Changes to Distributing Material section
New section on Scottish and Local Elections
29 January 2021
Update to Ordinations in enhanced level 4.
New section on Registering Attendance.
8 January 2021