Latest updates

Updated 8 January 2021

Updates from the Church of Scotland, to help churches manage the Coronavirus/COVID-19 lockdown. This page will be updated when new advice becomes available from NHS Scotland and the UK Government.

Guidance on reshaping church life

The Scottish Government published their four-phase plan to easing COVID-19 restrictions on 21 May 2020. Since then, the Church of Scotland has been working collaboratively with Presbytery representatives and members from a number of different departments within the national office to produce guidance that will help congregations plan to reopen their church buildings.

Our guidance is split into two sections, Reshaping Church Life and Reopening and Safety in Church Buildings (currently being revised). Both sections of our guidance are continually reviewed and updated to take account of changes to government policy and legislation. Due to the fluid nature of the journey out of the pandemic our guidance will no longer be issued as a pdf document, rather all of the information is available in a dynamic web page which allows users to obtain the most up-to-date information each time they visit.

Reshaping Church Life describes both assistance and support for continuing to serve communities as a church and the practical aspects for reopening church buildings. This guidance is designed to facilitate discussion and support ministers and the relevant decision-making bodies at a local level as they consider how they might continue to worship and serve as a church community, as well as how and when will be the best time for them to reopen their church buildings.

We encourage you to check our guidance on a regular basis.

If you have any questions in relation to this guidance, please contact us at covid19guidance@churchofscotland.org.uk.

Information for congregations with employees

Our guidance covers:

  • Latest information about the UK government's Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (CJRS), which has been extended to 31 March 2021
  • Self-employed/freelance workers
  • Pay for those in self-isolation or caring for children or elderly relatives
  • Working from home
  • Employees who cannot work from home
  • Holidays and unpaid leave
  • Termination of contracts

Anyone who requires more tailored advice is urged to contact dstihler@churchofscotland.org.uk or mmacleod@churchofscotland.org.uk and a solicitor from the Church of Scotland Law Department will respond within three working days.

Use of church buildings

There are government exemptions within the regulations that allow a number of churches to be used to support vulnerable members of their congregation and the wider community. This is either through arrangement with other agencies such as food banks, or by providing cooked meals for the homeless. In light of the recent instructions by the UK Government and the updated guidance from the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government and the Scottish Government, the following activities are permitted in church buildings:

  • Congregational services, including pre-arranged or scheduled acts of worship and communal prayer (with the exception of areas in enhanced level 4)
  • Marriage ceremonies
  • Baptisms (with the exception of areas in enhanced level 4)
  • Private prayer (with the exception of areas in enhanced level 4)
  • Funeral services
  • Services providing food or drink to the homeless
  • Hosting essential voluntary or public service such as food banks or homeless services
  • Regulated childcare and nursery provision
  • Regulated cafĂ© and hospitality

There are still a number of activities for which the church cannot open at this time.

Further information is available on our Use of Church Buildings page.

Looking after church buildings

Our information on looking after church buildings has been updated to cover gas and electrical inspections, controlling the risk of Legionella, and advice on playing the organ. You can find answers to other frequently asked questions on our page about looking after church buildings during the Coronavirus pandemic.

Letting church halls

Many congregations will have churches, halls and other premises that are used by church groups and let to external agencies for a range of events. Some external groups are looking to restart using your church buildings. Congregations should not agree to this without first considering a number of factors such as the physical capabilities of your church buildings, the ability to adhere to physical distancing and good hygiene practices and the number of separate letting arrangements which are in place. No external groups can use church premises unless the buildings have been approved to open under the COVID-19 reopening process.

Existing contracts for the hire of church buildings will require to be updated to ensure that users are responsible for adhering to guidelines, responsibility for cleaning has been agreed and that both parties continue to be covered by their insurance policies. Congregations are advised to contact the Law Department who will be able to assist with any amendments to external let agreements and further advice can be found here.

At the present times, only a small number of external groups are permitted to use church buildings. A full list of those activities which must not take place in church buildings can be found at the government's website.

Posters

A series of posters produced by the Communications department have also been added to support churches to signpost any changes to procedures when visiting their buildings.

Below are two additional posters from the NHS which you may also wish to display in your buildings.

Worship

We are very conscious of the need to provide spiritual resources in this time, both nationally and locally. However, churches currently under enhanced level 4 restrictions must close for in-person worship.

We continue to encourage congregations to worship online, connect with each other and offer spiritual practices for members to follow in their own time. At present, our Weekly Worship offers readings and spiritual thoughts appropriate for each week. We also have information available on how to safely use Zoom to connect with your local congregation and community.

The Moderator and the Scottish Church Leaders Forum have joined a call to pray together at 7pm every Sunday. A prayer for this time will be posted to the Church website each week.

More and more churches have begun to live stream or post their services online. You can find a list of some of these on our Kirk services online page. If your local church has a website or a Facebook page you are encouraged to check with them and see if they are offering an online service.

The Moderator is curating a weekly service throughout lockdown with participants from across Scotland and beyond. This will be available to congregations to make use of should they require, and individuals can also join in the worship on the Church of Scotland YouTube channel each Sunday.

Further information on livestreaming, including information on copyright, can be found in this circular on the Law Department’s webpages.

Running Messy Church sessions

A guidance for safely running Messy Church sessions is now available.

Funerals

Sensitive conversations will need to take place with families and mourners ahead of funeral ceremonies. Churches are permitted to host funeral services if the building has been approved to reopen where:

  • A minister and kirk session have agreed to work towards the church building reopening.
  • Paperwork including a reopening church buildings checklist and full Covid-19 risk assessment is undertaken, completed and acted upon.
  • The local presbytery approving the reopening of the church following submission of relevant paperwork.
  • A minister agrees that a funeral can take place within the church building.

The final decision of whether funeral services take place in church buildings is the responsibility of the Minister or Interim Moderator. As not all buildings have been approved to reopen you are advised to contact your local church or ask your funeral director to make contact.

The attendance at a funeral service must be limited to a maximum of 20 people. This attendance figure is set by the Scottish Government and is the same whether a funeral takes place in a church, crematorium or cemetery. Even with the small number, there is a need to respect social distancing guidelines for those who are not of the same household – no closer than two metres.

As in church services, no singing should take place at a funeral whatever the location.

Make your own travel arrangements to the graveside or crematorium – do not travel in the car with the bereaved family or the undertaker. After the service, as difficult as it is, you must not shake hands or offer a hug.

In enhanced level 4 areas, post-funeral gatherings such as funeral teas may not take place.

Tributes can be paid in other ways for larger numbers of people to engage with – either online, with a recorded tribute, or in a church newsletter – or given in a memorial service later in the year.

Weddings

Marriage ceremonies can now take place inside churches and outdoors if the building has been approved to reopen. In enhanced level 4 areas, numbers attending a marriage ceremony must be limited to a maximum of 5 people (or 6 if an interpreter is required), which include the couple, the minister, photographer, witnesses and guests. In areas covered by other protection levels numbers are restricted to 20 which includes couple, the witnesses, photographer and guests but excludes the celebrant, those employed or volunteering at the venue to facilitate to marriage. Those who had an event planned can contact their own minister directly to discuss their individual needs and whether a date can now be booked for your wedding. You can contact your local minister here.

Baptisms

Baptismal services should not take place at this time in any area under the enhanced level 4 restrictions. 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.

Offerings

The Church is aware that closing down worship services will impact on congregational income, and we want to encourage people to continue contributing financially as far as possible, and to encourage the increased use of standing orders as an expression of ongoing stewardship.

To help support local churches during this time, and for anyone who cannot or does not wish to set up a standing order, we have now launched our online donations platform.

COVID-19 funding

Our COVID-19 Funding page has been updated with new information about application deadlines and award amounts for some of the funds.

'Live streaming' and online publication of worship and other events

We now have guidance available for churches planning to livestream, photograph or film services and other church events. This includes information about equipment and technical considerations, safeguarding and copyright. 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.

Phishing emails and scams

There is evidence of online criminals taking advantage of the COVID-19 crisis, and the criminal threat will only increase through the current difficulty. To help keep you safe online, we have information on the latest email scams, including how to recognise them, and what to do if you receive one.

Using Zoom in the current crisis

Zoom is a useful tool, allowing the local work of each congregation to continue “virtually” online. This has become increasingly important in recent weeks when it comes to Kirk Sessions and Presbyteries continuing their ability to make decisions.

However, we cannot ignore that there have been security concerns noted in the media, together with situations we have been able to create whilst testing the Zoom app and updates from Zoom themselves. Thankfully, Zoom themselves have changed their default policies to stop a number of the concerns occurring in the first place, but if Church of Scotland congregations or departments are to continue to use Zoom they should do so in the safest way possible. We have created a guide to help you set up a Zoom meeting that is as safe and secure as possible.

Safeguarding reporting requirements

The Safeguarding Service hopes that everyone is keeping safe and managing in these difficult times.

Sadly, anyone, especially those who are already marginalised or vulnerable, can find themselves at increased risk of harm or abuse during these unprecedented times in lockdown. In addition, with many people now using social media to connect with and keep in touch with one another, there may be increased incidents of bullying, sexualised behaviour or grooming or other forms of abusive and harmful behaviour. It is important that any such harmful behaviour is reported. Further information about this is available on our safeguarding advice page.

Safeguarding: Safe Use of Social Media/Remote Learning and the Provision of Telephone Support

We have updated Safeguarding Service advice for congregations on the safe use of social media/remote learning and the provision of telephone support during the Coronavirus/COVID-19 outbreak.

Vacancy process during Covid-19

In July 2020 The Commission of the General Assembly approved a Protocol which allows all concerned in a Vacancy Process to honour the spirit and principles of the Church’s legislation and traditions while allowing Presbyteries, congregations and ministers to move forward in these exceptional times. The Protocol allows very specific alterations in practice to the current process that allows congregations to move to appoint a nominee and elect a minister, and allows Presbyteries to arrange services of induction and services of Ordination. With current Scottish Government regulations services of Ordination cannot take place in enhanced level 4 areas; however, services of Inductions can continue to happen remotely.

The Protocol agreed by the Commission has been amended to reflect the change in Government policy which makes a service of Ordination possible, Guidelines for Presbyteries, Interim Moderators, Kirk Sessions and Nominating Committees, as well as guidance for applicants is offered here.

Church of Scotland COVID-19 Group

A group is meeting on a weekly basis to compile guidance.

Group Members:

  • Brian Auld, Assistant Secretary (Safe Buildings), General Trustees
  • Graham Biggerstaff, General Trustees (Convener, Safe Buildings, General Trustees)
  • Eva Elder, Admin Team Manager, GT’s
  • Rev Dr John Ferguson, Parish Minister and Clerk to Presbytery of Aberdeen and Shetland
  • Rev Bryan Kerr, Parish Minister and Clerk to Presbytery of Lanark
  • Mary Macleod, Solicitor of the Church
  • Ruth MacLeod, Head of Communications
  • Rev Angus R. Mathieson, Interim Head, Faith Nurture
  • Rev Dr George Whyte, Principal Clerk

Global and national concerns

Find out what the Church is doing to promote solidarity, fairness and healing in a worldwide crisis.

General Assembly

The 2020 General Assembly, which was originally scheduled to take place at the Assembly Hall in Edinburgh from 16-22 May 2020, was held online the evening of Friday 2 October and all day Saturday 3 October. A special ceremony to install the new Moderator was held and streamed live in May. An online version of Heart and Soul was also held in May. More information is available on our General Assembly 2020 page.

Due to the uncertainty about what the Covid restrictions will be in May, it has been agreed that the 2021 General Assembly will once again be held online with no commissioners present in the Assembly Hall. It is anticipated that the General Assembly will open on Saturday 22 May 2021 and further information will be available nearer the time.

Pastoral care

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 in certain levels of restriction. 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.

More details are available on our Pastoral Care page.

Pastoral care networks

Please see our guidance note from the Church’s Safeguarding Department with some useful guidance about setting up small pastoral care networks with a practical outcome. This guidance note contains a postcard which may be useful. There are some good ideas here about small groups; such groups can mitigate social isolation, and help people to continue to feel that they are part of the wider community of faith. Previous advice about using tools such as Skype, email, letters, greetings cards, Facetime and Whatsapp groups are all useful approaches and some of these are particularly helpful for people who don’t use technology.

SCVO (the Scottish Council of Voluntary Organisations) have set up a page to signpost people to opportunities to help their communities during this crisis.

Government guidance

The UK Government has made available a number of guidance documents related to COVID-19, including information on the importance of staying at home during this time. These are available in various languages, including English, Arabic, Bengali, Chinese (Cantonese and Mandarin), French, Gujarati, Polish, Portuguese, Punjabi, Urdu and Welsh. These may be useful for congregations with members who do not speak English as their first language.

The Scottish Government has released a Coronavirus (COVID-19) framework for decision making, which outlines how the government will determine what steps need to be taken to control the spread of the virus while minimising harm to health, society and the economy.

Hygiene recommendations

Best hygiene practice should continue to be observed in all pastoral contacts.

Updated advice is available from NHS Scotland.

Public Health Scotland and the UK Government recommend that you should take usual infection prevention precautions including:

  • Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds
  • Use an alcohol-based hand sanitiser that contains at least 60% alcohol if soap and water are not available
  • It is particularly important after taking public transport to use sanitiser on your hands
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands
  • Carry tissues to catch coughs and sneezes and bin the tissue
  • If you feel unwell, stay at home, do not attend work or school
  • Clean and disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces in church buildings

Travel advice

The Scottish Government has issued a series of travel restrictions under the present tiered 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)

For  more information, see the Scottish Government's guidance on travel and transport.

Advice has also been issued to travellers, advising against all non-essential travel worldwide. This advice is being revised regularly so please bookmark the page.