Latest updates

Updated 7 August 2020

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.

The guidance document on reopening our church buildings has been updated to reflect additions made following the move to phase 3 in Scotland’s route map through and out of the crisis. We have also updated our information on letting church halls.

Face coverings

The First Minister announced that from Saturday 8 August 2020 the wearing of face coverings in places of worship will be mandatory. The worship leader will be exempt from wearing a face covering when they are leading worship, provided additional safeguards are in place (for example, 2 metre physical distancing and/or a protective screen or barrier). Further details and guidance will be issued as soon as possible after legislation is published by the Scottish Government.

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 may wish 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 has 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. Indoor fitness/exercise groups, indoor soft play, and indoor performances in front of a live audience are currently not able to return to church buildings. A full list of those activities which must not take place in church buildings can be found at the government's website.

Guidance for the reopening of church buildings

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.

This guidance describes the practical aspects for reopening church buildings and the possible implications for worship. This guidance is designed to facilitate discussion, and support ministers and the relevant decision-making bodies at a local level as they consider how and when will be the best time for them to reopen their church buildings. The Scottish Government has not provided a definitive time line for when church buildings can reopen, however it is important that congregations take steps now to plan and prepare their church buildings, members of their congregation and volunteers for the reopening of their church buildings.

As well as highlighting the many factors that congregations should consider, the guidance also contains a buildings checklist and a COVID-19 risk assessment, which should be completed before any church building reopens.

We will review and update this guidance as government policy and legislation changes, so please check the Church of Scotland website regularly for any updates.

Following the First Minister's announcement that from Saturday 8 August the wearing of face coverings will be mandatory in churches, we are aware that a number of references in the current version of the COVID-19 Guidance refers to "encouraging" individuals to wear a face covering. Until the next update is issued these sections should be read in terms of face coverings being mandatory in churches. Please note that, when leading worship, the worship leader will be exempt from wearing a face covering, provided additional safeguards are in place (for example, 2 metre physical distancing and/or a protective screen or barrier).

If you have any questions relating to this guidance, please contact us.

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, from today, services of Ordination.

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.

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.

Planning for the reopening of church buildings for worship

The next announcement from the Scottish Government on this is expected around Thursday 30 July, as part framework for easing restrictions on lockdown. The First Minister has indicated that Phase 3 may last longer than the Phase 1 and 2 and as a result there is no expectation that this date will see a move the Phase 4. More information on these phases can be found on the Scottish Government website.

Phase 3, which for churches began non 15 July, allows places of worship to be  open for communal worship, private prayer, funerals, marriage ceremonies and baptism.  All activities are subject to strict maximum numbers, physical distancing and hygiene safeguards.

These phases are conditional on a number of requirements, all set out in the framework document, mainly around a low or decreasing infection rate. Please note, too, that no building can legally open without a legally mandated COVID-19 risk assessment, a copy of which you can find here.

Whilst the dates of moving into different phases will be communicated by the Scottish Government, there is no expectation that all Church of Scotland buildings will open on these key dates. It will be for Presbyteries and Kirk Sessions to consider carefully how these permissions might be used in local contexts.

A group is meeting on a weekly basis to compile guidance and has released updated guidance as part of the Phase 3 to help congregations and office-bearers to prepare their response.

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

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.

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.

Information for congregations with employees

Our guidance for congregations with employees has been updated to reflect the extension of the Government Job Retention Scheme to the end of October 2020, as well as changes one may expect from August onwards.

This page includes information about furlough, as well as template letters that can be used to inform employees of the job retention scheme and a template furlough agreement.

Our guidance also covers:

  • 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.

‘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.

Global and national concerns

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

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.

Phishing emails and scams

There is already 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.

Use of church buildings

Current instructions from Government state that church buildings can now begin to consider reopening for communal worship, as well as private prayer, funerals, marriage ceremonies and baptisms, and the Church of Scotland guidelines state that this can only happen following a robust process of decision making by minister, kirk session and presbytery. It should not be assumed that your local church is open at this time. However, there are also 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
  • Marriage ceremonies
  • Baptisms
  • Private prayer
  • 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 this page.

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.

Those leading a funeral service can now meet with families in a face to face visit, however all present must follow proper hygiene and distancing rules and follow the instruction from the Scottish Government on how many people from different households can meet at one time. Currently, this is up to 8 indoors from three households, and up to 15 outdoors from five households, with an individual meeting with a maximum of four other households in a day. It may be that an online meeting may still be the best option for the family at this time.

In arranging a funeral during this pandemic, a minister or other worship leader must comply with government instructions and health advice. These will inevitably mean restrictions on the numbers of those who can attend the service, so these conversations will need to be sensitively handled but the law must be followed.

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.

Latest government instructions restricting social gatherings mean that families will be unable to socialise following a funeral.

Tributes can then 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.

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.

Weddings

Marriage ceremonies can now take place inside churches and outdoors, if the building has been approved to reopen. Numbers attending a marriage ceremony must be limited to a maximum of 20 people, which include the couple, photographer, witnesses and guests. Those who had an event planned can contact their own minister directly to discuss their individual circumstances and whether a date can now be booked for your wedding. You can contact your local minister here.

Baptisms

Baptismal services are once again able to take place, if the building has been approved to reopen. However, physical distancing, good hygiene practices and management of numbers will remain in place. Ministers should not hold the infant but ask a parent or guardian to do so. The Scottish Government have allowed for an exception to the physical distancing 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 mitigations may wish to be considered.

Pastoral care

We understand that ministers, deacons and others involved in pastoral care may wish to consider the reintroduction of ‘in-person’ visits. Those involved with visits, should consider implementing proper 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 (up to 8 indoors from three households, and up to 15 outdoors from five households, with an individual meeting with a maximum of four other households in a day)
  • 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 should permission have been granted for the building to open.

In many areas visiting in hospitals is still restricted and it may be more appropriate for a hospital chaplain who is onsite to visit.

It would be for staff and relatives to decide whether a visit from a minister was advisable in terms of clinical decisions.

Worship

We are very conscious of the need to provide spiritual resources in this time, both nationally and locally. While physical services in most communities remain cancelled, a number of churches have moved to offer online worship. From 15th July the Scottish Government regulations for places of worship allow churches to reopen for communal worship, subject to ensuring that a risk assessment is completed and that when they open physical distancing and good hand hygiene is observed. From Saturday 8 August the Scottish Government have made the wearing of face coverings mandatory in churches. The Church of Scotland is following government guidelines and everyone will be asked to provide their name and contact details as part of NHS Scotland’s Test and Protect System. At this time singing in worship is not permitted and numbers are limited to a maximum of 50 people in a church building at any one time, although many churches will only be able to admit fewer individuals safely.

It will take some time before all churches are offering worship again in their buildings and you are encouraged to contact your local church for the latest information.

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.

Wellbeing

These restrictions could become more severe before they are relaxed and are likely to remain in force for months rather than weeks. These are unprecedented times and we can only live into and with these days, weeks, and months.

We want to encourage you, if there is any respect to which the radical change to the pattern of daily life offers space and freedom, to take those opportunities, perhaps to do something different, to allow the change to maximise physical and emotional wellbeing.

Online worship

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.

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

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.

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.

General Assembly

The decision was taken in light of Scottish Government advice to cancel the General Assembly of May 2020.

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

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.