Preparing to reopen church buildings
The Scottish Government announced on Tuesday 9 March 2021 that congregations can reopen their church buildings for worship purposes only. This decision will be ratified by the Scottish Government on 23 March 2021. In the meantime, those congregations who may wish to reopen their church buildings on or just after 26 March 2021 should take steps to plan and prepare their church buildings for reopening.
Congregations, alongside Presbytery, will be able to decide whether they wish to reopen their church buildings or not. At this stage, no congregation will be required to reopen their church buildings unless they believe that it is safe to do so. However, it is important that congregations do not reopen their church buildings or undertake any activity unless doing so is permitted in terms of the Scottish Government guidance or relevant regulatory provisions.
When deciding whether to reopen a church building, it may be useful to ask yourself the following initial questions:
- Can we safely practice physical distancing within our church buildings?
- Can we provide access to suitable hand hygiene facilities?
- Do we have enough willing volunteers who will be able to assist church members and visitors to our buildings and to help them understand and follow our safety precautions?
- Do we have enough willing volunteers who will be able to assist with the regular cleaning and disinfection of our buildings?
All of these questions are important, as congregations must have the resources and ability to put in place reasonable precautions to control the risks of COVID-19 before they can reopen.
The role of Presbytery
Every Presbytery has general powers of superintendence over congregations within its bounds. Presbytery also has a duty to ensure that church buildings are safe. This is normally carried out during a five-yearly inspection of church buildings and annually attesting records that consist of a property inspection, updated Property Register and relevant Health and Safety documentation.
It is expected that all Presbyteries will play a role in supporting congregations and ministers in the reopening of their church buildings. This may vary across Presbyteries, but as a minimum standard Presbyteries will ensure that every congregation has completed a reopening of church buildings checklist and a COVID-19 risk assessment. This will demonstrate that the congregation can meet the legal requirements expected of a church building open to members of the public.
Where a disagreement between a minister and the congregation exists over the reopening of their church buildings, the Presbytery should seek to discuss the matter with the congregation and the minister to understand the issues and work in partnership to overcome the challenges and reach agreement.
The COVID-19 risk assessment must be updated to reflect the additional activities that the congregation will be undertaking and supporting as COVID-19 restrictions are reduced. For example, when childcare services resume in their church buildings or when external groups return to use their buildings. There is no need for congregations to submit routine updated COVID-19 risk assessments to Presbytery before any additional activity or service returns to the church building so long as Presbytery is confident that the congregation will be able to suitably control any additional risks that may be created. However, Presbytery may wish to implement their own assurance process or system to support congregations as they reopen their church buildings for further use.
Congregations should ensure that they are aware of their own Presbytery’s process for approval for the reopening of church buildings and subsequent use of their church buildings for additional activities before moving forward. For example, if your presbytery has approved the reopening of your church sanctuary, then they may also require additional approval before the church hall can reopen.
Presbyteries may also wish to consider bulk buying schemes for cleaning and hygiene products and, where appropriate, may offer advice or instruction to congregations on the reopening of their church buildings in accordance with the general powers of Presbytery.