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: 10 September 2021
If you have a positive COVID-19 Case in your Church Building
If you become aware of an individual who has recently been in your church building testing positive for COVID-19 we ask that the Kirk Session email email@example.com at the earliest opportunity. Upon receipt of your email our team will make contact to share guidance to assist you in ensuring that processes are followed to keep the building safe. It is vital that the name of any individual testing positive for COVID-19 is not shared within the congregation or community.
The congregation should ensure that any third parties using church premises are aware that they should inform the key contact in the congregation if any of their workers or attendees test positive but they should not provide the identity of the person who has tested positive. The Kirk Session should then email the Covid Group for assistance as above.
The Scottish Government have moved the whole of Scotland into the ‘beyond level 0' phase of the pandemic easing.
Take care. We are still in the pandemic. ‘Beyond level 0' means that many of the legal restrictions previously in place have been removed, but the pandemic is not yet behind us. Infection rates remain high and the present variants are highly transmissible and continue to infect people and be transmitted, even by those who are double vaccinated. Even though new variant infection causes less clinical severity in vaccinated people, such infections still pose significant and, in some cases, lethal risk to those who are non-vaccinated and still have the capacity to overwhelm the NHS. Care should continue to be taken in all aspects of personal and church life. Churches should continue to mitigate risks by maintaining good hygiene and ensuring good ventilation. Churches already have the practice of assessing the level and perception of risk in their own particular context and some will wish to continue with at least some of the previous restrictions or manage a phased removal of restrictions.
The need for Risk Assessments has not diminished and it is vital that congregations ensure that their Risk Assessment is regularly reviewed and updated in line with current practice.
The status of most government and church COVID guidance has now changed and should be regarded as ‘good practice' rather than regulations;. However, some aspects, such as face coverings and registering attendance in some settings, remains a legal requirement. The latest Scottish Government guidance for Places of Worship can be read by congregations.
This guidance, and the guidance on Looking After your Church Buildings are offered by the COVID Working Group to assist in your efforts to reshape your life as a congregation as we continue to journey through the pandemic.
Capacity and Distancing
The limits on capacity within churches have been removed. It is important that when congregations feel it necessary to increase capacity they do so safely and after undertaking a Risk Assessment process.
The legal requirement of distance within churches has been removed by the Scottish Government; however, it is important to remember that mixing in the community without maintaining physical distancing measures helps the virus to spread widely. It is therefore important that people remain vigilant and follow the guidance from the Scottish Government to keep a physical distance from those in other households. It is recommended that congregations consider whether keeping distancing throughout a church building will be a useful mitigation to continue in the months that lie ahead.
Booking, check-in and contact details
Individual congregations will need to judge whether a booking system requires to be in place given the number of worshippers and the available space. The regulation to keep a register of those attending worship has been removed by the Government, however when a congregation offers hospitality (tea and coffee after the service for example) the legal duty to maintain a register is applicable. It is recommended therefore that congregations continue to ask people to check-in to a church building for any reason which can be done via a QR code or a paper register. More information can be found in the Test and Protect section.
It is still a legal requirement that people wear a face covering when attending a church for worship. Unless people are medically exempt or under the age of 12, everyone needs to wear a face covering when entering and leaving our churches, when they are seated in our pews and when they stand to sing. Those leading worship, reading scripture, or singing in a choir which is physically apart from the congregation (for example, on a chancel) have an exemption to remove their face covering when actively involved in the leading or singing, but should return to wearing the face covering when, for example, sitting listening to the sermon. For more information see the general ‘Face Coverings’ section.
Congregations may be lamenting the loss of handshakes or hugs as part of their life together. It is important to remember that our communities are still in the middle of a pandemic and touch should be avoided during an act of worship or when people enter or leave a church. This would also extend to the worship leader greeting people at the end of the service, except where there is a real pastoral need in an individual case (for example, someone who suffers from dementia who may become upset if their handshake is not returned by the minister).
Multiple acts of worship in a day
It is important that the church building is appropriately cleaned between meetings. This does not necessarily require a deep clean of the space but all ‘hand touch points’ should be cleaned in between services. This includes, but is not limited to, door handles and doors, pews, book boards and bathrooms. Where there is obvious soiling of surfaces these must be fully cleaned and sanitised before the next use. It is important that a congregation determines through a Risk Assessment process the appropriate gap between services, which should be based on the need to clean and sanitise effectively, not on the expediency of worship times.
Music and singing
All musical instruments can now be played in a place of worship. A choir or music group can sing without a face covering if they are apart from the congregation (for example, on a chancel) and keep a 1m distance from each other (or are separated by partitions). The size of the group will be defined by the available space.
Congregations are permitted to sing either seated or standing but must continue to wear face coverings. If a person has an exemption from wearing a face covering, then the exemption still stands during congregational singing. However, congregations may wish to enter a dialogue with individuals about how they might also consider their own wellbeing and the wellbeing of those around them. It may be the Kirk Session consider suggesting that individuals might wear a face shield, or sit in a particular location, or even to consider whether they participate in singing without a face covering. Care must be taken not to disadvantage an individual because of a medical condition or disability; however, congregations must seek to balance risk and act proportionately for the wellbeing of all worshippers during the pandemic.
Ministers, Deacons and Worship leaders may wish to consider wearing a face covering for congregational singing in an expression of unity with the congregation, even although there is an exemption from wearing a face covering when leading worship. This may also be considered by a choir when participating in congregational singing.
Hymn books and pew Bibles
Whilst these items can now be used with appropriate cleaning mitigations, congregations should determine whether they are necessary to the individual participating in the act of worship. The use of computer/television screens or boards as an alternative to Bibles and other worship materials should be encouraged. Churches may print words of hymns and responses for use, and it is recommended that these be placed on seats in advance of the service with the worshipper removing them at the end of the service and disposing of them either at home or in a wastepaper bin at the door of the church.
Where Bibles or hymns books need to be used, these should not be left on the pews or seats each week, but instead should be given to individuals upon request at the door. At the end of the service, used hymn books should be placed in a safe space (e.g. plastic crate with lid), labelled with ‘Date last used’ and ‘Date available for use’ clearly marked. These should be left ‘in quarantine’ for as long as possible dependant on local circumstances. However, it is recommended that they sit for at least 72 hours (3 days) before cleaning. After the ‘date available for use’ has passed, books should be removed from the box, sanitised with an appropriate spray sanitiser and placed ready for redistribution. The box should then be cleaned and sanitised. Hymn Books should not be used until the congregational risk assessment is updated and approved by the Kirk Session.
The Sacrament of Communion can continue to be celebrated in worship. However, the traditional arrangements of passing a plate/tray of elements or by intinction are not permitted and neither is the use of common vessels.
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. Another may be for those serving to wash their hands immediately before communion, wear disposable gloves and face covering and take a tray of elements and hand the element to the individual.
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. The minister should be careful not to ‘speak over’ the elements on the communion table when they are not wearing a face covering. It is vital that those handing out and receiving the elements should wash their hands before and after taking part in communion
The Sacrament of Baptism can take place within an act of worship; however, as with all acts of worship it is important to maintain a physical distance, good hygiene practices and, in some smaller churches or when hosting larger families, management of the number of those who will be able to attend.
Ministers may hold the infant, but where there is concern about distancing or touch, can also 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.
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. It may still be that in smaller church buildings, or in larger families, not all of those the family wish to invite can be invited whilst bearing in mind the number who worship in the church each week and congregations should discuss this when planning the Baptism.
Sunday Schools and Bible classes
Children can play a part in worship as they might have done ‘pre-pandemic’. Young people aged 12 and over are required to wear a face covering. It is important to consider how young people over the age of 12 and adults might continue to keep a safe distance from those in other households whenever possible.
Intergenerational worship such as Messy Church or Café Church are part of the worship life of the congregation and can take place in church buildings. It is important to remember that all the mitigations in place for worship remain in place for intergenerational worship, such as keeping a distance, face coverings and check in. Where food is to be served as part of the worship the guidance on hospitality should be followed and no food prepared off premises (except for food prepared in a commercial, environmental health-approved facility) should be served.
Ordination and confirmation
The laying on of hands can take place during an act of ordination; however, it is still recommended that only a small, representative group take part in this act. Those participating should demonstrate good hand hygiene practices by washing their hands before and after the laying on of hands and contact should be brief and for as short a time as possible. It is not advised at this time to allow the right hand of fellowship, instead welcoming the newly ordained person with a round of applause or making use of sign language.
Taking the Offering
It is still not permissible to pass an offering plate or bag around the congregation during worship. Instead, offerings should be collected as people enter the church building. Consideration should be given to the use of contactless terminals and individuals are encouraged to donate online on either a congregational website or the Church of Scotland website. Cash offerings can be made, and offering envelopes can be left; however, care should be taken when counting these offerings. Gloves should be worn when handling money and the areas where any money has been handled should be thoroughly cleaned and disinfected afterwards.
Funerals and Weddings
The legal restriction on numbers attending funerals has been removed; however, all households are encouraged to keep a physical distance from people in other households. It is important to remember that mixing in the community without maintaining physical distancing measures helps the virus to spread widely. It is therefore important that people remain vigilant and follow the guidance from the Scottish Government to keep a physical distance from those in other households. It is recommended that congregations consider whether keeping distancing throughout a church building will be a useful mitigation to continue in the months that lie ahead. The decision on capacity within a church building rests with the congregation after a Risk Assessment and should not be altered at the request of a family for a larger funeral. It is important to remember that if a distance is maintained for an act of worship on a Sunday, it should be maintained for a funeral.
Face coverings should be worn by everyone attending a funeral unless a medical exemption is in place and all other guidance for worship should be followed.
The legal restriction on numbers attending weddings has been removed; however, all households are encouraged to keep a physical distance from people in other households. It is important to remember that mixing in the community without maintaining physical distancing measures helps the virus to spread widely. It is therefore important that people remain vigilant and follow the guidance from the Scottish Government to keep a physical distance from those in other households. It is recommended that congregations consider whether keeping distancing throughout a church building will be a useful mitigation to continue in the months that lie ahead. The decision on capacity within a church building rests with the congregation after a Risk Assessment and should not be altered at the request of a family for a larger wedding. It is important to remember that if a distance is maintained for an act of worship on a Sunday, it should be maintained for a wedding.
Face coverings should be worn by everyone attending a wedding unless a medical exemption is in place. The only exception to this is for the Bride and Groom during the ceremony, the celebrant conducting the service and the person accompanying the bride down the aisle (but the face covering must be worn when the person has completed their task). All other guidance for worship should be followed.
Church meetings and small groups (such as Bible Study)
Bodies such as Kirk Session and Presbytery can meet in person where there is sufficient space to keep people distanced and safe. It may be that, in those areas with a high Covid transmission rate, consideration is given to remaining or returning to an online meeting. Legally participants in a meeting which is part of an “organisation’s operation” can remove face coverings if a 1m distance between participants can be achieved. However, it is still safer to deploy as many mitigations as possible and face coverings being worn may be a sensible precaution to continue dependant on local circumstances. Those organising meetings should also ensure that those who do not wish to remove face coverings are supported and, if it is thought appropriate, encourage all individuals to wear face coverings.
Small Groups such as Bible studies and prayer meetings can take place in people’s homes but there should be no pressure placed on people to either host or attend a such a meeting. Space in the church building or a hall would offer the chance for social distancing and give access to facilities such as sanitising stations which might make the setting a more attractive for those who would not be comfortable attending a meeting in a house. Where such small groups meet in a church building face coverings must be worn except where there are medical exemptions and when groups meet in the homes of individuals it is strongly recommended that the group consider wearing face coverings for ongoing protection.
Groups and activities
All groups and activities that took place ‘pre-pandemic’ can now take place in church buildings, church grounds and other locations. If there is sector-specific guidance for their activity the groups should follow that guidance (for example, youth work, sporting groups).
It is recommended that all congregations ensure that they are using the most up-to-date hall let agreement available from the law department, which includes specific COVID-related clauses to cover both congregation and hall user. It is a condition of hire that each group undertakes a Risk Assessment of their activity to ensure that it is following all relevant guidance not only for COVID but general Health and Safety legislation as well. Kirk Sessions should not ‘approve’ such Risk Assessments (except for internal church groups run under their jurisdiction) but should simply receive them. Groups should be given a copy of the congregation Risk Assessment for the safe use of the building to allow the group to create their Risk Assessment to ensure it matches any conditions placed upon them.
Hospitality in church buildings is permitted. It is a legal requirement that all hospitality settings keep a record of those who have attended as part of the NHS Test and Protect programme. Whether a meal is served or a cup of coffee after worship it is vital that congregations follow this process. More information can be found in the Test and Protect section .
The Scottish Government recommend that table service be considered; however, it is permissible to have people standing to drink a cup of tea after a service, for example.
It is important that congregations do not allow ‘shared’ items of food or condiments to be used. This may mean considering how milk and sugar is provided (for example, individual portions whilst considering environmental impacts or the person serving pouring the milk into the cup). Individuals should not ‘pick’ a biscuit from a plate and instead they should be served a biscuit. Those preparing and serving should be kept to a minimum and should wear face coverings and observe good hand hygiene throughout the service.
In respect of both COVID and general Food Hygiene regulations no food prepared off premises (except for food prepared in a commercial, environmental health-approved facility) should be served. This would also extend to home baking.
Congregations may find it helpful to familiarise themselves with the Scottish Government’s guidance for the hospitality sector to ensure they are meeting the relevant requirements.Congregations should also refer to the Food Standards Scotland guidance on COVID and food businesses.
Travel and Transport
Congregations may now consider re-establishing ‘travel to church’ schemes for those who struggle to attend otherwise. It is important that if people are sharing a car with anyone from another household numbers should be limited to as few as possible, ideally no more than two, and face coverings should be worn. The car must be cleaned regularly and ideally after each person has been dropped off, with particular attention paid to high-risk touch points such as door handles, electronic buttons, and seat belts. A general-purpose detergent is sufficient unless a symptomatic or confirmed case of COVID-19 has been in the vehicle, in which case a disinfectant (e.g. chlorine-based product) should be used. It is likely that given the cleaning regime outlined only one person can be collected by a driver before worship and then returned home by the same driver and thereafter the cleaning can take place. All who collect individuals for worship and participate in such a scheme should ensure they have appropriate insurance and follow any safeguarding protocols.
Where a congregation operates a minibus then a Risk Assessment should be undertaken. There are useful resources to assist, including sample Risk Assessments on the Community Transport Association website.
Church Offices and Workplaces
The Scottish Government has asked that wherever possible individuals continue to work from home. The Church of Scotland continues to support this request to help suppress the virus and keep people safe. Where a church office has one person employed on a very part-time basis the congregation may consider allowing them to return to the office. Where multiple people work in an office (for example, a Presbytery) or where the individual is employed for a significant portion of the working week, consideration should be given to allowing employees to work from home, and when accessing the office for tasks they cannot reasonably perform from home that care is taken to limit the number of people with whom the person will require to interact.
Tasks of Ministry
Along with leading worship many individuals providing a ministry within a community have many regular congregational and community focussed demands. Those involved in ministry will need to consider the appropriate way to undertake these tasks to ensure that they are not acting as a bridge for transmitting the virus.
Pastoral Care visits can be undertaken in people’s homes; however, care should be taken and consideration given to wearing a face covering and keeping a physical distance, as well as trying to limit the number of people in attendance. It should be remembered that outside is better than inside and that windows should be open when inside to improve ventilation.
No person, either visitor or person being visited should feel under pressure to meet in a house and, where necessary, space should be made available within the church building or another location for such visits.
Schools and School Chaplaincy
Many involved in ministry offer regular support to schools. At present schools are still under different restrictions and individuals must follow the school policies when undertaking chaplaincy or other duties. Many schools are now allowing chaplains to support individual pupils or small groups. The school and local authority will have the final say over whether schools-based work can take place.
It is a legal requirement that anyone 12 years of age or older 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 1 metre 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 1m 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
Registering Attendance in Church Buildings
Although the legal regulation to keep a register of those attending worship has been removed by the Government, when a congregation offers hospitality (tea and coffee after the service, for example) the legal duty to maintain a register is applicable. It is recommended therefore that congregations continue to ask people to check-in to a church building for any reason. This can be done via a QR code or a paper register.
Should a congregation wish to use an electronic system (or electronic alongside paper) they should arrange a QR code and materials, free of charge, from the Check in Scotland website. When setting up the QR Code the Government asks for a named person to contact in case of an outbreak and it should be considered making this person the same individual that has been registered with the Law Department for Test and Protect. It is important to remember that it will be necessary to retain some paper registers for those unable to scan QR codes, or where internet/ mobile signal is not strong. If an individual scans the QR code and registers it is not necessary to take their information again in a paper register retained by the congregation.
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.
Positive COVID cases in church buildings
The congregation should encourage everyone who visits a church building for whatever reason to alert a key contact or group leader should they test positive on either a Lateral Flow Test or a confirmatory PCR test.
Should you have a positive case notified to the congregation it is important that you email firstname.lastname@example.org for further advice. You should not under any circumstances identify the individual in any communication with others in the congregation. It is important that, since the NHS Test and Protect system is overwhelmed at present, the congregation fulfil their moral duty to pass on information that a positive case has been linked to the church building. When the congregation email email@example.com to alert them to a positive case we will supply you with suggested wording to use when informing the congregation or affected group(s).
Should there be more than one case linked to your church building in the space of a week you will be required to contact your local Health protection team to inform them of a potential cluster. More information will be given to you when you email the COVID team as detailed above.
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
- Weekly Insurance Check Record
- Weekly Insurance Check Record
First Published: 8 Jan 2021
See All Updates
10 September 2021
Updates to streamline sections as the government removes restrictions on activities and numbers in buildings. Added information about reporting a positive COVID case in a church building.
21 July 2021
Updated information in the Unregulated Children's Activities section about hosting children's birthday parties in church halls.
13 July 2021
Updates throughout the guidance to reflect the reduction in physical distancing from 2m to 1m. Updates include new downloadable posters churches can use to display maximum allowable numbers indoors.
28 June 2021
16 June 2021
Wedding Section updated to reflect latest guidance on numbers
11 June 2021
General youth Work Provisions updated to reflect the removal of upper cap on numbers for groups in certain protection levels
10 June 2021
- Marriage section to reflect possibility of being accompanied down the aisle
- Pastoral Care section to clarify numbers able to meet during a visit in another person’s home
4 June 2021
Updated PDF documents detailing what is and what is not permitted in each of the COVID protection levels
Updates to information about items used in worship, including pew cushions, printed materials and hymn books
Updated information regarding Congregational Responses and Congregational Singing
Updated information about singing and chanting during weddings and funerals
New information regarding Meetings and Organised Groups for Adults, including the need to appoint a COVID-19 Officer
Further information about hosting school events and prizegivings in churches
Additional information about visitor attractions
More information about registering attendance in church buildings
27 May 2021
Updates to reflect changes regarding:
- Music and singing during church services, weddings and funerals, including guidelines for children's singing
- Youth work
- Unregulated children's activities
21 May 2021
Updated information about hospitality in church buildings
18 May 2021
Update to information about children and worship, including Sunday Schools and Bible classes
14 May 2021
Updates to reflect changes in restrictions:
- Requirement to publicly display the Physically Distanced Based Capacity (PDBC) limit of each space in the building
- Rules on music and singing
23 April 2021
General updates to reflect changes in restrictions after 26 April including:
- Introduction: new level pdf downloads
- Worship: General info, Communion, Children and worship
- New section with information about meetings and groups
- Updated information about offering hospitality in churches
- Updated information about Youth Work
15 April 2021
General updates to most sections to reflect the latest government guidance on the strategic framework including:
- Introduction (including new level pdf downloads)
- Worship (General Text, Baptism, Children & Worship, Intergenerational Worship and Ordination and Confirmation) including important information on capacity and setting maximum numbers which will be enforceable.
- Funerals and Weddings
- Live events (including outdoor worship outwith church grounds)
- Music and Singing
- Pastoral Care
- Support Services
- Church Offices and Workplaces
- Travel and Transport
- Youth Work
- Early Learning and Childcare (ELC) (Formal childcare)
- Unregulated Children’s Activities
- Sport and Exercise Classes
- Visitor Attractions
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