Bishop Alan Williams sm has written to all parishes in the diocese about the safe re-opening of churches for private prayer. He said: “We all share a deep desire to re-open our churches as soon as the Government allows us to do so. It is important that we observe both national and Church guidelines as we move forward together from the present situation. We hope that with priests and their parishioners working effectively together, we will be able to open churches safely for private, individual prayer from 15 June, as a significant step towards the resumption of the celebration of Mass and the sacraments.”
He shared guidance from the Bishops’ Conference which has been working with its Public Health advisors, Public Health England and the Government in order to provide clear directives for the safe opening of churches. The basic principles include:
- protecting those at higher risk (e.g. the elderly, those extremely vulnerable and shielding or clinically vulnerable and accessing annual flu immunisation);
- enhanced cleaning of premises – more regularly and no sharing of items;
- social distancing – including when using outdoor spaces;
- face coverings for reassurance;
- hygiene (hand-washing) or hand sanitising facilities for all;
- managing children appropriately
Reopening must, of course, happen in a safe manner, and it is likely to take place in stages. Each stage will be accompanied by guidance to ensure this can happen safely and effectively.
Parishes are currently being advised to make preparations, including recruiting a team of stewards, ordering supplies of alcohol-based hand gel and cleaning materials and tape to mark out two metre distances between those praying. All printed materials such as hymn books are to be removed and there must be no holy water in stoups. Appropriate signage marking entrances and exits and asking people to use hand sanitiser etc will also be needed.
When open for prayer
Once the churches are actually open, strict management must be in place to minimise the risk of virus transmission.
- Social distancing must apply at all times with people being two metres apart from one another in all directions. If possible entry and exit should be via separate doors and benches should be blocked off or seats rearranged to facilitate this.
- At least two stewards must be present in the church throughout the time it is open for prayer – stewards should not be drawn from those instructed to be shielding or from vulnerable groups.
- Alcohol hand gel should be provided at doors with people being asked to sanitise their hands as they enter and leave the church.
- All printed material which is not intended to be taken away must be removed from the church.
- Toilet facilities should remain closed.
- There should be no holy water in church stoups.
- The church must be cleaned fully at least once a day using appropriate
cleaning products and wearing gloves and aprons, with special attention being paid to
areas that are frequently touched.
Social distanced individuals or household groups will be allowed to pray on their own but not as part of a group, led prayer or communal act. Collective or communal prayer and regular scheduled services are not permitted at this time. Face coverings can be worn for reassurance but are not essential.
Physical veneration of relics or statues will not be permitted and parents will be asked to manage their children appropriately, particularly ensuring they touch as few surfaces as possible for their own safety.
Churches may wish to consider setting aside a clearly signposted section only for people who are more vulnerable to serious disease if infected, or otherwise having a designated time when people in this group alone can attend.
Bishop Alan said: “At diocesan level a Covid-19 Working Group has been set up and is working to ensure that the health and safety of clergy, parishioners, employees and volunteers is paramount in everything that we do.
“I encourage all parishes to involve the laity as much as possible. Clearly, local situations will differ considerably – before the closure some churches were able to open all day whilst others were open only during Masses and other services.”