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Churches: Reopening of Buildings

Volume 804: debated on Wednesday 22 July 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government, further to the Written Answer by Lord Greenhalgh on 26 May (HL4184), what discussions they have had with (1) the Church of England, (2) the Catholic Church in England and Wales, and (3) other Churches, about the reopening of church buildings for private devotional prayer and public worship.

The Government have worked closely with all major faiths in England through the places of worship task force and regular faith round tables with leaders and representatives. These include Christian representatives from the main denominations. Our engagement has covered a wide variety of issues relating to the Covid-19 pandemic and plans to reopen places of worship. Individual prayer and communal worship are now both permitted.

My Lords, since social distancing could have been arranged so easily from the outset, was it really necessary to lock up all our churches for the first time since Pope Innocent III ordered their closure 800 years ago, with the Church of England going beyond official government guidance initially by banning private prayer in churches and forbidding its clergy to enter them even on their own? Is my noble friend able to tell the House how much financial support the Government have so far provided to assist the survival of our historic places of worship? Salisbury Cathedral, which is celebrating its 800th anniversary this year, was expecting some £2.2 million from visitors; it will be lucky to get £200,000. Finally, may I press my noble friend again on the urgent need for explicit guidance on the safe resumption of choral singing? The great composer John Rutter said recently:

“Some two million people in the UK engage in choral singing, and they are desperately missing this pillar of our national life.”

My Lords, the decision to close places of worship was not taken lightly, but it was in response to the fact that the virus is highly contagious, particularly in areas where people gather indoors. In recent months, historic places of worship have been able to apply for grants from Historic England and the National Lottery Heritage Fund of some £55 million, and listed places of worship can get around £200 million for heritage construction projects. I refer to the DCMS guidance on my noble friend’s third point.

My Lords, many of our churches and cathedrals are desperate to enable small groups of singers, perhaps four singers standing five metres apart from each other. Is there any possibility that that will be allowed soon? Secondly, will the Minister tell the House whether there are any plans for the compulsory wearing of face masks in places of worship?

My Lords, I will have to write on the policy regarding face masks in places of worship. We have announced that indoor musical performances to a live audience are expected to resume after 1 August, subject to a successful completion of pilots and provided that prevalence remains at around or below current levels.

Will my noble friend join me in congratulating the leaders of our religious faith communities on the way they have, despite restrictions, through innovation and enterprise, managed to find ways to allow worship to continue through the Covid crisis, especially by employing virtual networks and indeed by co-operating to maintain the spiritual health of the nation?

I certainly will. The move by all faith communities towards online worship has been simply incredible. In fact, it has enabled them to reach further into communities and it is to be commended.

My Lords, discussions with the Minister confirm that the Government are concerned with the safety of all faiths. The attached risks to BAME communities are greater and there are important differences in the manner of worship, proximity of worshippers and layout of buildings. Will the Minister confirm that all these factors should be considered in government advice?

My Lords, the government advice as published provides a framework for places of worship, including gurdwaras, to open safely, and of course it is down to local decision-making to work within that framework.

My Lords, churches serve many vital and often underrecognised purposes across our communities, which includes providing support to members of both their congregations and the wider community through food banks, childcare services and bereavement support, to name but a few, as well as providing both spiritual and practical support. Has the Minister engaged with churches of all faiths to understand what practical support they require to continue that important work?

My Lords, we have engaged with a series of virtual round tables, and the noble Lord is absolutely right that the response during the pandemic and the support for the vulnerable by all faith communities has been simply remarkable. I have also provided some input into a review that has been started by Danny Kruger MP to look into how that can continue during the recovery phase of the pandemic.

I join the tribute to those who helped organise the online worship and thank all those who held Zoom services and fellowships for all they have done. There must be hundreds of them throughout the United Kingdom. However, I also thank the broadcasting authorities, S4C in Wales and the British Broadcasting Corporation, which have been able to help people, especially older people, who are confined to their homes. This has made it so important that the licence fee for those over 70 be also now deferred. Without that companion of the television set, they would have been lost.

My Lords, I note the point raised around the licence fee and the importance of the television set in people’s lives but also recognise, as I said before, the great moves and strides for online engagement within faith communities.

My Lords, given the importance of the voluntary and third sector in dealing with the Covid crisis, I am delighted to hear my noble friend tell us of his involvement in the faith groups round table. However, in future, will more of a government co-ordination effort be made in terms of fully utilising the resources, both human and financial, as well as geographical and infrastructural, of all faiths throughout the UK to ensure that there is less of an ad hoc approach in local communities but a unified support of the most vulnerable?

My Lords, we need to make better sense of how government can work beyond departments, and I have engaged with my colleague my noble friend Lady Barran in DCMS in that endeavour, and in the review conducted by Danny Kruger I have made representations precisely along those lines.

My Lords, I remind the House that I am a Church of England priest, and I was therefore delighted when churches could reopen for private prayer. However, I found out because a Minister tweeted the announcement at 10 o’clock on a Saturday night. We got a week’s notice, but there was not enough time for the guidance to come out. That was not very helpful. Preparing to reopen safely was tough enough for my church, which is blessed with a team of staff, but lots of churches rely just on volunteers. I gently ask the Minister whether it would be possible for him to reassure us that the Government will try to give more notice of future changes.

We recognise that the communication could have been better around individual prayer. I think that the guidance was shared with faith leaders in the places of worship round table some days in advance, so when we moved to communal worship, communication improved. However, I note the noble Baroness’s points.

My Lords, the importance of the message could well do with underlining. Does the Minister agree, without reservation, that the United Kingdom is a multi-religious country and that great care needs to be taken to respect all religions on all occasions, particularly when being referred to in your Lordships’ Chamber? That is equally applicable to churches, mosques and synagogues, to name but a few, for we are all servants of God.

My Lords, I wholeheartedly agree, which is why the faith round tables engaged with leaders of all our major faiths and those of the belief groups, recognising the importance of engaging with everyone.

My Lords, noble Lords have been quite right to point to the way in which various religious groups have managed to keep their congregations together and to outreach in the wider community, particularly to the vulnerable. As one local religious organiser said to me, in many ways they have been able to go out further than was possible before the outbreak. What will the Government do to help co-ordinate and ensure that this level of contact with the vulnerable is kept up?

My Lords, that is precisely the point of the review being conducted by Danny Kruger MP to look at how we can sustain the tremendous effort during the pandemic into the recovery phase; I will not pre-empt his report.