Sunday 31 May 2020

No songs... just praise! UK Churches can reopen for individual prayer in June but worshippers will be banned from mass congregations and singing over fears of spreading virus

A man wipes down pews at St Mary's Church in Belfast after it reopened for prayer on Monday
Churches will be allowed to reopen for individual prayers from mid-June, though singing and mass gatherings will remain banned to stop the spread of coronavirus.

Places of worships were expected closed until July 4, alongside hairdressers, cinemas and pubs. 

However, Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick told today's Downing Street briefing that the plan was to allow churches, mosques, synagogues and temples to re-open for private prayer as early as June 15. 

It would come alongside a slew of other restrictions being eased from that day, including the reopening of non-essential shops like department stores. 

Asked about the reopening of places of worship, Mr Jenrick said he wants them opened 'as quickly as we can'.

But he added that singing and a mass gathering of worshippers would still be banned until after June.

He said: 'I understand how important it is for millions of people in this country, and I can understand how people of faith would consider it strange that shops, cafes, pubs, restaurants, many other settings, might be open in the weeks and months ahead, but not somewhere as important as a place of worship.'

He said he is working closely with faith leaders and has convened a taskforce, adding: 'Some faiths have already actually produced detailed guidance, working with Jenny's colleagues at Public Health England, how one might cordon off part of a church or place of worship, how you would ensure it's sufficiently clean, you train the volunteers who run a church, how you might just enable a small number of people to go in at any one time.

'I think the first logical step is probably to open places of worship for individual or private prayer, and that's what we're working towards with the faith leaders, and then that will be a springboard hopefully, conditional on the rate of infection obviously, to small weddings, for example, again very important to many people, and then in time to services.'

He added: 'I'm hopeful that the work that we're doing with faith leaders will bear fruit, and that we'll be able to see places of worship open in the coming weeks.'

Mr Jenrick said what is to be avoided is large gatherings in places of worship, 'particularly because of the demographic in some faiths', and referred to the particular problem of exhalation during the singing of hymns. 

It comes after prominent UK church leaders yesterday branded the mass closure of churches 'unlawful and unnecessary' as they threatened a judicial review into keeping them shut.

A coalition of Christian bishops and reverends has urged the Government to prioritise churches in its exit strategy from the coronavirus lockdown.

They said it was unfair for churches to be in the 'bottom category of the most dangerous and least important services' with beauty salons, pubs and cinemas. 

The letter signed by 25 prominent church leaders - but not endorsed by the Church of England - is a pre-action legal warning against Health Secretary Matt Hancock. 

However social media users have warned churches would be 'risking the lives of congregations' and some Christians said they are not ready to go back just yet.

And the National Secular Society told MailOnline today that religious activities should not be 'privileged or prioritised over and above those of a secular nature'.

It comes after France's Supreme Court last week ruled that the country's ban on religious gatherings was illegal and ordered its government to relax restrictions.

All places of worship in Britain have been closed since mass gatherings were banned by the Government on March 16. But people in Northern Ireland can now return to churches for private prayer - albeit with strict social distancing rules and hand sanitiser dispensers in place.

UK church leaders warn the closure of churches is an 'extreme interference' with human rights by contravening freedom of thought, belief and religion.

The letter adds that the regulations are 'disproportionate in the circumstances where the overwhelming majority of churches had closed down voluntarily'.

The leaders say they want a constructive dialogue with the Government but will seek a judicial review of the ban if Ministers fail to address their concerns.

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