Updated guidance for the United Reformed Church regarding singing in worship

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Read the latest guidance from the United Reformed Church (URC) Moderators on singing in worship for England, Scotland and Wales.

Legal Background

The Synod Moderators have been careful to check the guidance and legislative framework for England, Scotland and Wales.

However, we cannot promise to have covered every eventuality and for the avoidance of doubt, this guidance does not take precedence over governmental advice or legislation.

(Churches in the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man are welcome to ask for details relating to their jurisdictions, but to avoid making it any more complicated this specifically relates to the three main jurisdictions in which the United Reformed Church operates.)

Ahead of Advent and Christmas, all three governments are updating their advice, and new data are becoming available about the coronavirus-related risks of singing so that guidance is likely to change before the pandemic is over.

Safer singing – general principles

Covid-19 spreads from person to person through small droplets falling onto objects and surfaces (fomites), microscopic particles suspended in the air that can be breathed in by others (aerosols) and by direct contact.

Singing, shouting and physical activity all increase the risk of transmission. Of particular concern with singing is the increased aerosol transmission – the more people singing, the louder they sing and the longer people are together, the greater the risk through the cumulative effect.

This general advice from the UK Government (so applicable in England specifically) must be read in conjunction with the details further below. We commend these principles across the whole of the United Reformed Church, although as the sections below make clear, not every area within the URC’s coverage may yet permit any singing in worship.

  • Where singing is permitted in any context, anyone with symptoms suggestive of Covid-19 or who are known to have been in recent contact with someone who has Covid-19 MUST NOT participate in singing or attend worship/events where there will be singing.

  • Where legislation permits singing it is only permitted in larger, well-ventilated spaces, or outdoors

  • Every effort must be made to reduce the duration of services/events where singing takes place, the number of people singing must be limited, and they must not sing loudly. Microphones for amplification must be used wherever possible, and they must not be handled by more than one person.

  • Singers must remain at least two metres apart in all directions and at least two metres from musicians and the congregation/audience.

  • Singers should also consider using face coverings whilst singing. Evidence that singing with a face covering reduces virus transmission is limited, but it has been established clearly that face coverings reduce the mass or aerosol expelled during singing.

  • Where singing is permitted, you must consider whether it is safe to sing, taking into consideration the wider health context in your area (including the restrictions imposed by any tiered system) and the context of the participants with their own inherent risk of the disease being more serious for some people (see the Personal Risk Assessment document produced in July 2020.)

In the following analysis of government guidance and regulations, the Synod Moderators stress that this gives the maximum position allowed in each jurisdiction – the greatest degree of freedom.

However, it must be understood that what is permissible is not always the wisest or the right course of action. Because something is allowed in law does not mean that we all must or should do it. We continue to urge appropriate caution.

The news about vaccines is most encouraging and signals a foreseeable end to the pandemic. The additional risk of harm to wellbeing in refraining from an activity is, in most cases, not as great as the serious risk to health posed for many by Covid-19 infection. Continuing to exercise restraint for a few more months, in many cases, will be the better choice to make. 

England

Carol singing or carol services may take place provided that all attendees follow the general principles for safer singing. This applies to both professional and non-professional singers.

Where the Elders (or equivalent council in LEPs, but hereafter simply referred to as Elders) determine that singing may take place, those in Tier 1 must follow the Rule of 6 (small groups of no more than six people, and each small group of singers must not interact (mingle or otherwise socialise) together. In Tiers 2 and 3 people must not interact with people other than their own household indoors and follow the Rule of 6 outdoors. 

From 2 December, choirs and singing groups may perform indoors or outdoors.

When indoors, the congregation or audience MUST NOT participate in the singing or join in with any shouting or chanting.

The capacity of the building while maintaining two metres social distancing is what determines the number allowed to be present, and everyone must wear a face covering inside the building, although the person leading worship or giving a reading may uncover their face whilst at the microphone and two metres away from everyone else.

See also the safer singing principle above about whether singers should wear face coverings. Elders should consider the use of floor tape to mark out two metres (minimum) distancing from all other singers. Keep the choir/group of singers as small as possible/practical and avoid any singers being face-to-face with each other.

Be cautious not to allow music/books/service sheets to be shared or passed from person to person. Consider the use of projection or screens or thoroughly learn songs and lines to avoid multiple handing of items and do not share microphones outside household groups.

When outside (and the government guidance specifically covers “drive-in” worship where people will remain in cars) two metres social distancing must be maintained and event organisers (for most occasions this will be the Elders) are responsible for ensuring that this is maintained. Attendees should remain seated where possible. With these measures in place, congregational singing IS allowed.

Door-to-door carol singing is permitted in groups of no more than six people, with no interaction between different groups. Each group must maintain at least two metres from the threshold of the building where they are singing.

Scotland

All churches on mainland Scotland, and the isle of Skye, are closed except for funerals of no more than 20 people and marriages and civil partnerships with more than five people present. Singing, shouting and chanting should be avoided.

Wales

Singing by “organised groups” of 6 or fewer people is permitted when leading congregational worship, but a specific risk assessment and mitigating actions should be in place in order to maintain a Covid-secure building.

The specific mitigations should consider physical distancing between singers and the congregation, the size and space of the layout and the ventilation that is possible to reduce aerosol build-ups, the possible use of barriers/screens between individuals and groups, avoiding face-to-face singing, performing outdoors and those undertaking the risk assessment should also refer to the guidance on performing arts given separately at Rehearsing, performing and taking part in the performing arts: guidance for a phased return | GOV.WALES

Congregational singing (any singing beyond that organised group) is still NOT permitted indoors, although there is an exception that would allow the whole congregation of no more than six people to be deemed to be the organised group. It is permissible to read hymns together rather than singing, but this must be done in a lowered voice.

Organised groups of 6 may be combined with social distancing between the groups, if the capacity of the space allows this, up to a maximum of 15 people indoors and 30 outdoors.

However, this does not provide a “back-door” to allow congregational singing for larger congregations, as this would still be a breach of the regulations. The general principle of keeping the group as small as possible and practical to reduce aerosol spread still applies and all singers must keep the volume low. The organised group can be divided into sub-groups of no more than six people each, but if one person in a sub-group is required to isolate then every member of the sub-group must also self-isolate.

Subject to the maximum of 30 people gathering, congregational singing is permitted outdoors when socially distanced. “Drive-in” services are treated just the same as for “walk-in” services with regard to capacity and household separation and the physical distancing between cars must be at least two metres).

Test, Trace and Protect attendance records must be kept, and the organisers (usually Elders) will be responsible for seeing that people are turned away once the maximum of 30 people is reached – appropriate signage, fencing and stewarding should be used to control access and the government warn against holding outdoors worship next to public rights of way so as not to attract a larger crowd and to maintain control on attendance.

A gazebo or a marquee open to the air on three sides may be used to provide some protection from the weather.

Conclusion

While we recognise how singing is so central to our usual patterns of worship, the Synod Moderators repeat their desire for churches to be cautious about resuming singing in public worship even when legislation permits it.

We pray for those developing vaccines and those who will administer it, and we pray for churches and people facing more difficult decisions. In particular, our worship this Christmas will not be what we are used to and we will share the pain of that, in the hope and trust that better days are soon coming.

The URC Synod Moderators, 5 January 2021.

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