Churches of all denominations are making plans for a cautious return to communal worship, after First Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s announcement last week that places of worship may re-open from Wednesday 15 July with restrictions and social distancing in place.
Speaking at Holyrood on Thursday, the First Minister announced the strict provisos. She said: “Numbers will be strictly limited, two metres physical distance will be required and there will also be a requirement to collect the contact details and time of attendance of those present. Singing and chanting will also be restricted.
“I hope that today’s announcement will be welcomed by all those for whom faith and worship is important and a source of comfort.”
Since the last week of March, churches have been reliant on social media and technological solutions to sharing worship, with live-streamed prayer and sermons, recorded messages from ministers and communal prayer on platforms such as Zoom.
Now the senior members of all congregations are working on the practical and spiritual issues around re-convening for worship and prayer, tackling issues as diverse as hand sanitiser, seat spacing and the taking of holy communion.
The Free Church of Scotland's Covid-19 group is meeting today (Monday 13 July) to review guidance before making recommendations to churches. Rev Ewen Matheson of Cross Free Church of Scotland told listeners to his sermon yesterday (Sunday 12 July) that the Kirk Session and Deacons’ Courts of Back and Cross Free Churches would meet tomorrow (Tuesday) to discuss practical details.
The Church of Scotland will be updating its existing guidelines during the next week. Rev Dr George Whyte, the Principal Clerk to the Church of Scotland, said on Thursday (9 July):
“As we continue to live with the threat of coronavirus, ministers and congregations must consider carefully whether or not they should return to the church building in these early phases, depending on their own circumstances and the nature of their church.
“Our guidance is designed to support those who will need to implement the changes and restrictions which will need to be put in place so that congregational worship, funerals and weddings can safely take place.
"Parishioners and ministers in high risk groups may be at particular risk from infection and many will prefer to continue with online worship options at this stage. Others will know that with physical distancing and a cap on numbers that there simply will not be room for all those who might wish to attend Sunday worship.
“However, we recognise that for many the buildings themselves are an important sacred space and the opportunity to return to their place of worship, even on a limited basis, will bring spiritual and mental-health benefits.”
For the Catholic community in Stornoway, Canon William Maclean announced on Sunday “Great news! We are going to be allowed to celebrate public masses as from this Wednesday, 15 July.”
Canon Maclean said there would be four masses on Saturday and Sunday at the Church of Our Holy Redeemer, but parishioners would notice numerous differences in worship.
Only 34 people can attend each mass, and there is an Eventbrite booking system in place especially for Sunday morning mass. Seats will be labelled red and green, with red seats to be left empty. Attenders will also be asked to leave their name and address for contact-tracing purposes when they attend.
In Barra, masses will resume next weekend on Saturday 18 and Sunday 19, but numbers inside the churches will be strictly limited. Parishioners must let priest-in-charge Canon John Paul MacKinnon know if they plan to attend so a seat can be allocated.
Canon John Paul said: “Unfortunately you cannot just turn up as normal and take any seat. If you don't feel comfortable attending Mass at the moment, then there is no obligation for you to do so. An alternative will be to attend one of the weekday Masses which will restart after next weekend and are likely to be quieter.
“Face coverings must be worn while attending Mass (just as they must be in shops and on public transport). The exemptions that apply elsewhere, also apply in church. All other hygiene and safety rules must also be followed - volunteers will be on hand to help keep you right.
“We appreciate there's a lot to take in but all of these changes are in place to help keep everyone safe and to beat this awful virus.”