PREPARING FOR THE "NEW NORMAL"
This resource is an essential tool for churches considering how to respond to the pandemic both during the "lockdown" phase and in the recovery period afterwards. It has been prepared by the Synod Moderators, and is commended to all churches within the West Midlands Synod, including our Local Ecumenical Partnerships, for careful study AND ACTION.
From the Synod Moderator (Page updated March 17, 2020, 10:00)
Clearly, we are in a rapidly changing and unprecedented scenario. All churches and their members are asked to heed the emerging government advice. The URC-specific guidance is being regularly updated – at the moment daily. It can be found at https://urc.org.uk/latest-news/3365-urc-issues-coronavirus-advice-to-its-churches.html, or follow the link from the URC home page. This page will also be updated as frequently as is necessary, and include information, advice and guidance to help you navigate through this.
Unless made explicitly clear, this is guidance rather than instruction. I shall use language such as "must not" when there is a obligation to act and "should not" when it is strong advice. Please contact me for any further clarification, but whether advice or instruction, anything on this page does not supercede official advice from the government - their guidance and instruction takes precedence.
The first big issue we must face up to is whether churches should close.
1. Answering questions in the House of Commons last night, the Health Secretary said that religious gatherings are included in the advice not to meet, but his context was in terms of "large gatherings" which should be "avoided." We are seeking further clarification, but my judgement is that until further notice local churches should not be meeting for worship. Neither should they gather for business meetings, Bible study and social activities. This also extends to groups letting our buildings, but see also the next paragraph.
2. The Elders of the church (and the equivalent body in LEPs) are responsible for this decision ultimately. That is the duty placed upon them by the Structure of the United Reformed Church. In choosing to vary from the advice above, the Elders must weigh factors such as the age profile and health conditions of the congregants, whether withdrawing services such as food banks, night shelters, groups for recovering addicts, etc. are better served by continuing to make your buildings available to them. If such groups continue, the importance of excellent hand hygiene and cleaning becomes even more important.
3. As hard as it is to say, groups serving isolated members of the community such as lunch clubs for the elderly should also be suspended. But that makes our continuing pastoral contact for those who were already lonely even more vital, and this should be maintained, but at a distance - use the telephone and write notes to remind them that you are thinking of them rather than making face-to-face visits.
4. Likewise, those in our churches must be supported in any practical, emotional and spiritual way that we can, again avoiding face-to-face meetings wherever possible. Practice pastoral care by telephone. Set up a network of people who will keep in touch with one another - many churches already have "Elders' lists" which can be used as the basis.
5. Further information will be published here by the Synod later today, including contacting directly all churches and all Assembly Accredited and Synod Recognised Lay Preachers. A letter will also be coming today to all serving Ministers from the General Secretariat at Church House.
In the meantime, let us pray:
‘God is our refuge and strength,
a very present help in trouble.’
Psalm 46:1, NRSV
As so much is re-shaped by Coronavirus Covid-19,
let us pray with people left unwell, beckoned by death or bereaved;
people providing professional health care and advice, looking after loved ones at home or working to create treatments and cures;
people shaping the response of nations and neighbourhoods, of commerce and industry, of service and voluntary organisations and of communities of faith;
people who are anxious or afraid, alone or isolated.
Living, loving God,
we praise you,
and through times of peril we lean into you,
for in Jesus Christ you have trodden paths as difficult as ours,
revealing there a love that nothing defeats,
a love that bears us through.
Even as we strive to behave responsibly,
and to care reliably,
so we feel after you that in these uncertain times we might trust you are with us,
our refuge and strength, and our faith, hope and love might be renewed,
through Jesus Christ,
Prayer written by the Moderators to General Assembly, the Revd Nigel Uden and Mr Derek Estill.
I understand that representatives of the funeral industry including crematoria and cemeteries are meeting with the Government today to formulate a plan. That will presumably be made public once agreed, but until then, I offer the following.
- You are free to let the family and funeral directors that, with regret, you are no longer available to take the service. You may be in area where there are precious few people who could step in for you to, but it is perfectly acceptable for that not to be reason to make you feel pressured into going ahead. I know it goes against our instincts about letting people down, but please take this as permission to be sensible about your own health, especially if you fall into one of the "vulnerable" categories. Are there ecumencial colleagues who could take over the service? Speak with the Funeral Director for their advice.
- If you decide to go ahead, you should be careful to keep a good physical distance (2 metres/6 feet seems to be the standard advice) from mourners.
- As much as it seems completely at odds with what we’ve always understood to be good pastoral practice, you should consider doing the funeral “visit” by phone.
- You should avoid travelling with the Funeral Director of family if possible, in order to maintain that distance, and I would advise you not to go to the reception afterwards.
- You should suggest to the family (via the Funeral Director if necessary) that it is really kept to a very small gathering of the nearest and dearest, and leave open the option for a wider celebration of the person’s life in a memorial service once this crisis has passed.
- You should consider wearing gloves (leather or wool, rather than surgical, I’m thinking of), but be mindful of the need to cleanse them afterwards. You should avoid hand-shaking (again, against our natural instincts, I know.)
- For worship last Sunday I had printed out the words of the hymns and readings onto disposable sheets for my use, rather than handling hymn books. You could certainly do this with the Funeral Service, even if the Funeral Director or family are providing service sheets. You must be mindful of copyright issues - ensure you have a licence which covers you reproducing copyright material.
- If the service is in church, it must be thoroughly cleaned before and after – remember the backs of pews/chairs are often used by people to help them with standing and sitting, and door handles, etc.
- You must remember the standard advice on hand-washing, tissues and not touching your face – and follow that advice!
We know that some churches are already anxious about their financial stability. This was the case before the coronavirus outbreak. It will be intensified by some when income from freewill offerings and lettings drop. We appreciate that cashflow will be problematic for some, and there may be some concern about whether the church can continue to pay salaries for locally employed staff, let alone meet their M&M pledge. We do not want churches to be amongst those that have to make jobs redundant. I would also remind churches that the covenant we share through the Plan for Partnership in Ministerial Remuneration is that "the first call on a local church's finances is the Ministry & Mission Fund."
I don't have definite news to share with you at the moment, other than to tell you that discussions are being held at Synod and Assembly levels to see what contingency arrangements might be put in place. We will, of course, update you as those discussions progress, but if you have particular difficulty, we would like to know about it sooner rather than later in order to help us with planning an appropriate response. We will not be able to make immediate bank transfers to solve your problem, but we do need to know about the scale of the issue so that we can work with you on definite plans as quickly as possible. Please contact Mervyn Davies via email@example.com in the first instance.
This is being circulated today to all serving minister, Elders in Local Leadership, Church Secretaries and Treasurers:
I am writing to today to circulate more widely (and with a little additional detail) what I posted on the Synod web site yesterday. Please do keep checking www.urcwestmidlands.org.uk/covid19.html for more updates, and this will be the quickest way for me to communicate widely as the situation develops.
We know that some churches are already anxious about their financial stability. This was the case before the coronavirus outbreak. It will be intensified for some as income from freewill offerings and lettings drop. We appreciate that cashflow will be problematic for some, and there may be some concern about whether the church can continue to pay salaries for locally employed staff, let alone meet their M&M pledge. We do not want churches to be amongst those that have to make jobs redundant. It is possible that some in our churches are already facing reduced income or are being laid off – we don’t want to add to that number or anxiety. I would also remind churches that the covenant we share through the Plan for Partnership in Ministerial Remuneration is that "the first call on a local church's finances is the Ministry & Mission Fund."
I don't have definite news to share with you at the moment, other than to tell you that discussions are being held at Synod and Assembly levels to see what contingency arrangements might be put in place. I was taking part in a video-conference call between all Synod Moderators and the General Secretary this morning. John Proctor told us that the Chief Finance Officer and Treasurer and Assistant Treasurer are currently looking at what needs to be done to sustain the URC budget. At the moment, there is no concern. Certainly, Ministers’ stipends are secure for the foreseeable future, although it is important that churches do their level best to maintain giving locally and honouring their M&M pledge so far as possible.
As a church member, I shall be maintaining my giving to my local church, even though we are not meeting together for worship. I ask that you encourage your church community to do the same so far as they are able. Those who are “cash” givers should be encouraged to set money aside and either send a cheque or move to bank standing order. All that said, we don’t want to add to the burden that many are already carrying, so we respect the fact that some will find this difficult.
We have also been in touch with Edwards Insurance brokers. They are checking the exact situation with the relevant companies, but their advice is that those churches insured with Congregational through them will have the Business Interruption Section, Extension 3 which covers, “incidents at the premises, cover is extended to losses resulting from…(ii) outbreak of human notifiable infectious or contagious diseases at, or within a radius of 10 miles of the premises.” Edwards advise that there either has to be an actual incident occurring at the church itself (i.e. one of your members contracts the virus) or one within that radius which has a direct impact on the church itself. There is no cover for the church choosing to cancel room hire bookings or users cancelling bookings without a specific event occurring. My understanding, therefore, is that for most churches this is not going to be an insurable event. However, if there is a specific infection directly affecting the church (rather than closing as a precaution) there may be cover for loss of letting and other income. You will be best placed to make enquiries of your broker or insurance company directly to clarify whether your church can make a claim.
We will, of course, update you as discussions progress, but if you have particular difficulty, we would like to know about it sooner rather than later in order to help us with planning an appropriate response. We will not be able to make immediate bank transfers to solve your problem, but we do need to know about the scale of the issue so that we can work with you on definite plans as quickly as possible. Please contact Mervyn Davies via firstname.lastname@example.org in the first instance.
I hope that this gives you some reassurance that, if nothing else, it is fully understood that this virus outbreak could have a catastrophic impact on some local churches. We understand, and we are working to see what support may be available. Please don’t let this be a cause of additional stress. Remember that in the Bible the words, “Do not be afraid” appear 365 times. I sincerely hope that we can “use” one of these each day and still have hundreds left over!
There are surely a number of churches that had hoped to induct new elders in the coming weeks. There may also be places where ministers are due to be inducted or CRCWs commissioned. Here is some advice about procedure, which applies in the current straitened circumstances. The lines below presume that the person concerned has already been elected by the appropriate council of the Church (and that any necessary checks have been duly done), so that only the inaugural service has to be fulfilled.
When an ordination is involved only the first option below is possible. It is the act of ordination that puts the person into the role. So it cannot be dispensed with; but it can be done very simply.
1. You conduct the formal parts of the event – primarily Nature, Faith and Order and the appropriate schedule to the Basis of Union (B in the case of elders) – in the presence of a small number of officers of the responsible council of the Church (e.g. minister and church secretary when new elders are involved). This could, if need be, be done by video link: not everyone would need to be in the same space. It does indeed count as an act of the Church, and as a proper inauguration of the new role.
A larger service of affirmation could follow, if you want this, when times are better; but it would not be formally necessary.
With an induction of someone already ordained, . It is the act of ordination that puts the person into the role.The person is already in role, and election by a council of the Church has moved their service in that role to a new setting. An induction service affirms the move; it does not effect it. So you have a choice: you could do the above; or you could do the following.
2. You delay the inaugural service for some months, until we are meeting as churches again, and then conduct it as you normally would. In the meantime it is still valid for the person to do the job, because they are already ordained to the office involved. If it is a paid job, they can be paid for it.
Local circumstances and public health advice may determine how you proceed. Perhaps a very small gathering could be accessible to others through a video link. But if we do gather, even briefly and in small numbers, let us be careful with and for one another.
John Proctor, 19 March 2020.
NB: We are already planning to follow route 1 above for the induction of the Revd Debbie Brown to the North Coventry Group in April, and expect to do the same for the ordination of James Hamilton to Redditch and Rubery in the summer, unless the situation has improved by then. To emphasise, this applies equally to the ordination and induction of Elders as it does for Ministers of Word & Sacraments. Please contact me if you need any further advice.
Steve Faber 19 March 2020
The following has been emailed this afternoon to all URC serving Ministers of Word & Sacraments and Church-Related Community Workers in the West Midlands.
You may have seen that the Government’s designation of “key worker” includes “religious staff” – that is, us.
At the moment this is of particular concern to those ministers with school-aged children who would like to keep a place open at school for your child. Clearly this won’t have an direct and immediate impact on most, but I wanted to share this with you all in case it becomes more relevant to you later on for other purposes – should movements become more restricted for instance, and you need to provide evidence that you are going about essential business.
I have a letter from Nicola Furley-Smith, Secretary of Ministries, that I can forward to you to confirm that you are designated a key worker. There is no obligation for you to take up the offer of continuing school places even for those who qualify, but I know that schools are trying to confirm how many children they need to provide for, so wanted to get this out just as soon as I could. For what it’s worth, we have decided not to ask for a place, and both Linda and I will be almost exclusively working from home for the next many weeks.
If you need a copy of the letter, please email me directly and I will get a copy to you as soon as I can.
I will be in touch one-to-one with all of you in the next couple of weeks to see how things are, but please do get in touch with me directly if there is anything you are struggling with, or want to more information about – email will be the easiest initial contact, but we can soon make that a phone or video call.
Do know that I am praying for everyone of you by name as we face this unprecedented challenge.
P.S. I think that I have included all of the ministers that are serving the URC (rather than those from other denominations). If you spot that I’ve missed anyone, could you please let me know, and feel free to forward it to them with my apologies. I would expect ministers of other denominations to gain a similar letter confirming their status through their own routes – but again do let me know if you think that anyone is falling through the gaps.
To those who lead our local churches
Baptism, Wedding and Funeral Services – update 24 March
Questions arise in many congregations about whether we can host and conduct wedding and funeral services in the current emergency. This update responds to the Prime Minister’s broadcast on 23 March. It is possible that guidance could change in the days and weeks ahead. But this is how we appear to stand just now.
Neither baptism nor wedding services are allowed at the moment. These are among the various kinds of gathering that the Government has banned. That ruling will be very distressing for couples who are on the threshold of a new life together. But for the next few weeks we have not been given a choice.
Funerals are still allowed, but we must keep them very small. Plan a simple committal ceremony at cemetery or crematorium with an intentionally very small number of people present. Tributes can be paid in other ways – either online, or in a church newsletter – or given in a memorial service later in the year. All of that will surely feel unsatisfactory. But there is not a satisfactory way to deal with these issues. We don’t want anyone’s life to end because someone attended a funeral.
Places of Worship should remain open for solitary prayer. Whilst we are seeking greater clarity on the actual interpretation, it is assumed that this refers to those denominations and faiths where a daily act of worship is required to be conducted by the incumbent only. The advice is that our churches should remain closed for the time being, so far as worship is concerned.
Foodbanks and other essentials for the community. The Government’s guidance specifically mentions foodbanks and homeless shelters as facilities that may stay open. See the link here:
Any leaders in our Church who are vulnerable – either because they are over 70, or because of health issues – must stand down from public duty and work remotely from home. As a Church, we ask those who care for us to care for themselves too, especially when life could be at risk.
With thanks for all you are doing and bearing in these days,
John Proctor and Nicola Furley-Smith
General Secretary Secretary for Ministries
24 March 2020
The latest detailed advice from the URC about "safeguarding people in the midst of coronavirus" is here . The Safeguarding page on the Synod website has also been updated with a lot of new information. See https://www.urcwestmidlands.org.uk/safeguarding.html for that information and details of how to contact our Synod Safeguarding Officer, Donna Gordon.
The URC has published advice on what churches might do during the pandemic regarding the Sacrament of Holy Communion. It includes information and advice for LEPs.
The paper is accessible here.
“Ready for the New Normal” suggests that local churches might consider using contactless giving to avoid passing an offertory plate and handling cash, with the increased risks from Coronavirus.
As well as the now-well established method of setting up a bank standing order for giving to the local church, some more technological solutions are being used by a number of churches.
This document provides a survey of some of the means already in use by churches. It is not exhaustive, and please note carefully the comment that none of the methods are offered as personal recommendations and that terms and conditions may change, so you are strongly encouraged to check carefully before committing to any particular path.
The Government are expected to announce regulations this week that will allow churches to reopen as places of private prayer, rather than public worship. The details of those regulations will be important, but ahead of them, the General Secretary, in consultation with Synod Moderators, has issued advice for all churches, which is linked here. Those local churches that are LEPs based in buildings where the trustees are NOT the United Reformed Church MUST ensure that they are also compliant with guidance and instruction from the denomination that holds the premises.
At this stage, it is not possible based on infection rates or other criteria to give a definite point at which a local United Reformed Church should close as Covid-19 rates increase.
Current Government guidance in England, Scotland and Wales allows places of worship to remain open even when higher levels of alert and restriction are in place, although the “fire-break” lockdown in Wales WILL require places of worship to close to the public, which includes for acts of worship.
However, the United Reformed Church stresses that whilst Governments allow churches to remain open, this is permissive, and not an obligation. The Elders’ Meeting (and equivalent council in LEPs) are best placed to understand and assess the risk locally, bearing in mind the nature of the premises, and the activities that take place (including worship and other church-related meetings and groups) and external lettings.
Due consideration needs to be given the vulnerability of the people. Without the appropriate volunteers to manage activities and the premises, churches will not be able to maintain Covid-secure buildings, in which case activities must cease until that can be remedied.
Further, churches are reminded that Risk Assessments are not documents to be created and then ignored. It is essential to put into place the mitigations identified in order to open and operate safely.
Equally, when risks alter, the “venue managers” or “person responsible” (in Government terminology) – almost always the Elders’ Meeting within the United Reformed Church – will need to consider whether the changed circumstances require changes in practice to further reduce the risks prevailing, which might include closing for a time.
When a church enters the Tier 3 (Very High) risk level in England and any equivalent state should a similar system be developed for Scotland and Wales, we strongly encourage the Elders’ Meeting to consider whether it is now appropriate to close for worship and other non-essential activities (which would leave foodbanks, support groups for vulnerable people, etc. able to continue to operate as they did during the national lockdown).
Whatever decision is taken by the Elders, they should document the reasons for their decision. This does not place an obligation on churches in the highest risk areas to close, but it is a strong encouragement that this is considered.
In all cases, if Governments tighten up their position, churches must follow that Government policy and regulation, and nothing here is intended to supersede that guidance.
The Synod Moderators, published on 21/10/20
The law and Government guidance says that yes, your church may remain open for public worship. However, as Synod Moderator, I strongly recommend that you should cease in-person worship until your Tier level decreases.
Neither the Synod nor the Moderators nor even General Assembly can order your church to close because of the pandemic. However, for some months the Synod Moderators have urged churches to consider not what they may do, but what they should do. You know the statistical evidence as well as I do: this second wave is now more serious than the first wave, and hundreds of people across England are dying every day as a result of Coronavirus.
As “Covid-secure” buildings, churches are supposed to be safe places to meet. But the truth is that whenever people from different households gather, the risk of cross-infection increases. Unlike the first wave of the pandemic, a very significant number of people with a positive Covid-test result (some estimates say 1 in every 3) are not displaying symptoms. It is increasingly likely that we will come into contact with someone who may pass the virus to us without realising that they were infected themselves. To put it another way, there is a real possibility that you may be Covid-positive without knowing it, or the person just ahead of you on the way into church is, and whoever becomes infected as a result of you both being in church together may suffer considerably more than the carrier, perhaps even with a fatal result. It is still true that the older one is, the more likely it will be that any Covid infection will be more serious. The same is true for anyone with underlying health conditions, and those from Black and Minority Ethnic communities. It is a risk that I believe is not worth taking.
If your Elders’ Meeting (or the equivalent council in an LEP) decides that the church should remain open, in spite of this advice, there are some steps that you really must follow:
- Revisit your Risk Assessment and update it. The risk of someone attending without knowing they have the virus has increased significantly.
- Display the symptoms of Covid clearly on a poster near the door, and make sure that your stewards/welcomers are ready to ask people if they think they may have been in contact with the disease, and to ask anyone with symptoms or who thinks they may have been in contact with the disease, to return home and not come into church.
- Make sure that everyone is wearing a face covering at all times, unless they have a medical exemption. (“I don’t like them,” is not grounds for not wearing one, and neither is, “I think it’s a lot of fuss about nothing”, nor is, “You know me, I’m ok,” and certainly not, “It’s all blown up out of proportion and it’s a myth put about by the Government to control us all”!)
- Face coverings must cover the mouth AND the nose and people must be (politely) challenged over non-compliance.
- When a person leading or contributing to worship is at the lectern/in front of a microphone, then and only then may they remove their face covering, and they must replace it before they leave that spot. It is NOT acceptable to leave their face covering in their seat, walk up the aisle and then give the Bible reading.
- There must be strict social distancing of 2m between households at all times.
- Households must not socialise with other households even briefly whilst on church premises, indoors or outdoors, even socially distanced.
I don’t want to unduly alarm anyone, least of all Elders who are already under severe pressure because of the drop in income and everything else associated with the pandemic. However, it is important to remind you and emphasise that failing in your duty to keep the building (and anyone using it) as safe as you possibly can is likely to be a breach of Health and Safety law. The last thing we would want is the added stress of prosecutions.
I want to be clear that any minister or lay preacher who, out of care for themselves and others, chooses NOT to lead in-person worship at this time will have my full support, and will certainly not be subject to discipline for this reason. Elders’ Meetings (and equivalent councils in LEPs) must not put pressure on people to act against their conscience on this matter, and they must have particular regard for the safety and wellbeing of anyone they wish to invite to lead worship, not putting them at undue risk. This specifically includes, but it isn’t limited to, those at increased risk because of age, health condition and ethnicity.
I do also understand that in some very localised areas the infection rates will be noticeably lower than in neighbouring towns and communities. Please don’t be complacent about this – that situation is constantly changing. The fact that the latest published numbers for your community are lower than others doesn’t meant that is the case even today, let alone tomorrow.
Finally, I know that some of our churches will find it easier to move to online worship than others, or to distribute paper-based worship resources. I would remind you that the URC are still providing both a daily devotion and a weekly act of worship, available online at https://devotions.urc.org.uk/ I am also aware of the need to be in human contact to overcome loneliness: even a daily phone call isn’t the same as meeting them in person in church, but it will make a difference.
Yet in all this, we know that there is hope. There is perpetual hope in Christ – God-with-us always, to the very end of the age. There is also hope in the vaccines currently being deployed. This situation will not last forever, but I do urge you to take all reasonable steps to endure these last few months. The pandemic will end; it will be safe to meet one another again. Let’s redouble our efforts to care for one another both in the things we refrain from doing and in the countless acts of kindness that so many have displayed throughout 2020.
My prayers for you continue.
January 5, 2020