A Holy Mess? Religious Worship, Funerals and Weddings under the Latest (English) Lockdown Regulations

The position has changed since this blog post was written. See also the update available here

The Regulations for the new England-wide Lockdown have been published: the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (England) (No. 4) Regulations 2020

The previously published Guidance on the new lockdown provisions stated that:

Funerals can be attended by a maximum of 30 people, and it is advised that only close friends and family attend. Linked ceremonial events such as stone settings and ash scatterings can also continue with up to 15 people in attendance. Anyone working is not included. Social distancing should be maintained between people who do not live together or share a support bubble.

Weddings, civil partnership ceremonies will not be permitted to take place except in exceptional circumstances.

Places of Worship will be closed, unless they are being used for:

  • Funerals
  • To broadcast acts of worship
  • Individual prayer
  • Formal childcare or where part of a school
  • Essential voluntary and public services, such as blood donation or food banks
  • Other exempted activities such as some support groups

The Regulations say basically the same thing but in a more convoluted way. And the position on weddings is especially unclear.

Regulation 5 states that: ‘No person may leave or be outside of the place where they are living without reasonable excuse’. Regulation 6 then provides a non-exhaustive list of reasonable excuses, termed as ‘exceptions’.

Somewhat confusingly, Regulations 8 and 9 prohibit indoor and outdoor gatherings unless one or the exceptions set out in Regulation 11 applies. And Regulation 11 provides a list of exceptions which are different and differently numbered to Regulation 6.

Looking at both sets together, this seems to be the position:

Places of Worship

The first exception listed in Regulation 6 is that it is reasonably necessary to leave the home for certain purposes which includes ‘(e) to attend a place of worship’.

Regulation 11 states that gatherings outdoors to commentate Remembrance Sunday are permitted as is the gathering in Westminster Abbey to mark Armistice Day. But attendance is limited to those who are there as part of their work, persons providing voluntary services as part of the event, members of the armed forces, veterans and their representatives or carers and spectators who take part in the gathering alone or only with members of their own household or linked household.

Regulation 18 then states that a person responsible for a place of worship must ensure that it is closed other than under the for Remembrance Day and Armistice Day exception (which applies to outdoor gatherings only with the exception of Westminster Abbey), funerals, commemorative events celebrating the life of the deceased, broadcasting acts of worship, providing essential voluntary services such as food banks to blood donation, childcare, individual prayer that does not form communal worship and any other permitted gathering.

So, in short, despite going to a place of worship being a reasonable excuse, places of worship required to be generally closed. They are only open for individual prayers and funerals. Under the Regulations, places of worship can provide essential secular voluntary services but communal worship is not essential!

Funerals

Under Regulation 6 exception 7, ‘it is reasonably necessary’ to leave one’s home to attend a funeral, to attend a commemorative event celebrating the life of a person who has died, or to visit a burial ground or garden of remembrance, to pay respects to a member of the household, a family member or friend.

However, under Regulation 10, funerals are the ‘exception 10’ and it is further stated that the gathering must be for the purpose of a funeral and must consist of no more than 30 people and cannot be at a private dwelling. ‘Exception 11’ is then for commemorative events following death, with the scarring of ashes or a stone setting ceremony given as the example of what this includes. Here the gathering must consist of no more than 15 persons but again cannot take place at a private dwelling.

It’s worth noting that the ‘close friends and family’ line in the guidance is not in the Regulations, though the limits in terms of numbers are likely to have the same effect. Though it is not a reasonable excuse to leave the house to pay respects to someone who is not family or a friend!

Weddings

Exception 8 deals with marriages and civil partnerships and provides that it is reasonably necessary to attend ‘a marriage ceremony, a civil partnership ceremony or an alternative wedding ceremony’. An alternative wedding ceremony is defined as follows:


‘an “alternative wedding ceremony” is a ceremony based on a person’s faith or belief or lack of belief, to mark the union of two people, other than a ceremony conducted for a purpose mentioned in regulation 11(11)(a)(i) or (ii).’

These purposes are the solemnisation of a marriage under the Marriage (Registrar General’s Licence) Act 1970 or by special licence under the Marriage Act 1949 if at least one of the parties is seriously ill – which is odd because this doesn’t seem to cover other ways of getting married under the 1949 Act. Yet, such marriages would also not be ‘alternative wedding ceremonies’.

Regulation 11 also lists the formation or conversion of a civil partnership or an alternative wedding ceremony when one of the parties is seriously ill and not expected to recover. Is this meant to be an exhaustive list of what sort of marriages are permitted under the Lockdown? This could suggest that other forms of wedding cannot rely on this exception. But if so, why does the seriously ill rule only apply to certain types. The wording is not clear.

Regulation 11(11) further states that the gathering must be of no more than 6 people, must take place in one of the places listed (which includes a private dwelling) and the organiser must take the required precautions.

It is difficult to square this with the Guidance which stated that weddings ‘will not be permitted to take place except in exceptional circumstances’. These provisions enable such weddings to occur but on my reading do not limit them to ‘exceptional circumstances’.

It is not clear whether which marriages can take place where there one of the parties is not seriously ill. It is not expressly stated that places of worship cannot normally conduct marriages.

One of the things that the organiser has to take into account under Regulation 14 is ‘any guidance issued by the Government which is relevant to the gathering’. This could mean that it is the organiser who would have to determine whether there were exceptional circumstances for the wedding to go ahead.

There is some certainty though that the same rule applies to all wedding ceremonies regardless of whether they comply with the Marriage Act 1949. These Regulations follow the last Regulations in England in making explicit provision for marriages outside the Marriage Act 1949 – however, the focus on faith or belief in the definition may prove difficult for some independent celebrant ceremonies unless a generous interpretation of these words are taken.

Overall, the Regulations are convoluted and on my reading at least likely to lead to confusion especially about whether places of worship are open and whether weddings are generally permitted.

For a more general discussion of the Regulations see this Twitter thread.

7 Comments

  1. Surely the starting point is that churches cannot be used except for the reasons stated in 18(8) and that does not include weddings.

    Weddings are permitted in certain circumstances defined in 11(11). The only once of those that can take place in accordance with the rites of the Church of England are those under a Special Licence from the Archbishop of Canterbury – 11(11)(a)(ii). However as he could not grant that for a lawful wedding in church the only realistic circumstances in which he would grant it would be for a hospital/hospice/home wedding for someone seriously ill and unlikely to recover.

    I agree that some other aspects may not be crystal clear, but I think it is very clear in relation to churches.

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    1. Thanks. This is very helpful. What do you make of the provision in 18(8) that provides that places of worship can be open ‘to host any gathering which is permitted under regulation 8 or 9’. What does this cover?

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      1. The only way I can understand it is by noting that Regs 8 & 9 both refer to not applying if Reg 11 applies. Reg 11 gives the various exceptions when people can meet in groups of more than two. So that would seem to mean that a church could be used for any of the meetings permitted under an exception.

        So that would include education and training 11(3); various support groups 11(6)-(8); also elite sports training 11(15) and I suppose also a wedding under a Special Licence 11(a)(ii).

        If all those groups can meet in a church, it is really very bizarre that a socially distanced congregation cannot do so for worship.

        Thought?

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      2. Yes – that makes sense. And I agree that makes it bizarre that collective worship is prohibited. The fact that church buildings can be open for other purposes means that it would be more difficult to argue that the ban on collective worship is proportionate and there is no breach of Article 9.

        The counter argument would be that private prayer is permitted but Article 9 covers individual and collective manifestations of religion and again if private prayer is fine then on what basis is collective worship along the lines you describe more of a risk. And how many individuals can you have at the same time undertaking private prayer.

        It’s all rather convoluted. However, I have written a follow up blog post today in light of the re-written Guidance which now clarifies the position on weddings at least.

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