Publication - Advice and guidance

Coronavirus (COVID-19): guidance for the safe use of places of worship

Guidance to help places of worship safely re-open for permitted purposes.

Coronavirus (COVID-19): guidance for the safe use of places of worship
Individual and congregational worship

Individual and congregational worship

On 23 October 2020, the Scottish Government implemented and subsequently updated a new strategic framework based on five levels of protection.  These limits are necessary for public health reasons and the protection levels can be applied either locally or nationally.

Places of worship are able to open for a number of permitted purposes, including, but not limited to:

  • individual prayer or contemplation
  • congregational services, including pre-arranged or scheduled acts of worship and communal prayer
  • broadcasting acts of worship
  • funeral services (separate guidance is available on this)
  • marriage ceremonies and, where celebrants in a faith community undertake them, civil partnerships registrations (separate guidance is available)
  • religious life event ceremonies, such as baptisms, christenings and coming-of-age ceremonies 

Individuals must continue to be physically distanced from others not in their household/extended household group when carrying out these activities.

Consideration should be given to whether any additional restrictions are in place as a result of a local outbreaks or clusters of COVID-19 cases. Information about areas with additional local measures is available.

Those responsible for running a place of worship should engage and communicate with worshippers and the wider community to explain what is permitted and what is still prohibited.

For indoor and outdoor worship please see current guidance under Restrictions on Capacity

Faith-specific practices

Physical distancing of 2 metres to limit close face-to-face interaction and strict hygiene safeguards must be maintained at places of worship. Where absolutely necessary for a faith-specific requirement interactions within a 2 metre distance may take place provided they are brief, kept to a minimum and face-to-face interaction is avoided. These interactions should only take place when it is absolutely essential and it would be unreasonable to maintain physical distancing in the circumstances (for example, the laying on of hands in the ordination of new ministers). For any such interactions, face coverings must be worn, including by the individual leading the act of worship. Faith leaders and those responsible for places of worship must take measures to adapt faith-specific rites and rituals in accordance with this guidance to ensure the safety of those present.

A local policy reflecting how any such rites and rituals can be safely carried out should be developed and implemented before reopening.

In addition to the key principles, it is strongly advised that:

  • services or ceremonies that would traditionally take part over a period of hours or days are adapted to reduce the time spent gathered together and therefore reduce the risk of transmission 
  • individuals are prevented from touching or kissing devotional and other objects that are handled communally, or from placing their face or head in the same location as other worshippers. Use barriers and signs where necessary
  • individuals avoid touching property belonging to others such as shoes which, if taken off, should be handled only by their owner
  • communal resources such as books, prayer mats and services sheets are removed from use. If single use alternatives are used these should be removed by the worshipper
  • any personal items brought in to aid worship are removed by the user
  • the projection of voices, including shouting, is avoided. The use of a microphone and sound system can mitigate the need for this. Any microphone used should not be handled communally
  • the consumption of food and drink is avoided where it is not essential to the act of worship. Where it is essential to the act of worship, the use of communal vessels is avoided 
  • other mitigations for the preparation and handling of food which is essential to the act of worship are taken, including strict hand hygiene, pre-wrapping food items and avoiding the sharing of cutlery, crockery or utensils. Face coverings must be worn. 
  • speaking across food or drink is avoided. Where this is essential to the act of worship, everyone, including the person leading the worship, should wear a face covering and the food should be securely covered  
  • pre-requisite washing and ablution rituals are carried out at home prior to arrival at the place of worship where possible. Where such facilities are used, physical distancing and hygiene measures should be observed at all times and areas should be cleaned between each individual use. Individuals should not wash the body parts of others
  • cash giving is discouraged, with online giving used instead. Where cash offerings continue, any receptacle should be set in one place and not handled communally. Any person who has handled money should wash their hands thoroughly afterwards and avoid touching their face
  • once services are complete, worshippers are encouraged to move on promptly. Places of worship should put in place procedures to manage this
  • where rituals or ceremonies require water to be applied to the body, where possible full immersion is avoided and only small volumes are splashed onto the body. Where an infant is involved a parent/guardian should hold the infant. Strict hand hygiene should be maintained throughout. Where full immersion is required, this should be done following the below guidelines

Full immersion in water

Where full immersion is a necessary part of a ritual or ceremony, this is permitted with the following measures in place:

  • only one person should be immersed at any one time
  • where possible, the person being immersed should self-immerse, or be attended to by a member of their household only. Where this is not possible, they should be attended by a single officiant/clergy member
  • those being immersed should be at least 2 metres away from the congregation and officiants at all times, except as necessary in the case of clergy/the officiant, at the point of immersion (see below)
  • during the immersion, clergy/the officiant may place their hands on the head of the person being immersed, but they should not ‘cradle’ the person or touch them in any other way. They should wash their hands after each person is immersed with soap and water for the requisite duration. If this isn’t possible they should use hand sanitiser
  • during the immersion, the person being immersed should remove their face covering, however any officiant/clergy attending them should wear a face covering where it is safe to do so
  • where any contained body of non-chlorinated water is used, such as a baptismal font, the water should be drained and the font cleaned, after each immersion
  • where a swimming pool is used, this should be maintained according to Swimming Scotland guidelines
  • immersion may also take place in a safe external space of open water. In this case, 2 metre physical distancing should be maintained where possible and any person attending the individual being immersed should retain their face covering where it is safe to do so

Singing, chanting and the playing of instruments 

Congregational singing, both indoors and outdoors, should continue to be avoided at this time.

Scientific studies indicate that it is the cumulative aerosol transmission from both those performing in and attending events that involve singing and the playing of wind and brass instruments, that is likely to create risk. 

Where it is essential to an act of worship for an individual to sing or chant indoors, one individual may do so behind a plexiglass screen without the need for a face covering to be worn. Any screen used should be cleaned regularly and extended physical distancing should be considered.

Other instruments that do not require breath to operate may be played (for example, church organs). Communal instruments should be cleaned regularly.

First published: 18 Sep 2020 Last updated: 9 Apr 2021 -