On Monday morning 20 June 2020 the British Union Conference (BUC) 'Reopening Churches' Committee was joined by two Public Health professionals: Edward Kunonga, who is a Public Health Consultant for three NHS trusts and a Professor of Public Health, and Lincoln Sargeant who is Director of Public Health for North Yorkshire. They had been invited by BUC President, Pastor Ian Sweeney, to give advice on the specific issues facing the approximately four hundred Seventh-day Adventist congregations across the territory of the BUC, as they seek to reopen for public worship services.
Lincoln Sargeant began by describing the complex epidemiology of COVID-19. One of the factors that has enhanced its spread is the fact that people become infectious two to three days before they show any symptoms. Scientific research has identified proximity as a key risk factor for example, increasing distance from one to two metres, decreases the risk of infection by a factor of 10. Time is also crucial, with 15 minutes at two metres, carrying a risk equivalent to one minute at one metre. Facemasks help reduce transmission, as does being outside. Talking, shouting or singing, are like coughing or sneezing, in that they facilitate the spread of infection.
Edward Kunonga followed up the epidemiological picture with an explanation of the risks faced by individuals. Factors which put some people at a higher risk than others include age, underlying health conditions and ethnicity. We also need to consider the way certain people behave. Adventists in church are accustomed to shaking hands, hugging, singing, sitting in close proximity and eating together.
Putting all these factors together it is easy to see that a typical Seventh-day Adventist worship service can create a perfect storm, with all risk factors being present.
To address these risks, we need to conduct risk assessments on four different levels:
- The Church Setting. This will include the facilities available, the space needed for social distancing, any personal protective equipment (PPE) available, and the activities that will take place in the building.
- Those Leading Out. Ministers and others who conduct services, plus those who actively take part, need to be educated as to the risks that their role exposes them to. Training will be necessary.
- Individual Church Members. Our church families will include those who are at particularly high risk and may currently be shielding. They need to be protected. Questions that need to be asked are do other members understand the risks, to themselves as well as the risk they pose to others? Even if they know the risks, will they comply with the measures put in place? Apart from what happens in the church, are people putting themselves at risk by the way they travel to church – on public transport or in shared cars etc?
- The Wider Family. Some of those who usually attend church may live in homes with vulnerable people, or with people who are at high risk of contracting COVID-19. Is there a possibility that their church attendance may pose a risk, either to themselves or to the other church members, because of who they live with?
The regular committee members were grateful for the expertise of Edward and Lincoln and asked them numerous questions. Regarding PPE Lincoln explained that facemasks and the like do work, but they simply reduce the risk of spreading COVID-19 and there was no research available to say whether wearing a mask would balance the risk of singing, for example, or of spending a long time in close proximity. Clear visors were being used in some situations, particularly where it was important to see someone’s face, but again, their protective effect was not yet quantified.
Committee members from all the territories of the BUC noted the wide variation in the COVID-19 spread, as well as the very different kinds of government advice which were being published. In Republic of Ireland, churches are already allowed to meet, with certain restriction. Jovan Adamovic, who has been in consultation with the local Welsh Government, expressed concern that economic factors seemed to be taking precedence over scientific research in some cases. Alan Hush pointed out that the Isle of Man has not had any COVID-19 cases and other churches are meeting there as normal.
Because of these regional differences, the committee confirmed their original decision to devolve the permission for reopening churches, to the Executive Committees of the five entities that make up the BUC. Permission will only be given when the local governments say that it is legal and safe to do so, and the local church has conducted a risk assessment which takes all the factors mentioned above into account.
In concluding comments, BUC President Pastor Ian Sweeney, summed up the consensus view, "Given what we know already, what we have learnt today, the demographic makeup of our churches, and the particular risks associated with our typical Adventist worship styles, I can’t see many of our churches being able to open in the near future, whatever government advice says. We must be cautious and we must protect the most vulnerable members of our church family."
On a positive note, everyone spoke highly of the creative people who have made worship streaming services available. There are also those who are using government guidance on social or family “bubbles” to have small group worships in their homes.
A full statement issued by the presidents of the territories that comprise the BUC can be seen here.