Updated 8/9/20 - To Sing or Not To Sing – That’s The Thing

Updated: Sep 8


One of the most controversial issues which have affected churches during the Covid-19 Emergency has been that of whether or not singing should be permitted in Churches. This article is a summary – without any expression of opinion by the author – of the guidance issued by a number of different churches and other organisations, as well as the latest published research on the matter. Each reference contains a link to the original publication to enable you to read the original material for yourself.

I am very grateful to Frank Cranmer, Research Fellow at the Centre for Law and Religion at Cardiff University and Secretary of the Churches’ Legislation Advisory Service on whose research I have drawn.


A new report published in the British Medical Journal has been added on 8 September


The Church of England is proving to be one of the most active in publishing advice about worship and singing in Church as will be seen from the references below.

The issue of returning to normal physical worship and also resuming singing in services is causing emotions to run very high across the World. One Baptist Minister in the USA has recently written an article describing the personal stress which his colleagues are suffering – a lot of it at the hands of their congregations who have threatened them with losing their jobs and in one case attempting to start a fist fight.

( https://baptistnews.com/article/too-many-pastors-are-falling-on-their-own-swords/ )


When one church took a survey of its congregation and found that they were split 50:50 on whether or not to re-open the building, it emerged that some of those who wanted to re-open the church had written comments that they would leave the church if they did not get their way.


As a result of this ministers were struggling to repress suicidal thoughts and were considering leaving the Church. He comments that: “Church always has been a place where people can act foolish with little consequence — where people have the space to act out toward clergy in ways that aren’t safe to do toward their bosses or their spouses. Being a pastor never has been easy, but this is a new level of hell that pastors are living.”


When Linda and I recently attended a meeting of French Protestant pastors in the Ariege, we heard similar anecdotes regarding demands to return to the use of churches and also the resumption of singing, with one pastor being directly reminded that his job depended on the congregation's approval of how he responded to their demands.


The medical risks relating to singing in Church were highlighted when on 10 May a Baptist Church in Frankfurt held a service in which the congregation sang without wearing masks, after which 100 members of that congregation contracted Covid-19. All singing remains banned by law in all German places of worship.

( https://www.reforme.net/actualite/2020/05/28/en-allemagne-une-eglise-baptiste-infectee-par-le-covid-19/ )


Church buildings in France were opened for public worship much earlier than was permitted by the Church of England, and most churches have not updated their advice issued at that time.

However, on 5th August, Dr Nathalie Charlotte, a medical researcher with a French medical insurance company released a lengthy report on research to date citing a great many sources. She concluded that further expert research is required on the subject.

https://www.medrxiv.org/content/10.1101/2020.07.19.20145326v2.full.pdf

This is why the PERFORM study referred to at the bottom of this article is very valuable since it may offer a way forward to resume singing, especially outside closed spaces


On 11 May the French Ministry of the Interior issued guidance regarding precautions relating to worship highlighting the risks of singing in churches. ( http://sobor.fr/content/annonces/Lignes-directrices-concernant-la-lutte-contre-la-pandemie-de-COVID-pour-la-reprise-des-cultes.pdf )


The French Catholic Church


On 23 May the Conférence des Eveques de France published its updated guidelines considering the practical implications of the re-opening of their buildings for worship. ( https://liturgie.catholique.fr/actualites/303377-covid-19-dispositions-pratiques-reprise-celebrations-liturgiques/ )


All choral activity was halted until further notice, although small groups of choristers were told that they could sing at certain services, provided they were masked and observed very detailed safety precautions. Individual Bishops were given overall authority for managing these arrangements within their Diocese.

Eglise Protestante Unie De France (French United Protestant Church)


As part of re-opening Protestant Churches, on 23 May the National President, Emmanuelle Seyboldt, sent a message to all churches asking every congregation to consider very carefully how they might resume worship safely.

( https://www.eglisecatholique-ge.ch/actualites/covid-19-mesures-dassouplissements-et-messes-publiques/)


She urged them all to think about how they might worship in different ways including Open Air worship and online services and not to automatically think that everything could now return to normal. She also asked each congregation to show consideration for the needs of all their members.


Beyond France, the Swiss Catholic Church has recommended any choir practices or singing be delayed until September 2020 at the earliest

https://www.eglisecatholique-ge.ch/actualites/covid-19-mesures-dassouplissements-et-messes-publiques/


The Church of England


The governance structure of the Church of England differs from the French Catholic and Protestant churches, in that all clergy, lay ministers and churchwardens are bound by an oath of obedience to their bishops. As a result, the directions relating to Worship issued by the Church of England’s Recovery Group, chaired by the Bishop of London, Dame Sarah Mullally have issued regular updates on precautions to be followed. In the Diocese of Europe, Bishop Robert has instructed that we will obey the directions of the Recovery Group.

The latest guidance by our Church was issued on 19th August

(https://www.churchofengland.org/sites/default/files/2020-08/COVID%2019%20advice%20on%20conducting%20public%20worship%20v2.3.pdf )

This has re-affirmed that congregations are still not permitted to sing at worship, but small groups of choristers, both professional and non-professional, are now permitted to sing in worship, subject to appropriate precautions being taken (including cleaning and physical distancing). To assist with planning, the Royal School of Church Music (RSCM) have produced an 11-page Risk Assessment which should be completed before an act of worship and reviewed by a ‘responsible person’. This is located at the RSCM web page ( https://www.rscm.org.uk/covid-19-resources-for-churches/ )


The risk assessment includes requirements for proper building cleaning unless the building will not be used by anyone for 72 hours before and after a Church of England worship event.

The advice closely follows the UK Government’s own publication for safe working by members of the Performing Arts.

https://www.gov.uk/guidance/working-safely-during-coronavirus-covid-19/performing-arts

Although there appears to be a small loophole in the Church’s guidance that any group of parishioners could classify themselves as a ‘choir’ and so resume singing in church, an article by the international law firm Norton Rose Fulbright ( https://www.nortonrosefulbright.com/en-fr/knowledge/publications/c981bfa3/covid-19-and-insurance-cover )

warns against any breach of professional standards which might be ruled to be negligent since this might create a liability on officers or those responsible for organising events. No insurance policy covers wilful negligence, so any minister or officer of the Church who permitted such a loophole to be exploited could find themselves personally liable for any consequences.


The PERFORM Report

During the past week, the first Medical Study dedicated to studying the medical impacts of singing has been published.


The Working Group for The Investigation of ParticulatE Respiratory Matter to InForm Guidance for the Safe Distancing of PerfOrmeRs in a COVID-19PandeMic – referred to as PERFORM – is a group of 13 medical research specialists from 9 UK universities, hospitals and research institutions who have just published an initial version of a report examining the extent to which singing causes infectious droplets to be exhaled by the singer.


https://s3-eu-west-1.amazonaws.com/itempdf74155353254prod/12789221/Comparing_the_Respirable_Aerosol_Concentrations_and_Particle_Size_Distributions_Generated_by_Singing__Speaking_and_Breat_v1.pdf

The report has found that the volume at which one sings has a major effect on the volume of droplet exhalation and the consequent risk of infection. Because masks are intended to reduce the speed at which droplets are expelled from the mouth, but not the volume that is expelled, the use of masks was not a consideration in the research.


Amongst the findings were that singing the note “la” at 80 decibels (which is about the level of a Radio or TV playing in a house) created a level of droplet emissions which was on average 3 times greater than simply speaking the word “la” while the highest recorded level of emissions was 8.5 (850%) times higher, whereas the highest level recorded for speaking the word “la” was only 0.4 (40%) times higher.


The PERFORM report has been submitted to the UK Government for consideration, and it is expected that new guidance on singing may be issued once the report has been examined. The Church of England have undertaken to revise their guidance in response to any new Government guidance which is issued.



UPDATE 5 September 2020


On 4th September, the UK Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) published a paper "Aerosol and Droplet Generation from Singing, Wind Instruments (SWI) and Performance Activities" which was produced by Public Health England (PHE) and considered by SAGE at their meeting (no.51) on 13 August 2020.

This paper concludes that the key factor in determining the risks of transmitting the Covid virus arising from singing in an enclosed space is the ventilation rate within that space and the volume of and the duration in time of any singing that occurs.

It advises that ventilation to introduce 10 litres of new air per second per person attending is recommended as a minimum.

To give a real-world example of air flow and air change rates, a domestic floor standing fan with a 40cm diameter fan blade, running at 1,200 rpm can move πr^2 x 1,200 = 0.1256 x 1,200 = 150.79 cubic metres of air per minute at 100% efficiency with no back-pressure. 20 people in a space would require 0.6 of a cubic metre per minute of air change per person, or 12 cubic metres in total. Thus a single fan, correctly placed and with a free airflow through a building, could easily meet the airflow changes required for a congregation of 20.

UPDATE 8 September 2020


The British Medical Journal published on 25 August a peer reviewed study into the viral spread of Covid-19

https://www.bmj.com/content/370/bmj.m3223

This article contains a very clear chart indicating the relative dangers of transmission by people not showing symptoms of Covid under different circumstances. Similar to the PERFORM and SAGE reports, it highlights the impact on risk of the levels of ventilation, occupancy, activity and duration. With low occupancy, good ventilation, the wearing of masks and a short period of exposure, the risks of infection are low. The absence of face coverings substantially increases the risks, as does high occupancy or prolonged exposure.

It is reproduced below for information.



Final Conclusions


In his summary of his research, Frank Cranmer emphasises the key issue is about assessing all the risks associated with resumption of singing: Although the question in many people' minds is "Is it safe to restart singing ?", the issue faced by those responsible for singing is in fact "How can we minimize the risks of singing ?". There is no unique solution, and account must be taken of local circumstances by undertaking a risk assessment.


Different Churches have taken different approaches to managing risk. The Church of England has issued comprehensive guidance which it continues to update on a regular basis. This article is intended to show how much research and guidance it is necessary to keep up to date with in order to fully understand the issues relating to singing in Church.


I will try to update this article as and when new guidance or research is published.

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