It’s unfair: football fans can sing … why can’t church congregations?

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Image credit: @EnglidsAway

By Catherine Pepinster

While football fans sing their hearts out supporting the England team during the Euros championship, church leaders and their congregation have expressed their frustration at the government’s refusal to end the ban on singing in church services.

On Tuesday night, fans across the country cheered England on to its 2-0 win against Germany by not only singing at Wembley Stadium and at outdoor events but also indoors in pubs. Yet people attending church services have been banned from singing for the past 15 months, despite bishops and other leaders urging the government to rethink its approach to worship and music. And according to football fan Pete Broadbent, who is also Bishop of Willesden, the relaxed approach to fans singing during the Euros, while continuing to clamp down on churchgoers, is “incoherent”.

Broadbent supports Spurs – whose striker, Harry Kane, scored England’s second goal against Germany on Tuesday night – and said he spent the match cheering on England with his diocesan leadership team, all shouting at the TV screen and making as much noise as any hymn-singing congregation.

“Congregations have been very responsible during the pandemic, and it is right that we should give a lead,” he said. “But it’s about time that the government understood that singing is fundamental to our worship.”

Congregations have endured a series of government rules regarding worship during the pandemic, with churches shut for many months during the early days of Covid-19 in Britain. Then, when churchgoers were allowed back in their buildings to attend services, no singing was allowed. A further easing allowed a socially distanced choir to sing but those in the pews must stay silent during the hymns. And now, with Boris Johnson saying that extra precautions may still be needed despite lockdown in England due to be eased on July 19, there is fear that congregational singing could stay banned.

Churches and their public health advisers acknowledge that there is evidence that singing in groups can risk transmission of the coronavirus, and that there must be caution when the much more transmissible Delta variant of the virus is spreading fast through non-vaccinated people. But according to Jim McManus, director of public health for Hertfordshire county council and adviser to the Roman Catholic bishops of England and Wales, the risk can be dealt with.

“Singing in groups clearly does create a risk of viral transmission but that risk is not the same in all circumstances and there are risk mitigation strategies which can be put in place,” he said. “There are significant lessons from the restart of music in Germany and some other European countries. Different voices, styles of music, positioning of singers in relation to each other, ventilation, space, suitable face coverings can all reduce aerosol spread and risk and recent University College London and German research is showing that.”

Frustration has grown following the much more relaxed approach the government has taken to football matches, and in spite of evidence that shows the spread of the virus among males aged 18 to 44 – the sector of the population most likely to attend pub football coverage. And there is also conflicting advice given about church singing by the different nations of the United Kingdom.

“Church services don’t last as long as football matches, and you could have low numbers of people attending, in facemasks and allow them to sing. That’s what you can do in Wales and Scotland, but you can’t in England. So, we need a more nuanced approach to this, working with faith communities,” Mr McManus said.

Both the Bishop of London, Dame Sarah Mullally, and the Bishop of Leeds, Nick Baines, have criticised the continuing ban on church singing, with Bishop Mullally urging an appraisal of singing, and Bishop Baines telling the House of Lords that being able to sing in a pub but not in a church “brings the rules into disrepute”. During a debate last month, health minister Lord Bethell said he accepted anomalies exist and that “we are, I know, letting down those who have a passion for singing and for religious worship”.

For churchgoers, though, singing is more than just an alternative to the spoken word. According to Peter Allwood, an experienced choirmaster and chairman of the Friends of Cathedral Music, singing is important as an expression of community and spirituality, and its physicality matters.

“The physical nature of singing means you feel that you are participating and contributing. As you breath deeply and open your lungs, you are releasing all sorts of things within you, and there is such a strong sense of community,” he said.

For evangelical churches, lack of singing has been a particular blow, for up to half of their worship services can be given over to music. David Leeds, director of strategy for the London Institute of Contemporary Christianity, said song was a focal point of gathered worship for evangelical churches.

“Churches have been cautious in the past year because they wanted to protect their vulnerable members,” he said. “But the continued ban seems inconsistent. It really is important to gather for worship. Singing helps build faith and then we take that faith beyond the walls of the church.”

On Saturday night, pubs will once more be full of fans supporting England in its quarter-final match with Ukraine. Even for those out of doors, an England goal will probably spell plenty of hugging and cheering – breaking social distancing rules. Then, the next morning, churches will be quiet, with just prayers murmured behind masks.

Football fan Peter Crumpler, who supports England but also newly promoted Premiership team Brentford, will note that difference in his work at a non-stipendiary minister in St Albans. “It feels like the passion that people feel for football has overridden the passion of worshippers in church,” he said. And according to Mr McManus, there is no reason to keep treating worshippers differently.

“We’ve managed, a more nuanced risk reduction menu of what people can do with restaurants, hospitality and gyms.  Places of worship have proven themselves to be able to do it,” he said.

And he warns that the inconsistency in treatment of different sectors of society “risks being undermined because people perceive there to be inconsistencies which are either not explained or where, sometimes, the science and risk hasn’t been thought through fully.”

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