Late last year I wrote several posts here about church leaders and the (vaccine) pass laws, initially when such a thing was in prospect, and most recently just after these restrictions – which are now even tighter in their effect, at least for most of the country – had come into effect.
My general position is to remain quite unconvinced by the state’s case for vaccine pass laws more generally. I might word it a little differently now (perhaps more strongly on the general side, especially given Omicron, and a bit weaker on possibilities of the antigen test) but this extract from my December post remains pretty much my view
I’m unpersuaded of the general case for these pass laws, and despite being fully vaccinated I have not yet obtained (let alone used) a pass. They seem offensive to our conception of a free and open society, and there appears to be no compelling health grounds to override (even temporarily) this sort of principle. As a vaccinated person I am quite unbothered about mixing with anyone, vaccinated or not, and we know that the vaccinated can also be infected and transmit. All else equal, the vaccinated are less likely to transmit, but all else isn’t equal in that (for example) a larger proportion of the vaccinated who do get Covid are likely to have few/no symptoms, and so may have no reason to suppose they are infectious. Things like rapid antigen tests are designed to help directly counter the risk of infectiousness (in vaccinated or unvaccinated), but the New Zealand government has been consistently opposed to use of these tests and still does not allow then to be widely available or used.
But my main concern, especially on this blog, has never been about the state. An atheistic state – in the process of outlawing elements of the free exercise of religion in New Zealand anyway – will do what it will do. As citizens we might lobby, grizzle, vote, argue, but the state has the power. My main focus is on the leaders of the Christian churches – especially the larger and more visible ones- who seem to have gone along with the state almost without exception since first the pandemic began. The state’s approach to religion – any religion – has been that religious gatherings are no more significant than the local knitting circle’s coffee morning, and rather less significant that keeping in production steel mills or gourmet bakeries. The state has regarded aid and comfort as something approved agencies of the state might provide, rather grudgingly, riding complete roughshod over traditional conceptions of family, civil society or church. Funerals – a key element in almost any functioning society – were completely banned for a time. With barely a visible/audible word from bishops, archbishops, or other denominational leaders.
The current regulatory approach focuses on gatherings, and thus was temptation/opportunity put in the way of church leaders. They could continue to hold services – even larger services than under the immediately previous set of controls – if only they insisted that everyone attending provide state papers proving that they had been vaccinated. The churches that complied would thus become – reluctantly or not – agents of enforcing the state’s policies and preferences, but would betray something very fundamental in the gospel of Christ, no longer being open to all-comers, but with the matter of who can attend church services determined by the state (in these days, a state with no interest in the gospel).
There were various justifications or rationalisations advanced. There was the reported “fearfulness” of some congregants who – it was claimed – would not attend church if forced to be in the same building as someone unvaccinated. There were suggestions it wasn’t for long and wasn’t worth making a fuss about. There was the point – the real temptation I suspect – that it was better to let some (most) come to church than adopt the no-vax pass laws which, initially, restricted gatherings to 50 people (now down to 25). And there was the claim – rarely teased out – that churches had (biblically) to obey the state, as if (eg) Romans 13 had ever been treated by churches as some “always and everywhere, with no exceptions” provision. In the end it seemed mostly to amount to going along, sometimes under cover of “who are we clergy to take a different view on health policy?”, as if “health policy” was the main issue or the state’s framing the only way to look at the issue. It seemed to me that church leaders had, by and large, “bent the knee” to the state – not (to be clear) in some sense of worshipping the state, but of letting the state or its priorities shape the choices of the churches, allowing the dialogue and debate to be set on the (atheistic, individualistic) state’s terms. On Twitter, in particular (which doesn’t really enable nuance that well) a few church leader readers took exception. They noted, for example, that there had been “consultations” with church leaders.
I was already aware of that and back on 19 November I’d lodged an Official Information Act request with the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet (DPMC, the lead public service agency on Covid regulatory policy advice etc), as follows:
Government departments typically process Official Information Act requests quite slowly and it wasn’t until last week that I finally received a full set of replies. I don’t suppose DPMC was actually trying to be obstructive (even if their own reply was clearly less than full), and after a while I learned that they had even parcelled my request out to include relevant material that might be held by MBIE, the Ministry for Pacific Peoples, and the Ministry of Ethnic Communities (with the latter agency I had a puzzled conversation in which their analyst commented that she didn’t know why it had been given to them as they had not done any such consultations, and I responded that indeed I would not expect them to have done so). Anyway, in the end I got substantive responses back from DPMC itself and from MBIE (the Ministry for Business, Innovation and Employment) which seemed to be involved because churches were “workplaces” (for a few).
Now, in some slight defence of the churches, it seems fair to note that the so-called consultation that went on seemed to occur to extremely tight deadlines. And perhaps some of the church leaders simply decided that the state would do what it would do, and simply focused on issues of administrative practicality etc. But…..the vax pass issue was a risk/possibility that had been round for months, as anyone looking overseas would have known.
In another partial defence, at least from the documents released to me it seems that the state was very selective about which churches and church leaders it chose to consult.
But none of this seems to justify that seemingly total absence of any serious theological framing in any church leader comment on the issue. Perhaps that sort of stuff would have been gobbledygook to the most of the public servants and politicians, but you give the game away when you accept the state’s framing of issues as the basis for discussion. There is nothing at all, in any of the material released, suggesting these leaders offered any perspective on the nature of church, on Christian community, on the gospel, on the nature of threats (infectious disease is hardly the only one), on radical inclusion, on when and where Scriptures suggests that exclusion from worship might be warranted, on the priority of community, or so on. Nothing. They basically seemed – usually by silence – to sign up to the “knitting group” model, rather than ever presenting gathered worship as one of the most important things humans do.
In the document trail, the first main document seems to be an email send on behalf of a middle manager at MBIE, Shane Kinley inviting responses on issues around vaccination pass restrictions, in just under 23 hours. The email went out on 9 November at 12:32pm, wanting responses by midday the following day, enabling “decisions to be made by Thursday 11 November”. Addressees were sent a few Powerpoint slides to comment on.
A strange aspect of the consultation was the “who”. New Zealand may now be a majority non-religious country, but of those who say they have a religious faith the overwhelming majority are one sort of Christian or another. MBIE sent me a (redacted) copy of the spreadsheet of the people they’d sought comment from
Of the 31 groups, three were Christian, half as many as the number of Buddhist groups consulted. It isn’t as if Christianity in New Zealand is some (say) Catholic monolith encompassing all believers. Did MBIE not know how to find any other Christian groups (hint: Google, the phone book etc)?
MBIE provided me with a copies of the text of the various responses they received, but with all directly identifying information deleted (if I cared more, I might appeal to the Ombudsman, on the grounds that we should be able to know who is making what submissions to the state – as is normal with, eg, select committee submissions).
My request had only been about Christian organisations (and my main interest is the Christian churches) but it was interesting to note one response from a Muslim group in which they state “as part of the Islamic jurisprudence, one cannot stop a believer from accessing their mosques to perform their prayers” (although the same group went on to claim that almost all their members were vaccinated and that they would apply the pass laws once they were in place).
Among the pages and pages of material, there seemed to be only two responses from Christian groups.
The first submission (which they note was put together hurriedly) says that their organisation has 500 parishes and 40 schools, as well as many social service agencies, aged care facilities etc. It was from the New Zealand Anglicans (the DPMC OIA below contains a copy of the same response).
This response offers no distinctly Christian or theological perspective, and simply observes that they would have no problem with church workers being subject to a “vaccination mandate”, and observing – as if embracing the “knitting group” model – that “our activities form part of the wider societal environment re gathering and events” and “any mandates/rules…should also apply to us”. Is church in any way distinctive? Not to these Anglicans.
The second Christian submission is probably on behalf of the Catholic bishops (there is reference to “priests, readers, and lay ministers”). This is the bit that caught my eye
In the end, they go along but not very happily, and it is interesting to note that call – still unheeded – for ready availability of antigen tests in the final sentence. There is nothing distinctively theological about it, but perhaps their concerns covered that ground as well. As I noted in my earlier post, the Catholic bishops’ public statement on vaccine passes etc was less bad than the Anglican one.
The second batch of released material was from DPMC itself. Included in that is an email from someone at the Ministry of Health, dated 17 November, indicating that “we have had to postpone the Faith-Representatives Hui, due to be held this evening”. Perhaps I will OIA the Ministry of Health about that event, but note that 17 November was five days after the date religious groups had been told was when decisions would be made.
A week earlier, the deputy chief executive of DPMC, Cheryl Barnes, had written to the chair of a group called National Church Leaders Aotearoa New Zealand. That group, apparently representing various Christian churches, had written to head of DPMC a week earlier requesting that the government “engage with your group of church leaders on New Zealand’s Covid-19 response”. Barnes welcomed this request – it would be very interesting to see how the request was framed – but her description of the place of churches also seemed rather of the “knitting group” approach, noting that churches are “places for education, health, social services, weddings, tangihanga, and funerals”. But not, it seems, place of gathered worship. Barnes goes on to invite this group to participate in the (postponed) Faith-Representatives Hui, as well as suggesting they might participate in something called the “Community Panel”, which seemed to gather perspectives on experiences.
Perhaps a mark of how unserious to Hui was to be – and did it ever happen? – was the variety of internal emails about people who still didn’t have details of the event even very late in the day.
In any case, the material of substance in the release – this from the main agency responsible for the Covid policy framework advice – relates to some exchanges with representatives of the Anglican church. On 3 November, there is an email from Philip Richardson, the Anglican archbishop to some DPMC people mentioning that “a few weeks ago” he and the Bishop of Auckland had (at DPMC’s request) met with DPMC “to discuss policy settings regarding Vaccines, mandating options and church organisations”. That is interesting in itself – was it the only Christian organisation DPMC then talked to (and if not, why is there nothing in the OIA response)?
But at this point, Richardson is flying blind and asks what is going on. He doesn’t want to make an theological or ecclesiological point, champion the distinctiveness of the church or Christian communities. No, “we simply want to ensure alignment of our advice to our parishes, schools, and social service agencies with Government guidance”. A DPMC staffer takes a week to get back to him and on the 10th – the day of the Barnes letter – suggests that perhaps a “broader discussion with different faiths together” might be helpful.
The Archbishop obviously didn’t immediately see the Barnes letter, as he responded directly to half a dozen DPMC staffers on the 11th (the day MBIE was telling people decisions would be made). The Archbishop copies to DPMC the reply he has just had sent to MBIE (see above) and goes on to add that there have been quite a lot of isolated approaches from various government agencies, which bishops often become aware of almost incidentally, suggesting that a single point of contact (with DPMC) had seemed like a good idea. He gets quite exercised on the points of process.
But there is no sign, at all, of any distinctively Christian theological/ecclesiological approach to the Covid, vax pass etc issues. It is just a lot like a mid-senior level corporate bureaucrat.
A DPMC staffer responds briefly noting that they were “looking to convene a faith-based gathering next week”.
The Archbishop responds – attaching a briefing paper (“The Health of the Body”) which had been prepared for the bishops “to provide a common high level basis for advice for Bishops”. It also is not part of the OIA release (perhaps I will ask for it to). The Archbishop says that “comments/feedback would be very welcome” and noted that “as specific guidelines are developed I will send them through”, looking for “guidance” from government, rather than (say) seeking to persuade or offering anything prophetic.
And that is it, at least assuming (as I do) that the relevant government agencies have answered more or less as the law requires. We knew there had been no prophetic voice from any of the leaders of the mainstream churches in public fora. And now it seems that there was nothing in private either. And if barely any Christian churches were consulted (nice to have been an Anglican it seems), there was nothing to have stopped leaders of other churches having written, or spoken out, to articulate a distinctive Christian perspective on faith, worship, grace, community and so on.
Not all individual congregations have gone along meekly with the government’s preferences, but few – none I’ve heard of (which isn’t to say there are none) – have been willing to defy the law, to lay claim to the importance of gathered worship, to which ALL are welcome. I’ve heard of congregations that stayed online only – but, whatever you think of such events, that is scarcely the gathered community. I’ve heard of a couple of modestly-sized churches which have split into two groups of fewer than 50 meeting in different parts of the building – not ideal, and harder to work with the 25 person limit now in place. I’ve also heard of churches that never get 50 attendees still insisting on vax passes to even come on the premises – an extreme example of selling out to the state’s vision, since nothing in the state’s own rules required, or even coerced it.
And, of course, we are now 2.5 months into this new pass laws world, the latest new Covid variant has proved materially less threatening (especially to the vaccinated) than what went before, and – despite the Catholic bishops – there is no sign of review, there is no sign of greater flexibility (eg RATS), the rules are tighter now than when first imposed, and there are no signposts or criteria laid out for the eventual easing, let alone complete removal, of these laws.
And yet there is not a word from our mainstream church leaders.
It really is “sheep without a shepherd” stuff, from organisations than seem all too ready to go along, to get along, to be conformed to the wishes and mindsets of the atheistic individualistic government of the day. There is not the slightest hint in any of it that there is more to fear than physical death, threats more intense than infectious diseases, that we take risks for relationship (with God and one another), and that safety is not a primary virtue.
But then these are the same mainstream church leaders barely heard from as the same government rams through Parliament – at a time when protest is outlawed – laws to make illegal significant aspects of orthodox Christian faith and practice.