Church leaders and pass laws consultation

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:

DPMC churches

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

mbie churches

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

mbie bishops

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.

 

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The Vanishing

That’s the title of a new book by American journalist Janine di Giovanni that I read a few days ago. If the title itself doesn’t reveal much, the essence is in the subtitle, “The Twilight of Christianity in the Middle East”.

Years ago I read William Dalrymple’s (1999) book From the Holy Mountain, in which the author retraced the journey made by two 6th century monks from Mt Athos to Egypt. When they’d made that first journey, these had been predominantly Christian lands. That was long ago, but even by 1999 Dalrymple could paint a picture of a seriously embattled faith in the lands from which the gospel first sprang, the land of some of the earliest missionary endeavours. Of course, it isn’t a new story – think of the churches of North Africa (land of St Augustine and Tertullian, of saints and martyrs like Felicity and Perpetua). And yet the decline has been sharp over the last 100 years – as just one example, at the end of World War One Constantinople, a Christian city for 1000 years, was still about half Christian, and now has hardly any native Christian population at all.

But even when Dalrymple wrote, the invasion of Iraq was still several years in the future and the Syrian civil war not even on the horizon. One might reasonably have regarded both the Hussein and Assad regimes as odious, and yet the long-established Christian populations were still somewhat stable. As Giovanni notes, in both countries there had been something of an implicit bargain, in which minorities had protection so long as they kept quiet about the politics (both Hussein and Assad themselves came from minority communities within their respective countries).

The picture is much bleaker today, perhaps best reflected in this quote from the dust jacket:

The book is a unique act of pre-archeology: the last chance to visit the living religion before all that will be left are the stones of the past.

One hopes, and one prays, not.

In some respects The Vanishing is a curious book. The author, who has long experience in the region, writes from as a Christian herself – a faith recovered as her adult years advanced – although it is not clear how much difference that faith makes to the book, which seems targeted at a wider secular Western audience (as just one small indicator of that, the one quote on the front cover of the British edition in front of me is from Salman Rushdie (“a tragic portrait of a disappearing world, created with passion and literary grace”). Adding to the oddness is a framing within the context of Covid: the book opens as Paris locks down in March 2020 (she has family connections in France) and ends with an Epilogue around Easter 2020, spent for her in a remote village in rural France. Well-written, even evocative, as both bits might be, I wasn’t quite sure the connection to the main content of the book: the relentless decline of the Christian church, and Christian communities across the Middle East.

Quite possibly, the author’s politics won’t be to everyone’s taste – and arguably it intrudes more than is strictly necessary to treat the topic of the twilight of Christianity. She is not at all keen on Israel – and perhaps a more balanced book might look more at the state of the church in Israel – she (understandably) has no time for Trump, but can’t seem to decide what her view is of moves that administration took to prioritise protection of Christians in some of these countries.

But probably most readers will come for the vivid reportage, across various trips to the region. Her focus is on Christian communities in Iraq, Syria, Gaza, and Egypt. In Gaza, once home to numerically-strong Christian communities, there are now estimated to be only perhaps 1000 Christians left, down by 75 per cent from already low numbers in just the last decade. In Iraq the exodus of Christians since the 2003 invasion is probably well known. Less appreciated, at least by me, is the scale of the exodus of Christians from Syria – of course, there has been a huge outflows of a wide range of peoples but di Giovanni suggests the Christian numbers have been particularly severely depleted.

In Eygpt, by contrast, there is still critical mass in the Christian communities – she visits one rural province which is apparently about 30 per cent Christian – and perhaps 10 per cent of the population (on average probably more educated and economically advanced shares of the population) identifies as Christian. But even there one gets the sense it might not take much to see a dramatic collapse in the size of the Christian communities.

She could, no doubt, have continued her story with visits to the West Bank – Bethlehem majority Christian just a few decades ago but a small minority now – and Lebanon.

Through a series of interviews with individuals and families, clerical and lay, Di Giovanni captures well some of the tensions – factors that pull and push people towards leaving (economic opportunity on the one hand, persecution and threats on the other), and yet the sense that to leave is not to walk away from a life of a few decades (these weren’t new missionary churches) but centuries upon centuries of faith and witness. A recognition that as the exodus continues, very soon there could be next to no Christian presence in many of these ancient lands, and the deep sadness of that.

Of course, what is striking about the decline of Christian communities in the Middle East is that, with rare exceptions, it isn’t the result of conversion (forced or otherwise) to Islam, or even the extreme secularisation that ails the West, but of emigration. Most people don’t change country even if they can just because the economic opportunities are better elsewhere (or many more New Zealanders would have gone to Australia over the last 50 years). That is probably especially true of people who are relatively economically successful in their own countries (as many of the Middle Eastern Christian communities had been over the last couple of hundred years). It usually takes push factors too – fear will be a powerful one, chaos all around one is another (something akin to genocide of the Armenian Christians 100 years ago a specific and horrifying example of the push). Perhaps too – and di Giovanni touches on this – the role of the West in the Middle East over the last 150 years may have been a factor – providing status and opportunity for local Christian communities in the first half of the 20th century in particular, but that tide has receded now.

It would take a more careful and systematic study, but looking back from the vantage point of the 21st century it is a little puzzling that the really sharp decline in Christian populations has happened only now. It isn’t as if the Muslim conquest is a recent development. Perhaps it is some combination of the creation of nation states (tending towards confessional conformity), starker differences in material living standards (the West vs the countries she focuses on), perhaps even the technology that makes these differences more visible and lowers the transport costs of relocating?

But whatever the cause(s), what a tragedy. Christians generally should pray for the revival of the gospel in these ancient lands – both because we should work for, and long for, the spread of the gospel everywhere, but also because to do otherwise is to dishonour and ignore our own heritage. Of the four great eastern patriarchates – Alexandria, Antioch, Constantinople, and Jerusalem – not one is any longer a predominantly Christian city, and soon few of their hinterlands may be either. Things can change, and I’ve long prayed that Constantinople might one day again declare the rule of Christ.

But it is hard not to lean towards discouragement and even the temptation of despair. Over 1500 years where the church has been snuffed out by Islam, it has never successfully been revitalised in those lands on any scale. We are taught that the gates of Hell will not prevail against God’s kingdom, and yet as we look at the lands where the gospel took root in the first 1000 years it is hard to be optimistic about the situation in any of them – be it the Middle East, or Western Europe and its offshoots where if the outward forms – art, music, great cathedrals – linger, faith and discipleship are at a very low ebb, Christian communities are often nothing like what they were even a few decades ago, and new ideologies sweep across our lands (even our churches). Of course, there is encouragement in sub-Saharan Africa and east Asia, and yet one wonders how many decades or centuries those encouragements will last.

In the West of course, the main issue is not emigration. It really is a case of people walking away from faith, and in a way thus in some ways more alarming. In the Christian tradition in which I was raised we were (rightly in many respects) taught that no one inherited Christianity, that there were no second generation Christians. It is an important observation, about the need for each generation to commit afresh, and yet most people who follow Christ today – in the West, in the Middle East, anywhere, do so because God used their parents to help form them in the faith. Once those chains on continuity are broken they are (have been proved over centuries to be) hard to recreate. God in his mercy and power may move and spark revival – and in the current embattled state of the church we must pray for it, but those interventions seem to have been rare throughout history. Instead we Christians in the West – and much more so those in the Middle East – look on the tattered remnants of a world now passing. One sees it one’s own neighbourhood – the consolation and heartbreak of living to a certain age – and how one longs for a fresh work of God, a renewal and revitalisation of faith, the powerful proclamation of God’s message of salvation, here and abroad.

Weighed low by discouragement, this morning scrolling through Twitter I came across this, apparently a quote from Tim Keller.

keller

He’s right of course. May we see that new thing God has for this – His – world.

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Churches and the “vaccine pass”

I’ve written a few posts over recent months about the reaction of New Zealand churches, and especially their leaders, to Covid and the ever-changing panoply of restrictions we’ve been living under for most of the last two years.

Back in September there was a more-general post. In October, there was a post about the then-foreshadowed coming introduction of pass laws, especially as they might apply in/to churches. And last month, some more reflections prompted by an address I heard from one pastor announcing his parish council’s decision to adopt a vaccinated-only model of gathered worship.

And now we are a week into the new pass laws, where significant chunks of life are accessible only to those who will show their government papers (confirming they were fully Covid-vaccinated at the time the pass was issued), in many cases by government edict (the law forces people to discriminate), in others by powerful government incentive, and in other cases – I think of the local open-air zoo which is apparently only open to those who will show their paper – by whim of the organisation concerned. Often it seems to be a bit of a mix.

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 focus is on the churches and how they appear to have chosen to respond. In fact this post is in part prompted by a bishop objecting to my characterisation of church leaders in this series of tweets a few days ago.

Twitter is not, of course, great for nuance. But rereading those comments a week or so on they seem neither inaccurate nor uncharitable, especially when set against (what we’ve seen of) the approach of the bulk of leaders of mainstream churches (perhaps especially what in US terms we might call the “mainline Protestants”) over the course of the pandemic.

None of that is to deny that the government has put church leaders in a difficult position with the imposition of the pass laws. As I understand it, they have had several options:

  • run vaccinated-only (or, more accurately, papers-only) services (which in most of the country they can currently do without limit),
  • run only open services, complying with the law (in most of the country, such services are restricted currently to no more than 50 congregants, but in principle multiple services could be run in succession),
  • run a mix of open and pass-only services, either on different days or in succession on the same Sunday morning,
  • not hold in-person worship services at all, but have some sort of online meeting,
  • defy the law.

I can understand the temptation – more neutrally, attraction – of the first option, which seems to be the one most local Protestant churches have gone with (one I’m aware of going above and beyond and banning any groups using the church buildings for any purpose if they do not require passes to be shown). It must be especially appealing if you are running a larger church, and especially in an area in which well over 90 per cent of those eligible have been fully vaccinated. It is so much more convenient for ongoing operations, especially if (as one hears of people doing) you can pre-register people (sight passes once from known congregants) in a way that avoids the irksomeness of checks of everyone at every service. Especially if your focus is on existing congregants. It is perhaps harder to understand in very small churches.

I’m also not suggesting that those leaders who have chosen to go along necessarily found the decision easy. I talked to one elder of a Wellington church that had gone pass-only, who spoke of being in tears at having to turn away someone from last Sunday’s service.

There is clearly a range of responses across churches, and it is hard to get an overall picture (without spending many hours tracking down individual church websites), especially for those denominations where there is no single national (or even diocesan) rule My impression is that the majority of churches have gone pass-only, but there is clearly a range of responses. My concerns are focused on the pass-only churches, and their leaders.

The Catholic and (established) Anglican churches are convenient reference points precisely because there is a high degree of centralised control, and because there are policy documents on record. The “pastoral letter” from the Catholic bishops is here, while I found the statement of the (“tikanga Pakeha”) Anglican bishops here (there is also a newsy article from an Anglican perspective here). I thought the Catholic statement was really rather good. There was plenty to disagree with (but then I’m not a Catholic) but this was the relevant bit of their bottom line.

Perhaps because of the Catholic focus on eucharistic worship – for which there is no conceivable online “substitute” – they explicitly seem to prioritise ensuring that both types of services are available. As I can see, in my part of Wellington the only open services are Catholic.

The Anglican approach seemed much more problematic, and dogmatic (I grant that my reaction my in part be to the brevity of the statement, but congregants see what leaders say, not what private reflection or anguished debate they may have undertaken). For example, the very first of their “two agreements in common” is this

The normative position for worship, events and gatherings is that they will be fully vaccinated. In other words, vaccine certificates will be required to attend services of worship, events and gatherings. This fully vaccinated approach, as the norm, reflects the best and most current health advice available to us as we seek to do all that we can to minimise the risk of anyone becoming infected with Covid-19.

This stance, it should be noted, goes well beyond the law, or even official advice. The official framework explicitly envisages unrestricted gatherings, but simply caps numbers at them (presumably to limit superspreader event risks). It isn’t clear to me, for example, whether “events and gatherings” might include regular gatherings like Bible study groups or home groups, whether meeting in church builidngs or under church auspices in private homes.

The bishops do allow for the possibility of exceptions, but the emphasis is clear, if only from the placement of this section very late in the document.

there is provision for a ministry unit to apply for an exemption to the vaccine certificate
requirement, where it discerns that there is a need to provide a worship gathering without
vaccination certificates.

But it isn’t exactly a ringing endorsement of the general idea that the church does not turn away those who would come to worship (even if with compromises to the extent of running segregated services). To be sure there is a general statement about the responsibility to minister to all, but (a) gathered worship seems pretty central to Christian faith and practice, and (b) it seems to come down to “if you really want to be awkward you can apply for an exception” without (for example) any commitment that all possible will be done to enable such options. [UPDATE: It has been clarified to me that each diocesan bishop is applying the general statement in their own way, and that the words quoted immediately above are specifically those for the Anglican diocese of Wellington.]

(There is a much better, and much theologically-richer, statement from the bishop of the (breakaway) orthodox Church of Confessing Anglicans.)

I heard someone the other day quoted as suggesting that it might be the first time in history the church had turned people away at the door (or, by advertising, from even approaching the door). Sadly of course, that won’t be the case. It is easy to think of egregious examples: all-white churches in the US South (until quite recent decades) or in South Africa. I couldn’t easily find out whether the German churches in the late 1930s banned (for example) Christians of Jewish descent from services (although many of the early debates were “just” about whether such people could hold offices in the church), but no doubt at least some congregations shunned such fellow believers. There will, no doubt, have been cases in other places and times. But the fact that there are precedents – even extreme and shameful ones – is no defence or justification for what so many churches are doing now.

There are various defences or justifications offered for the stance taken by the compliant churches.

Among the weakest is “oh, but it won’t last long”, as if any of us having any basis for knowing that. I’m not suggesting our government has some agenda to keep such restrictions on forever but (a) there are no published exit criteria, (b) no ringing official commitment to returning to normality ASAP, and (c) as the last two years have revealed, none of us can speak with much confidence about the future course of the virus. This “it won’t last long” line often seems to be backed up with assumptions of endless good intent on the part of the authorities, something we have little basis to rely on (most especially in New Zealand where key officeholders are openly irreligious, with little sense of how Christianity sees the church).

A second defence is “but some congregants are fearful being in the same place as the unvaccinated”. Perhaps there is some legitimate issue for a small number of people (seriously immunocompromised) but more generally ours is not a gospel of fear. Safety – or even the protection of this life – is not and never has been our highest priority. (And one can more or less tell that these policies are more about compliance than safety anyway, since no one is (yet) banning the under-12s.) And this argument isn’t just advanced for places where there is lots of Covid – not, at present, most of New Zealand – but in general: we should up-end fairly fundamental values (come, all who labour and are heavy-laden) on the off-chance of risk. To be fair to the Catholic bishops, their statement explicitly noted the potential of antigen test (which are much better aligned to managing infection risk) but most other mainline congregations just seem to go along with the state’s chosen model, let the state define how we do church.

There are defences along the lines of “well, the state imposes earthquake standards on our buildings, requires garish Exit signs etc etc” as if somehow building standards are comparable to restrictions on who may worship – this in a faith in Christ who reached out to all, including the least, the loneliest, the loveless (and the leper). Recall, for example, that the state’s edicts stretch beyond buildings and encompass even distanced open-air gatherings.

And there is a defence about not offending non-believers, fitting in and going along (given a common interest in getting through Covid). Except that the gospel is a counterculture, and this country we happen to live in is “no abiding city”. As resident aliens, we don’t lightly disobey its laws, but our citizenship – our values, our ethos, our practice – is to be shaped by another kingdom.

Personally, I find the “papers please” model – and the compliance of so many churches with it – repugnant for a variety of reasons. Slippery slope arguments can be overdone, but we are already dealing with a government that is in the process of legislating to outlaw material aspects of orthodox Christian life and ministry (upholding a biblical sexual ethic) and which is just about to advance with troubling (if overseas models are any example) “hate speech” legislation.

But perhaps most troubling to my mind are two things. First, we should be churches that reach out and welcome all who come – and not fearfully. And second, in going along with the state, the churches go along with the state’s mentality that is centred on the individual and the household, and not at all on the family of faith, or the sense that we are brothers and sisters in Christ. (Mercifully) the state does not tell people that they may not live with family members who are unvaccinated (or who refuse to show papers), and yet it – and church leaders who go along – treat membership of a congregation as akin to happening to turn up a movie theatre or night club. There is no sense of mutual commitment, obligation, and sacrifice. From individualist secular politicians and officials perhaps the mindset is understandable – they have no sense of a Saviour who laid down his life for us, who calls us to take up our cross and come and die – but these are leaders of Christian churches we are talking about, who accommodate to this secular individualist mindset. Church leaders who treat gathering for worship as much like the sewing circle meeting.

I might have more sympathy for, and charity towards, church leaders in the decisions they have been forced to make (one way or other) if there was any sign at all of a robust pushback against the encroachments of the state. But to mere congregants and observers there is no sign of anything of that sort. I know there have been some private consultations between officials and church leaders, both last year and this (from which I exclude “briefings” on how the rules once-settled actually work), but we hear or see little or what was said. As it happens, I have OIA request in for material relating to the consultations in recent months, and will probably write here about what is finally released. But when the state tramples so egregiously across the values of the church, perhaps one might have hoped to see some church leaders – not just people like Brian Tamaki – offering a theologically-informed public challenge, and hence a lead to the people in the pews. From day one of this pandemic there has been little sign of any of that. It is almost as if church leaders worry about being criticised by media and political elites, if they stand for a model of life – this world and beyond – and community that is about more than just avoiding Covid. Church leaders have been reluctant to call even for the freedom of all – papers or not – to gather for funerals, let alone for Christian brothers and sisters to ministers to each other in sickness and in grief. It is a bureaucrat’s model, not a faithful one.

For myself, I have decided that (fully vaccinated) I will not present a government pass to attend a church service, and so for the time being it seems unlikely that I will be attending a service. That hurts – prior to Covid there had hardly been a Sunday in my life when I not been in church, often twice – but it is a sober choice, pushing back against an offensive model that church leaders did not need to go along with implementing, and refusing to be complict in this exclusionary stance. Could I envisage a case where such restrictions might be warranted? Well, perhaps if we had a plague that was killing a large proportion of those it infected, and for which there was no vaccine, and for a very short period. But that isn’t the situation we – or church leaders – face today.

I also ask whether I’m being inconsistent and in practice treating church less seriously than I suggest. I don’t think so. I am not using a vaccine pass for anything (although don’t rule out doing so in extremis). Supermarkets do not require – cannot require – vaccine passes, and if the government were to extend repression in future I might fall back on online shopping. But even if I didn’t, my general objection to pass laws is mild compared to my unwillingness to participate in state-sanctioned worship on state-sanctioned terms (or perhaps worse, when church leaders go more exclusionary even than the state demands). The situation here and now is not that of the Three-Self Patriotic Movement in China – where some of those who compromised probably did so with the least-bad of intent – but we need church leaders who see more clearly the nature of the church, the nature of the state, and the character of the radical discipleship to which we are called. Going along, compromising little by little, because “it is a small thing” or “it won’t last long” or “people have choices” is too often the path to awakening eventually and reluctantly realising how far things have gone, whereupon ex post rationalisation rather than reformation is too often order of the day. Stepping out of the secular mindset isn’t easy, but it is our constant call, the more so in age where those holding powers are so indifferent to, uncomprehending of, at times actively hostile to, a Christian faith.

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A pastor and the pass laws

No doubt many denominations and congregations are now contemplating how they will respond to the New Zealand government’s proposed new vaccine pass laws, likely to come into effect in the next week or two. Under such laws, either people will be required to show their papers (confirming they have been vaccinated) or congregations will be severely restricted in how many people can gather for worship, even in places where there is no Covid. There is no time limit on these restrictions, and nor are there any exit criteria. This all comes on top of long-running gathering restrictions, severe on large churches, over recent months, again in places where there has been no Covid.

Of the Christian denominations I’ve only so far seen a statement from the New Zealand Catholic bishops. It seemed to be a thoughtful piece, if emphasising “safety” perhaps more than seems entirely consonant with the gospel (and prompting thoughts of “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe”, where the children ask if Aslan is safe, and are told ‘no, of course he isn’t safe, but he is good”).

I was at a church yesterday where the sermon was replaced by a talk from the pastor outlining his thoughts, apparently shared by the parish council, on how the congregation should respond to the new laws.

I’m not going to name the congregation or the pastor but since it was an attempt to bring Scripture to bear in thinking about the issue, I thought it would make a useful presentation to reflect on and respond to. I didn’t have a pen on me so didn’t take full notes, but did jot down his outline as soon as I got home.

The talk drew on three strands of Scripture

  • Jesus and the lepers,
  • The mind and example of Christ, and
  • Paul on the weak and the strong

The lepers are an obvious starting point (I dealt with them briefly in my own previous post).    The pastor noted that Jesus reached out to lepers, and touched them to bring healing.  But, he went on, Jesus didn’t tell the lepers to ignore the strictures of the rules on distancing  (things like calling out “unclean, unclean” as they approached).  Many of these things aren’t black and white.

It was a fair point –  and interesting in the light of the sacrificial service many Christians have subsequently offered to lepers (one might think, perhaps most famously, of Father Damien of Molokai) –  and yet, arguably, not directly relevant to the issue at hand.  (Moreover, a couple of the commentaries on my shelves suggest that in 1st century Palestine it is possible that lepers were able to attend synagogue, although behind a screen to maintain physical distance.)

Thus, no one is proposing those with Covid should be encouraging to come to church, pass the peace, take Communion etc.  It is an infectious disease, with very severe consequences for some of those who catch it.  The issue with the pass laws is not whether those who are sick should come to church –  not only generally should anyone with an infectious disease not do so, but in the specific case of Covid if you know you have it you are already required by law to isolate. Instead, the presenting issue is around vaccination and government confirmation of vaccination.  We know that vaccination does not prevent a person being infected with, or infectious with, Covid, even if the probabilities (reduced risk of infection, some reduction in risk of transmission) work in the desired direction. 

The second set of Scriptures the pastor referred to related to how Jesus lived on earth.  As he noted, the question “would Jesus have got vaccinated?” is silly at one level (vaccines didn’t exist), although I was disconcerted to hear a docetic tendency is his suggestion that “perhaps Jesus didn’t need to”, as if  Jesus’ full humanity did not include proneness to infection and disease.    The main specific example the pastor cited was the baptism of Jesus by John.    John’s baptism was one of repentance, and orthodox Christianity is clear that Jesus had no need of repentance –  he was without sin.  And yet he asked to be baptised by John.   But, again, I wasn’t sure of the relevance to the issue at hand.  Jesus’ baptism seems to have been an act of submission to, and participation in, the plan of the Father, signified in the descent of the Spirit (in the form of a dove) and the voice from heaven “this is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased”.   I’m not going to disagree that sometimes we do things we don’t strictly have to do, for others.  But the baptism of Jesus seems a rather weak reed to rest anything much on in a Covid context.

The third heading –  the weak and the strong –  seemed, at first glance more promising.   The reference here was to Romans 14 which begins “Accept him whose faith is weak without passing judgment on disputable matters”, in this specific case the eating of meat.  “Do not destroy the work of God for the sake of food”, he goes on.    He could have added I Corinthians 8 into the mix.   They are strong and important words, and yet –  as the pastor himself said – it really wasn’t clear in this Covid pass laws context who are the “strong” and who the “weak”.  Are “the weak” in this case those who might be fearful of infection (to a reasonable extent, or not), or those fearful –  or with strong conscientious reasons – of getting vaccinated?  He didn’t know (and, in this specific context I’m not sure I do either, even though I’d like as many as possible to be vaccinated). 

In the end, this pastor’s choice seemed to come down to two points. The first was that there were (or might be) particularly vulnerable people in the congregation. The second was that some members of the congregation were involved in ministry in some local council flats, where the density was relatively high and more vulnerable people lived. It would, he said, be highly undesirable if the congregation were to be a vector of transmission of Covid into that setting.

And thus he announced that the intention was that the church’s services would, for as long as the law lasted, be open only to those who would show proof of vaccination, attempting to sugar-coat this with “well, we all know each other, so it would only be necessary once”, adding that it would be just like going to the movies or a restaurant, and stressing that vaccination was just something people “could choose” (I presume this was intended to distinguish it from discrimination on grounds of, say, race or sex).

I don’t want to suggest that this pastor’s approach was at all cavalier. One could hear the unease in his voice, at being put in a situation where choices of this sort (whichever way they went) had to be made. No doubt it will be an unease felt by many pastors and elders etc up and down the country. They are not easy choices, and perhaps particularly not for large churches.

But it is striking how, in the end, so many are just willing to go along, and conform with the preferences. priorities, and worldviews of an (atheistic and materialist) government which – understandably given their worldview – sees gathering to worship the living God, he before whom all will one day stand for judgement, is just akin to heading out for a movie or a bite to eat. Or how willing people are to treat matters of deeply-held belief (well-justified or not) as simply a matter of choice, which people can readily change (and thus, some may at some point in the future suggest, our choice to follow Christ himself?).

As I’ve noted in previous posts, it has been so ever since Covid restrictions began in March 2020. Churches went along quietly with the cancellation of the celebration of the Easter – pre-eminent feast of the Christian year – and with the prohibitions on gathering for worship (even distanced, even outdoors). Pastors went along with being barred from visiting the sick, ministering to the dying (and desperate) – and it isn’t only pastors who do such ministries – as if the highest priority is this life and the things of this life. Pastors went along with caps on congregational size, even in very large buildings (where physical distancing could readily have been achieved), and so on. And now they (in many cases, perhaps even most but time will tell) propose to fall into line when governments purport to tell them who they may, or may not, let join in worship – perhaps indefinitely. And, will act as enforcers of that government law, checking papers and turning anyone who can’t or won’t (and they are different groups) show them.

I was interested to listen to yesterday’s talk, partly because it is good to hear the case for a side one is sceptical of, and because the pastor concerned can be a thoughtful insightful preacher. And yet this time I was left with a sense that in the end he was going to go along because (a) it was easier, and (b) the council housing involvement. The latter argument made little sense to me. It might be a reasonable argument for those of the congregation actively engaged in that ministry – as might requiring an antigen test before setting out on each occasion, if the statist government had not largely outlawed such tests (unlike the situation in most other advanced countries). But what relevance does it have to gatherings of the whole congregation for worship? But it is easier, no doubt. If they chose not to go along they’d either have to restrict – at times severely – the size of congregations, or choose to simply defy the law and risk prosecution. It is a clever law, because it tempts churches to compromise their gospel of open welcome, with the promise that “go along, and we’ll let the compliant meet, with no problems”. Crafty temptations often take that sort of form.

There are worse things than simply, thoughtfully and prayerfully choosing to disobey an unjust and illegitimate law. A law that tells churches they cannot meet as they would prefer – indoor or outdoor – welcoming all who would come, indefinitely is such a law. And not, as it happens, even very well aligned with the physical risks the government claims it is worried about

The optimistic take is, I suppose, that it may all be over in a few months’ time. Perhaps, and we must hope so. But even if so, controls once used are not forgotten by those who once used them. And this is, after all, the government that is currently legislating to outlaw aspects of prayer and orthodox Christian practice and ministry, so the idea of slippery slopes is not wholly fanciful. And nor is a sense that too many churches and church leaders are all-too-ready to take the easier path, with little sense of where – if anywhere – they might take a stand.

A government that will outlaw open and joyful large scale Christmas Eve midnight services – a festal celebration of the incarnation of Christ – might be a place to start.

(My earlier post on such issues is here.)

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Churches and “vaccine passports”

The New Zealand government confirmed yesterday that it is about to introduce “vaccine passports”, to be used to confirm (a) that the person they are issued to has had two doses of the Covid vaccine, and (b) either under government direction or at the discretion of other entities, to determine whether the person it is issued to will in future be allowed into various events, locations, or to hold a particular job. This sort of certification is apparently to be different from the certification provided to facilitate international travel, which is convenient because the international travel one seems fairly unproblematic, even highly desirable (given rules imposed by other countries). My focus in this post is wholly and solely on the domestic version.

(For avoidance of any doubt, I have no serious qualms about the vaccine at all, and will have had my second dose by the end of this week. I would encourage everyone possible to be vaccinated, and think those who refuse to be at best unwise.)

In principle, it is a strange development. This government, in particular, tends to be the party that champions human rights law and prohibitions against discrimination on all sorts of grounds – some of which the person potentially discriminated against can’t change (eg race, sex) but many of which they can. And where discrimination is lawful , I can’t think of many areas – perhaps confirmation of age via birth certificates is an exception – where the government actively facilitates the discrimination, let alone compels it.

But set the abstract aside for a moment, and focus specifically on Covid. Covid is, after all, an infectious disease, and for some people contracting it can be very serious, even fatal. Those most at risk are – all else equal – the unvaccinated. But the planned vaccine passport isn’t about dealing with those who actually have Covid and are infectious. We already deal with them through existing legislative means. Those with Covid are required to isolate, typically in government-run facilities, and close contacts (many of whom are likely to be infected) are also required to isolate and be tested. Some might debate around the margins of those rules, but the general principle of isolation and care seems sound, and not at all problematic for the church (whatever one might think about rules that prohibit a priest etc ministering to the sick or dying). It is consistent with, for example, Old Testament provisions on the treatment of those with infectious skin diseases.

Consistent with this, as a matter of courtesy and common prudence, it is both normal and reasonable to expect people who are sick (colds, flu, whatever) to stay home – including from church services – and (a) get well, and (b) reduce risk of infecting others. These things are rarely absolute: few would withhold a hug from a child (or a spouse) because they had a cold. Some things matter more than physical risk.

But what the vaccine passport approach appears to involve, as it affects churches is two things:

  • first, the potential for governments to restrict the opening of churches.  This could take the form of requiring only vaccinated people to be able to attend services, or some sort of two-tier model where larger service sizes could be allowed where only vaccinated people were able to attend (smaller services might still be permitted –  as at present –  if unvaccinated people were allowed to attend).   The vaccination passport would allow churches to control entry to comply with such a rule.
  • second, churches themselves might impose a “vaccinated only” rule, and use the vaccine passport as a control tool.

Governments can, of course, impose any restrictions they choose, at least in a system like New Zealand where Parliament is sovereign and a single party controls Parliament.   My main focus here is the choices churches make, whether themselves or in response to continued attempts by the government to regulate and restrict services –  recall that this was the government that last year outlawed the public celebration of Easter and declared it would have no hesitation in cancelling Christmas either.  It is a militantly atheistic government that is in the process of outlawing important elements of orthodox Christian faith and practice.  But it is the government, by law established and –  in some sense, as Scripture teaches –  appointed by God.

There are both prudential and principled considerations that should be relevant as individual congregations, diocese, and national church bodies consider such matters.  And as individual churchgoers consider their own response, both as churchgoers, and as citizens and voters.

Probably few people would have had a problem with a temporary suspension of church services in the face of an infectious as virulent and fatal as the plague – although even then the courageous (whether clergy or not) are willing to take risks to minister to and care for the sick. Care isn’t just physical and it isn’t some exclusive prerogative of the state.

Many people (Christians) will have had no particular problem with temporary suspensions of church services last year when Covid first struck, although in my view church leaders were far too ready to go along with that, treating gathering for worship as some inessential activity (while steel mills and fancy bakeries go on), and not insisting on (for example) outdoor, small, socially-distanced gatherings, where any risks of transmission were greatly reduced.

But that isn’t where things stand now.    Now we have a vaccine that is very effective in preventing serious illness and death and quite effective in reducing the risk of being infected in the first place (and, it seems, somewhat effective in reducing onward transmission, though the extent of that appears to be contested).  The vaccine is freely available to all, and in New Zealand although access to the vaccine was initially very delayed, the vaccine passport option is being considered against a backdrop of vaccination rates that have been rising rapidly, such that now about two-thirds of the entire population has had a first dose (and can be expected to soon be fully vaccinated).  Even if no one else were to have a first dose, we would have population vaccination rates similar to those at present in a number of European countries (notably Norway and Sweden and the UK) which have removed all or almost all domestic Covid restrictions.  Only time will tell how those initiatives will work –  since they are mostly very recent –  although the UK picture is somewhat encouraging.  But if they do work out –  and we will have a good sense before long –  it is hard to see why New Zealand governments would be imposing fresh restrictions, including on churches, or facilitating such discrimination at all.

But, as I say, governments will do what they do.  Should churches comply?  Should they choose to establish such discrimination themselves?

I’ve less to say on the former than the latter.   If churches refused to comply, their leaders (and potentially, those less likely, their members) would risk facing prosecution and potentially fines or imprisonment.    That might be appropriate –  to establish the point that it is not acceptable to have governments regulating when church services may occur or who may attend, especially when there is no talk of any sunset clause on such restrictions – but I’m not a church leader myself, and I’m not going to call on anyone else to make that sacrifice, even if I would support anyone who did.  Rushing to embrace persecution (or prosecution) isn’t a good thing in and of itself, but neither is allowing the state to regulate gathered worship, or to redefine it as some inessential activity.  I don’t regard Christians as under any general obligation –  eg Romans 13 – to obey such laws, any more than underground churches in Communist countries do, but it is a prudential judgement having regard to the specific circumstances.

But what horrifies me is if churches –  individually or collectively –  take this government-provided certificate and use it themselves to actively exclude the unvaccinated from Christian worship.    And not for a week or two, but potentially indefinitely.  It doesn’t seem like the gospel of Jesus Christ who healed lepers (rather than shunned them), scandalised polite society by mixing with (quisling) tax collectors, who spoke of going out to the highways and byways and drawing people into the Kingdom.  The gospel of the Jesus who embraced suffering –  even unto death –  for us, and who calls us as disciples to take up our own crosses (be ready to go and die) and follow him.  Following Christ isn’t a call to safety, but to risk  (bringing to mind the line –  of Aslan, the Christ figures –  in The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe,  that “of course he isn’t safe, but he is good”).

Of course, in Scripture there are cases where exclusion from the Christian community and public worship is called for, nay commanded.    There is the general Matthew 18 text, for the one who repeatedly persists, unrepentant, in some sinful behaviour.  There was the (fatal) judgement on Ananias and Sapphira, for their open lies to the church.  Or Paul’s injunction (in 1 Corinthians 5) to have nothing to do with those (of the congregation) who persist in sexual immorality.    Church discipline is something churches are called to exercise. But hardly any ever do……at least among the mainstream denominations that (a) where hear most of, and (b) still have most adherents.   We welcome –  or we should –  the unruly, the ill-dressed, the sinners (as we all are), taking risks for the gospel, and yet not tolerating persistent unrepented (and repentance is a serious thing, not a brief formal expression of regret) sin, or outrightly heretical or dangerous teaching.

I’d not be keen at all on a congregation barring the unvaccinated, but one that took biblical church discipline seriously I could at least respect more, as attempting (wrongly in my view) some sort of consistent practice.   Few will or do.  Notwithstanding the views of the (highly politicised, agent of the Russian state) Russian Orthodox Church, failing to be vaccinated cannot easily and generally be categorised as sin (although in some cases perhaps it might be a reflection of sinful pride), however unwise you (or I) might think it to be.  And there are many other behaviours –  in our own lives, and those of those we hope to draw in – that are much more clearly sinful, and potentially just as harmful to others (even if not necessarily in a physical sense.

What motivates churches that consider using vaccine passports to exclude and/or coerce?  It seems to me there could be two, somewhat different, motives.  One is fear.  We hear talk that some people will not come to church unless they can be sure that everyone present has been vaccinated.  That would be unfortunate, but doesn’t seem like a good basis for exclusion.  Not only is life full of risks, but for most (vaccinated people) the risk around Covid is very small – and the risk comes from those having Covid, not  per se, from those who are unvaccinated (the unvaccinated are more likely to get it, and perhaps having got it –  unawares –  more likely to pass it on, but there is risk of transmission from those who are vaccinated, and we should not encourage a pulling back from all contact, perhaps especially at this late stage).   Of course, there may be a minority of people (regular church attenders) who – even vaccinated –  might be themselves extremely vulnerable to any infection, but even in that case there is a balancing of interests and principles (and other remedies, eg high quality medical masks).

The second possible motives seems to be one that if society is going this way, the church should do likewise.  I presume the defensible version of this argument is about not causing unnecessary scandal in the wider community, but (a) not every entity/outlet is likely to operate an exclusionary policy for the unvaccinated (and some countries no longer do either), and (b) we are called to live counterculturally, as aliens and strangers, going to Christ outside the gate, not simply fitting in.

The two concerns come together as I reflect on other times where the church has gone along with exclusionary approaches, whether from law or conformity to the society around it.   There was vigorous resistance in many places to integrating churches in the US South even 60-70 years ago (I wrote about some of that here)  –  and language of “infection” or threat was unknown, nor threats that people wouldn’t attend if integration happened.  Or one could think of churches in apartheid South Africa, or 1930s Germany.  Is excluded the unvaccinated (perhaps for a year or so) as bad as exclusion of Jews or blacks?  No, of course not.  But the really extreme cases aren’t the only ones in which the church is called to live the gospel, and living faithfully and counterculturally in the face of lesser threats and temptations helps us prepare to resist when (as they do) more egregious threats arise.

I said on Twitter yesterday I’d be reluctant to go to a church service that insisted on a vaccination certificate.  There were two thoughts behind that.  The first was a more general point, that New Zealand is not and never has been a country of national ID cards, and we should not start –  or be complicit with it –  now, especially as with each passing day and rising vaccination rate the case for restrictions etc diminishes.  But much more important is the specifically Christian consideration that I would not want to be part of a congregation that –  whether under threat of legal penalty, or (worse) voluntarily –  applied such an exclusionary policy.   The gospel is one of radical embrace of the last, the least, the unlovely, the unwise, it calls all men and women to follow Christ, it calls us all to turn from our sin (and help others do so too) but it also calls us to acknowledge the diversity of the rich tapestry that is humanity, where many will do things I think unwise, perhaps even dangerous, and where at times I may do so too.  And yet we are very loath to close off access to worship and sacrament to any, except in the most extreme cases of unrepented sin.

PS I forgot to include here the point that one compromise model might have churches requiring or encouraging attendees- vaccinated and not – to take a rapid antigen test before attending a service, at least perhaps in a locality in which a significant amount of Covid is present. I have some sympathy for such an approach (as an option for the especially worried), but the New Zealand government at present outlaws such tests (which are generally available in many places in Europe).

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Churches and Covid

18 months ago, as New Zealand went into its first Covid “lockdown”, I wrote a post here about the values implicit (sometimes explicit) in the choices the government made about who or what would be “locked down”, and who would not. The New Zealand “lockdown” was the most stringent adopted by a government in any hitherto-free society but even it involved choices that revealed the values of the political decisionmakers. Broadly speaking the values seemed to be:

  • materialism, and practical atheism,
  • statism,
  • prioritising the convenience of officials rather than the freedoms of the citizenry, and
  • prioritising economic activity over anything but the virus.

Most of that earlier post still seems valid now and nothing of substance has changed in the New Zealand government’s approach since (if anything their maximal regime has become even more draconian).

But what bothers me this far into the Covid-era isn’t so much the government itself: atheistic governments will do what they will do (and in fairness some less-evidently atheistic ones in other places have often adopted somewhat similar restrictions, if usually less severe) but the utter passivity of the churches and church leaders, who seem quite content to accommodates the values choices of our government.

In last year’s lockdown the celebration of Easter – the greatest feast in the Christian year – was prohibited. No ifs, buts, or maybes. Any gathering for worship and celebration was simply prohibited by a state that no doubt saw no irony prohibiting the celebration of the triumph over death accomplished in Jesus. It wasn’t even as if they granted even modest (realistic) accommodations: small groups, physically spaced, outdoors even. They simply banned Christian worship, in a way (I’m pretty sure) never previously done in New Zealand history. And this was whether or not the congregation in question was in an area with recorded Covid cases. During the election campaign both the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition were at pains to agree that they’d have no hesitation in cancelling Christmas either, if the Covid imperative seemed to them to demand it. To them, neither of these festivals seemed to have any more significance than, say, the monthly meeting of the local knitting circle or the school fair. Perhaps that shouldn’t be surprising, so far gone is our society. What should be more surprising is that churches and church leaders meekly went along. Officials and ministers fend off any concerns suggesting that people can “meet online”, but whatever such “meetings” might be (and some seem to have found some value in them) they are no substitute for gathered, incarnational, Christian worship.

One of the most egregious aspects of the entire New Zealand “lockdown” framework was, and is, the absolute prohibition on funerals. Few, if any, other hitherto free countries went that far. This isn’t a distinctively Christian concern, it is a wider matter of common humanity, as if the deepest rituals of our societies and families mean nothing to officials and politicians except as a little discretionary colour, dispensable at will, at the whim of some politicians. When there were choices, the steel mill and aluminium smelter were left producing, luxury food producers kept producing and distributing, but people could not gather to grieve – not even a spouse of decades could be at a service or a graveside. The callous inhumanity – perhaps worse for being repeated this year – almost defies belief. But scarcely a word is heard from our church leaders.

If the prohibition on funeral services was bad, arguably worse were some of the less visible restrictions. Often people were left to die alone, without the touch and comfort of family, friend, or priest. The bereaved are left to grieve alone (other than someone who happens to be in government-deemed “bubble”) as – for example – priests and pastors (like family and friends) are unable to visit, to sit with, to cook for those who are suffering. It defies common humanity, but no doubt it is clean and easy to enforce for officials (the same absurd ministers and officials who banned swimming in the sea, or parents giving driving lessons to their children, where there was no public health official at all, but….convenience). All support must flow only through government-mandated agencies, as if the government is prior to and over the bedrock aspects of faith, family, and community on which our societies are built.

Of course, we all know the rationale, but that doesn’t justify the quiescence of the churches in the face of these restrictions. Infectious disease isn’t a good thing, and Covid can kill. Restricting the spread of the virus is probably a good thing in and of itself, but it isn’t the only thing. and it isn’t even the most important thing, at least for the Christian. The mindset that has driven government policy seems – perhaps not surprisingly to be – “we can think of nothing worse than death, and never mind any one who disagrees”. Never mind a priority on worship, on gathering, on relationships that go beyond those of the household in which one happens to dwell.

It has all come into sharper relief 18 months on. If the New Zealand government was slow to act last March, it was at least in company. What is striking is the cavalier way they have continued to expose the citizenry to their draconian lockdowns, in failing to adequately police the international borders, the priority put on entry to New Zealand of those one whom the government’s favour rests, the failure to adequately manage the managed isolation and quarantine arrangements (where New Zealand has twice the rate of breaches as Australia) and the failure to put in place vaccination programmes earlier. And so we’ve been flung into extreme lockdowns again, again with barely a word from church leaders.

The situation has become more egregious recently since in all but Auckland there is no (community) Covid. In most of the area outside Auckland, there has been no community Covid for more than a year. And yet gatherings for worship – and funerals – are still severely restricted, for the convenience of the government.

But all the government seems to meet from the churches is acquiescence, or worse. There is no sign, for example, of civil disobedience, despite weeks and weeks of restrictions. It is as if some churches and pastors no longer believe in the potency and priority of worship, as anything more than a gathering for a chat and a cup of tea.

I encountered a sad example myself. A local church, fallen on hard times recently, has a typical congregation of 25-35 people. The current restrictions outside Auckland prohibit gatherings of more than 50 people, but that clearly was not going to be a problem for this congregation. But instead of resuming gathered worship last Sunday, as soon as the law permitted it, the pastor indicated that as people were a bit tired and stressed (apparently) there would be no such gathering last Sunday. In the same newsletter, the pastor was keen to highlight how the church building was being used by local doctors as a vaccination centre – a worthy use no doubt, but quite a contrast to the absence of gathered worship. It was almost a caricature of social-gospel Christianity – never mind worship, but the buildings are being used for other good things (not, of course, as if they were in conflict).

This week it seems the church in question is going to gather for worship. There is no Covid in Wellington, and the congregation (at maximum) takes up a fairly small proportion of the space in the building. There are no government mask requirements in churches, but the church is going to impose one anyway. In a city with no Covid, no one will be able to worship if they will not wear a mask. Apparently they are so restrictive they are also scrapping Communion for the time being.

Now you might have wondered if this was a church that was typically rule-bound and scrupulous, ready to exclude for the slighest offence. But no. Not that long ago, when a (now former) pastor walked out on his marriage the elders were content to let him continue preaching. The current pastor seems reluctant to enunciate any firm truth or behavioural standards, and certainly takes no stand in defence of orthodox church teaching on sexuality (or any other matters). All his message is on embracing difference, rarely if ever on defining (and forming people in) truth. It is procedural liberalism for a dying church. But masks…….in a city with no Covid – is the one stand he will make. It really is as if they see the church as some branch of the public health bureaucracy, some social do-gooding agency, and not the gathered people of the living God, willing to risk life, name, and property for the King, who offered his Son for us, before whom we will one day stand in judgement.

Why might we expect anything different from atheistic government leaders when the church is so feeble about living what it (supposedly) teaches?

Are there prudent limits? No doubt. Does anyone want to infect another person? Of course not. But throughout the last 18 months churches (in New Zealand, but as far as I can see, often abroad too) have told governments that gathered worship isn’t very important, that the support people in the community (the church) provide for one another isn’t very important, and that deference to the state is the first priority. We aren’t generally charged to pursue reckless courses, but we are challenged to fear much less what would destroy the body than what would distract us from the true worship of the living God, on whom our eternal hope rests.

Would there be pushback if church leaders took a stand? Of course, and we’d be told that church is no different to the tiddlywinks club etc – perhaps worse, since we insist (with the church through the ages) on singing. If we believe that, or let that view go unchallenged, we have become like salt that has lost its savour.

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Submission on the Conversion Practices Prohibition Legislation Bill

In a post last week I wrote about the Conversion Practices Prohibition Legislation Bill that the New Zealand government and its Prime Minister are ramming through Parliament (shoddily drafted, no proper consultation process, couldn’t pass the standard Regulatory Impact Assessment test, short period for Select Committee submissions and so on) aided and abetted by some compliant and ideologically aligned officials in the Ministry of Justice and Crown Law.

When I wrote that post I wasn’t intending to make a submission to the Select Committee. Not only is it government-controlled, but almost all the other parties basically seem to support the bill, and (it seems) its full-throated attack on the practice of an orthodox Christian teaching on sex, marriage, etc. Their ideological course was set, and suggestions I’d seen (including from evangelical organisations) about asking nicely for some accommodation, when ministers seem to have known exactly what they were doing, wasn’t really to my taste.

But then I realised two things. First, that many individual orthodox Christians are not in a position where it is easy for them to speak out. Defend an orthodox Christian ethic in public and some would risk losing their jobs and worse. Perhaps it comes to that at some point, but each person has to make their own call. As someone who is more-or-less retired I have greater freedom and it would seem slightly self-indulgent not to take the opportunity. And, second, I suspect few Members of Parliament, especially on the Labour/Greens side, seem to have much sense of what serious discipleship means, what a serious religious faith and practice involves. If they are good-natured, perhaps they think it is a friendly and unthreatening homily on Sunday morning, a food bank, and perhaps a person to preside at the solemnities of life (at least when governments permit weddings and funerals to occur). But the gospel is supposed to be life-changing, upending, about conversion of heart, and mind, and body, and we are all supposed to be in it together, drawing one another one slowly but surely towards the likeness of Christ. And an orthodox Christian sexual ethic, that we seek to be formed into and form others to, is quite at odds with the dissipation of the age, championed by so many of our political and cultural figures (sometimes aided by fellow travellers in the churches).

And so I put in a submission this afternoon.

Submission to Justice Committee Conversion Practices Prohibition Legislation Bill September 2021

I ran through some of the weird anomalies in the bill – did you know for example that 16 and 17 year olds require parental consent to be married, but under this bill parents (and others) are prohibited from doing anything with the intention of changing behaviour on matters sexual? – although my prime focus was on the nature of the assault on orthodox Christian faith and practice.

My introduction was as follows

The bill before the Committee – rushed, and without (as even the Ministry of Justice acknowledges) any sort of proper consultative process – is poorly drafted and riddled with inconsistencies.

But more importantly, it reveals the government to be at best ignorant of orthodox Christianity and (more probably) both ignorant of it and extremely hostile to it, to the extent of outlawing important elements of orthodox Christian practice and conduct, at least on any sexual matter (hardly a small element of any family, society, civilisation, or faith). When a party has an absolute majority in New Zealand’s Parliament it can, of course, outlaw anything it wants, but it is as well to be clear about the (objective) open hostility of an atheistic government to the faith that shaped our civilisation over 1500 or more years, and about the totalitarian tendencies implicit in the proposed law, that seeks to close down any private spaces (be it family, church or whatever) for alternative approaches to sexual issues
to the “anything (consensual) goes” decadent approach apparently now favoured by the government and many of its supporters. 

Orthodox Christianity has consistently taught that sexual desire is to be given expression only within a marriage between one man and one woman, that chastity is an obligation on all, and that celibacy and continence are obligations on those not in a marriage between one man and one women. That teaching – truth as we understand it – does not change with the whims of the world around us. It is not necessarily an easy path to follow, but we seek
to do it by grace, by the Holy Spirit, and with the support, counsel, and (at times) discipline of church and family.
These may not be your views. You may struggle to even understand them. But they are hardly views and practices that have come down in the last shower.

and ended the submission this way

The mindset behind this bill knows nothing of concepts of sin, guilt, judgement, temptation, grace, transformation and so on. And if it has heard of such a mindset, it wants it extirpated in New Zealand. It also seems to know nothing of civil society or the family, at least if these entities – both prior to the State – ever hold views and seek to live in ways not in accord with the views of those currently holding the commanding political heights.

Discipline within the family of God, including on sexual matters, is something with a long and deep history. As just one example, take this passage from the gospel of Matthew (from the New International Version translation of the Bible)

Dealing With Sin in the Church
15 “If your brother or sister[b] sins,[c] go and point out their fault, just between the two of
you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. 16 But if they will not listen, take one
or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two
or three witnesses.’[d] 17 If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse
to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.

Sin takes many forms, and isn’t just around sexual matters. But it is the government itself that has singled out sexual matters, so those are the ones I will address here.

Orthodox Christian teaching teaches that homosexual practices are sinful, that adultery is sinful, that lust is sinful, that sex outside marriage between one man and one woman is sinful. Most would probably put use of, and participation in, pornography in the same category. And yet all of these would presumably be regarded by some – with no concept of sin, or wishing to push back against it in their personal case – as forms of “gender expression”. A church that exercised the sort of discipline envisaged in the gospel of Matthew would seem to put itself quite clearly in breach of this bill – most especially in respect of clause 8 offences, and most probably in respect of clause 9.

You as MPs may believe there is no such thing as sexual sin. You may believe that anything (the state allows) goes. But no serious civilisation has ever believed such a thing. And many many New Zealanders neither believe that, nor live that way. You may outlaw the practice of our faith, but courageous men and women will not bend the knee to this Moloch, no matter how much it is cloaked in language of “kindness”, “support” and “understanding”. 

Conversion is our mission, by God’s grace helping conform one another – often slowly and painfully as we struggle each day with sin – to God’s plans, way and purposes, as (in the words of St Paul) living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God.

I hope that I, and all Christians who seek to live faithfully, would not hesitate to pray with and for, to counsel, to encourage, to fast with and for, to discipline those who struggle with sexual (or other) temptations, or who seek to wilfully and repeatedly live in ways in defiance of orthodox Christian teaching, especially those who do so while still seeking to associate themselves with the church. Parliament has the power to outlaw all this, but it is as well to
know the character of the Parliament and government that would establish such totalitarianizing laws. And for churches and Christians to be willing, if necessary, to defy the law, knowing where our true citizenship rests.

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Recognising the hostility of the powers

Submissions close next Wednesday on the government’s Conversion Practices Prohibition Legislation Bill. (Hardly central to the post, but reflecting on the title I’m at something of a loss to know what the word “legislation” is doing in it.)

It is a muddle of a bill in many respects. Even the officials – who mostly seem to be cheering the government on – recognise that the whole process was rushed, and the Regulatory Impact Assessment wasn’t up to scratch (and has at least one absurd and frankly offensive feature). Past select committees have cast doubt on whether – even on the aggressively secularist approach held by those with the commanding heights of New Zealand public life – whether there was any case at all for legislation, but never mind….it was a Labour Party promise, championed even more aggressively by the Green Party, and so it will be rushed into law. What one might think of as the the vacuity of it all was evident in media interviews – and the New Zealand media is hardly unsympathetic to “progressive” (decadent) causes – when neither the Prime Minister nor her Minister of Justice could clearly and specifically articulate what behaviour or speech they were seeking to criminalise (and note that these offences are not just $1000 fine offences, but carry only prison sentences, of up to five years). It is a shocking way to make law – albeit increasingly common – since it stands completely at odds with the established principle that people should be able to know, with some certainty, what is and isn’t lawful and not have to wait, perhaps for years down the track, for judicial interpretations (no doubt on appeal) to say what Parliament’s law actually means,

It is also a dishonest bill (or political process). The government and their officials like to claim there isn’t much of an abridgement of free speech, but we know – because they are consulting on it – they are cooking up (so-called) hate-speech laws at the same time, and it is quite likely that much of whatever space they claim to have left in the current bill will in turn be outlawed (or rendered subject to years of judicial uncertainty, and police harassment) when the “hate speech” bill finally emerges.

As it is, even under the bill before the House the abridgement to freedom of speech and to the free exercise of religion is considerable. And Ministers and officials – even those notionally charged with a Bill of Rights perspective – seem to cheer that on. The principal Opposition party in Parliament seems very keen on the bill, so long as there is some sort of carve-out for parents talking to minor children, and in the first reading debate in Parliament (full text here) as far as I could see only one member – from the ACT Party – even touched on the free exercise of religion issues. In some New Zealand political commentary much is made of the (so it is claimed) presence of a phalanx of evangelical Christians in the National Party caucus. If they exist, they were awfully quiet in that debate.

In many respects the key thing about the bill is that it expresses the vituperative hatred by the political powers that be (dominated by the “progressive” left) of (a) an orthodox Christian sexual ethic (sex between one man and one woman only within a marriage entered into with the intention that the relationship be “until death alone parts us”) and (b) of any serious space for ideologies, lifestyles, practices or truths they happen not to hold, the most egregious of those in today’s New Zealand is orthodox Christianity itself. (No doubt, traditional Islam would be even more troublesome for them, but (a) it is inconvenient politically to say so, and (b) the numbers are small and not generally mainstream.)

Some will be reluctant to go that far, but even if you wanted to bend over backwards to take the best view of the government and its allies, they show not much sign of understanding what a serious religion amounts to. But I don’t think that is the heart of the problem – even if it leads to odd anomalies like that phrase “conversion practices” (isn’t conversion and progressive putting on of Christlikeness at the heart of the gospel?). They have some sense of what the gospel calls for, and they will not stand for it. If they tolerate a church, it will only be an neutered one, accommodated to their alternative set of truth claims – in the sexual area “anything anyone wants, so long as it is consensual, goes”). Meanwhile, they have no sense of sin, of (resisting) temptation, let alone of atonement, forgiveness, grace, renewal, discipleship and transformation.

In a way, of course, it is just honest. There are (deeply) conflicting sets of truth claims, and they – and not some “process liberalism” – tend to shape the world. All societies organise themselves around dominant narratives, truth claims, world views, “religions’, and at best minorities are relegated to the margins. It was so in the long Christian era in the West. It seems likely it will be again as the wreckers and libertines claim the commanding heights (and numerical support). The last few decades were, most probably, just a transitional phase.

But few church leaders seem to recognise this, and if any do fewer seem to speak and operate in ways to prepare those who would be faithful for the new world as an embattled and (for now anyway) shrinking minority. How then should we live, faithful Christians and congregations should be asking of leaders who have discerned the times. Instead, accommodationism seems to be the order of the day – as it too often was in the USSR, in communist eastern Europe, in Nazi Germany, in apartheid South Africa.

But what of (a) the Act itself, (b) the advice/analysis from officials, and (c) the Minister’s speech introducing the bill?

Take the bill first – which is what the courts will have to apply (if passed unchanged).

Clause 3 reads this way

The purpose of this Act is to—

(a) prevent harm caused by conversion practices; and

(b) promote respectful and open discussions regarding sexuality and gender

(b) appears to have been added to lay some sort of false trail.  As we’ll see, it was part of how Crown Law reckoned this legislation was okay, but there is nothing in the rest of the bill that has the slightest chance of promoting “open discussions” –  when the whole point of the bill is to make clear that certain views on sex, sexuality etc are simply unacceptable to the Labour government.  As for “respectful” that might be a laudable goal but (a) there is nothing in this bill to promote “respectful discussion”, and it is pretty clear that the champions of the bill regard advocacy of an orthodox Christian perspective on these issues as disrespectful on its face.  They’d probably have the same view if the church called out against adultery, or envy, or idolatry –  or anything that isn’t presently unlawful (hopefully they’d make an exception for bestiality or theft, altho –  as we shall see –  even the former isn’t certain, going by the words of this bill). 

The heart of the bill is to outlaw anything called a “conversion practice”: (emphasis added) 

In this Act, conversion practice means any practice that—

(a) is directed towards an individual because of the individual’s sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression; and

(b) is performed with the intention of changing or suppressing the individual’s sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression.

A key problem – really for anyone, champion or opponent of this bill – is that none of those terms (“sexual orientation”, “gender identity”, or “gender expression”) is defined in the bill.

The bill goes on to tell us what doesn’t count as a “conversion practice”

However, conversion practice does not include—

(a) a health service provided by a health practitioner in accordance with the practitioner’s scope of practice; or

(b) assisting an individual who is undergoing, or considering undergoing, a gender transition; or

(c) assisting an individual to express their gender identity; or

(d) providing acceptance, support, or understanding of an individual; or

(e) facilitating an individual’s coping skills, development, or identity exploration, or facilitating social support for the individual; or

(f) the expression only of a religious principle or belief made to an individual that is not intended to change or suppress the individual’s sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression.

I guess it is the weird thing about this alternative ideology that, on the one hand, we are often told that your “identity” is anything you want to be (I can identify as a tree if I’m crazy enough), on the other there is this implied sense in the bill – and speeches from its supporters – of there being some “true” identity that each individual has to discover and explore. I guess adopted as heirs of Christ probably doesn’t count.

Note that “health practitioners” – not just doctors – can do all sort of things but (notably) priests, pastors, parents, counsellors can’t.

And what of (d), which in many ways captures the spirit of the bill. It seems one can only ever legitimately “accept, support, and understand” an individual and never confront, challenge, call-out, or discipline one – not even within family structures (family foundational to the now-departed civilisation), religious communities, or whatever, not even (as we shall see) when voluntarily adhered to. A church that, for example, exercised church discipline and expelled a member who repeatedly and unrepentantly committed adultery, or homosexual acts, or distributing (legal) pornography among the youth group would – it seems clear – be in breach of this government’s bill.

Ah, but what about (f). The Minister’s introductory speech says that – very late in the piece (a week before the first reading) – he talked to some “church leaders” who had expressed “questions about the religious freedoms they enjoy”, and that in response “I hope that since that time…they have seen that we have put in protections for the expression of their religious principles and beliefs”. Presumably (f) was that addition.

Well, bully for him. Religion – serious religion – has never been just about articulating abstract principles or preferences, but about conforming people to the ways, purposes, and laws of (in the Christian case, and I presume Muslim) God. And although government MPs and officials claim that this clause protects sermons (and presumably newsletters, podcasts etc), it isn’t clear that even that is secure – not just because of the coming ‘hate speech’ laws, but because it is hardly unknown for someone sitting through a sermon to feel that the preacher was aiming his or her talk at that person, and their sin. That may sometimes have been the intention, but often it won’t – it will be what we might call the conviction of sin, the work of the Spirit and so on. Sometimes the pastor may not even know the individual concerned was struggling with that sin. And there is nothing in the bill that protects against such a person – later aggrieved and resentful, having abandoned their faith – laying a complaint about that sermon. Is it likely? Who knows, but (a) no doubt the bill will be used to harass pastors (in particular) who proclaim a traditional Christian orthodoxy, and (b) even if a complaint never ends up in prosecution, the pastor concerned can face big legal expenses and disruption (in many cases, constraining their willingness to speak in the first place), and (c) the bill doesn’t just have a criminal offence regime (imprisonment and all) where the consent of the Attorney-General is required for prosecution, but it also has a civil complaints provision through the Human Rights Commission where i) the test is only on the balance of probabilities, and ii) where there is no cap on the potential financial penalties (see 1(c) in particular at that link).

Church discipline – of a Matt 18:15-17 type – is clearly outlawed by the provisions of this bill for any matters sexual. And yet not a word from the establishment church leaders.

There are two specific criminal offences in the bill. The first (and probably the biggest concern) is clause 8:

(1) A person commits an offence if the person performs a conversion practice on an individual and knows that, or is reckless as to whether, the individual—

(a) is under the age of 18 years; or

(b) lacks, wholly or partly, the capacity to understand the nature, and to foresee the consequences, of decisions in respect of matters relating to their health or welfare.

(2) A person who commits an offence under subsection (1) is liable on conviction to a term of imprisonment not exceeding 3 years.

Now, remember, it is quite clear – and other government documents confirm this – that prayer or counselling or conversation is covered here. Not only can you not discourage your 12 year old from choosing to adopt some arcane self-chosen “gender identity” and whatever “gender expression” goes with that, but it isn’t clear (a) that you can strongly discourage your child from having (heterosexual) sex at age 14, even though that act itself would be illegal, or (b) that you can discourage your child – or any other young person – from engaging in bestiality (surely some sort of gender expression) without opening yourself up to the threat of five years prison. Doctors and nurses can encourage your child to make some sort of “transition”, perhaps even to mutilate their body irreversibly, and you can do nothing to dissuade or discourage or penalise them. It is the ideologies – the child is the state’s, and just anything goes – in full voice. A teenager who is struggling with pornography, masturbation, or just a temptation to sleep with his (her) girlfriend (boyfriend) can ask a priest, a pastor, a parent, a youth worker for assistance, support, and prayer to resist these temptations, but if any of those people agree and meet the request they face the risk of three years in prison.

You would have to hope that those people would take the risk to do what is right – there are laws higher than those of the New Zealand government, duties much stronger than any to the state – but, realistically, many won’t. Young people struggling with temptation will be left sheep without a shepherd, with only the wolves of the state (and its ideology) to pull them downwards. It is evil, from a government that has no sense of sin, of temptation, of struggle, of overcoming.

Oh, and I almost forgot to point out the way the clause is structured: paralleling those under 18 with those (others) unable to be counted on to make decisions for themselves. Actually, we usually put young people in that category – it is why we have a notion of legal minors – and yet under this legislation young people are considered able to make every decision about any sexual matter, at any age, and no one is allowed to call them out, call them back to some other standard. It is juvenile at one level, and utterly corrosive at another.

The second offence section is clause 9.

1. A person commits an offence if the person performs a conversion practice on an individual that causes serious harm to the individual and the person—

(a) knew that performing the conversion practice would cause serious harm to the individual; or

(b) was reckless as to whether the performance of the conversion practice would cause serious harm to the individual.

(2) A person who commits an offence under subsection (1) is liable on conviction to a term of imprisonment not exceeding 5 years.

Even for this offence – presumably mainly relating to those 18 and over – there is no defence of consent.

I’m presuming that a) is a dead letter (it would be impossible to prove that someone knew their “conversion practice” would cause serious harm to the individual, except perhaps for things that amount to physical assault and are already unlawful. “Serious harm” is defined in the bill

serious harm, in relation to an individual, means any physical, psychological, or emotional harm that seriously and detrimentally affects the health, safety, or welfare of the individual.

None of that is very clear (especially “safety” or “welfare”) but is it unreasonable to suppose again that church discipline – exercised biblically for the redemption of the individual and the protection of the congregation – would again fall foul of the law, if used on any matter of “gender expression”? And would someone who refused to do business with a repeated adulterer – because of his or her adultery, hoping to bring about a change of behaviour – also run a risk of prosecution. Is (to perhaps an absurd extreme) a wife who walks out on an adulterous husband, and says “I’m not coming back unless you change your ways” exposed when the vindictive husband claims his “welfare” has been seriously harmed? I suppose not, but you could read it that way.

One of the curious features of the bill is this belief that conversion practices (including prayer) can do great harm, and needs to be outlawed on pain of imprisonment, all coming from an atheistic government, and highly secular public service, who generally look on prayer only to scoff at or pity the pray-er. I believe – have lived, and seen – in the power of prayer to change lives. The government is running scared of that. They want no part of holiness – at least as it relates to sexual aspects of people’s live, and they want no part of anyone (other than them) ever doing anything active to seek to change the behaviour of others. And yet that is the call to repentance.

The final element in the criminal section of the bill is the provision (that exists in a few other pieces of legislation) that no prosecution can be brought without the consent of the Attorney-General. It is better that that provision exists than not (will act as some check, say, on Police reckoning they will prosecute every complaint, frivolous or not, and leave it to the courts to sort out) but it is worth remembering that the Attorney-General is a Cabinet minister, a senior member of the Labour government that is ramming this legislation through, and with no regard for difference, let alone Christian orthodoxy. He might be keen to make an example of one or more people. It is no protection of religious freedom at all, despite the claims of Crown Law.

So that is the bill, egregious – and yet poorly drafted and loose – as it is, a severe abridgement of freedom of expression and of freedom religious practice.

But there are various other official documents that she some light. There is, for example, the Minister’s speech. It is loose too – claiming that a prosecution would require proof of harm (clearly not the case for section 8 offences). But it also captures that ideology. If there is any concept of right and wrong – in sexual matters – it is all just about “whatever feels good, do it”, just at odds with every serious society ever. He talks strangely of “a fundamental right” we supposedly all have to “decide who they are”, as if people construct themselves from scratch (this decade I’ll be a tree, next decade a sheep, the following decade perhaps a husband and father – or more seriously think of people who have gone one way in a some trans-gender transition and then regretted it and sought to reverse that), and of course he spins a line about freedom of religious (principles and beliefs, but not practices) expression, with not a mention of the hate speech laws he is cooking up. And – as with so many other MPs – we get all the talk about the alleged “serious harms” conversion practices have done with (a) no evidence, and (b) no attempt to distinguish among types of what he calls “conversion practices”. Is prayer that powerful Minister? Or are these alleged harms some mix of (a) practices already illegal (at least without consent, and (b) serious mental health problems already latent in some of the individuals concerned?

And there are three other pieces of “analysis” (mostly a generous description) undertaken by officials.

The first is a Departmental Disclosure Statement prepared by the Ministry of Justice. Mostly it is a hoop-jumping bureaucratic process document, but I noticed a few things. The first is the adamant statement that “research emphasises that conversion practices do not work”, but with no attempt (again) to distinguish any of the numerous types of so-called conversion practices. Presumably at the Ministry of Justice prayer can only do harm and never good? It is both ignorant and dogmatically anti-Christian. No serious Christian is going to rule out the possibility of miracles – of healing, of transformation. They might be rare, but they aren’t unknown. But our government is not just indifferent but actively hostile – criminalising any prayer for (sexual) healing, on pain of a heavy prison sentence.

And then there was the obligatory Treaty of Waitangi section where the officials assert – with no argument or evidence whatever – that “the Crown has a Treaty obligation to take positive action to reduce the disparities experienced by takatapui Maori” (this is apparently a phrase that meant intimate same sex partner, but now reportedly applies to all sort of sexual abominations). Just to note that it seems doubtful Samuel Marsden, Henry Williams, William Hobson, Lord Melbourne, Queen Victoria, or many of those Maori chiefs who had already received the gospel saw things quite that way. Incidentally, in the parliamentary debate it was notable how hostile various Labour and Greens Maori members were to the gospel or to any sort of Christian sexual ethic.

And finally there was the “external consultation” section, where it became clear that all the consultation was with people and agencies that supported the bill. Governments do that sort of stuff I suppose, but it is scarcely good practice – especially with the bill being rushed through select committee while the country is distracted by Covid.

Then there was the Regulatory Impact Assessment, again prepared by the Ministry of Justice (and vetted by other staff in the Ministry who concluded it didn’t do a particularly good job). These are often backfilling jobs undertaken by officials to back up the Minister’s political priors, and this seemed to be a clear example. The Ministry didn’t seem that keen on the rushed job (“a more extensive consultation process may have resulted in a better-informed understanding of the nature and scale of the problem”), but they are right-on with the anti-religion, anti traditional sexual ethics approach, with little serious regard for rights of minorities (what one once counted on the Ministry to stand up for).

They champion the bill on grounds that include the hope that the “attitudes” – presumably beliefs – of those that use “conversion practices” (remember how widely that net is, whether as regards family or church) “would change to align more closely to those of wider society”. It isn’t enough that the majority likes this stuff, and disregards any since of sin and judgement, but legislation is deployed to try to convert the holdouts to the new world of licence and dissipation. They are quite clear that they practices they want to target are “prayer, fasting, spiritual deliverance, 12-step type programmes (ok for alcohol but not sex apparently?), and individual, group and online counselling”. There is no doubt they know the extent of the repression they sign up to.

They end a canter through various options with a set of evaluation criteria. Remarkably – from a Ministry of Justice – there is no mention of considerations of freedom, individual rights, civil society (ability to make own rules) etc. The only way “fairness” is counted is as regards being “fair just and proportionate for all people at risk of conversion practices”, but even that is of course only defined against a standard where there is no right or wrong, just impulses.

We are also told that “all stakeholders we talked with were, at least in theory, supportive of a legislative ban on conversion practices”. Which of course tells you about the sort of people either the Minister told them to talk to, or their own anti-religious libertine philosophy drew them to. Talking to “people like us” works well for officials, you get back just what you want to hear.

There was the extraordinary claim – so preposterous it is hard to believe any senior manager let this document out of the building – that passing legislation of this sort, as opposed to taking no action, would – with high certainty and high impact – be beneficial to practitioners of “conversion practices” (parents, priests, supportive friends?) because “they would have greater clarity and certainty that conversion practices are prohibited for everyone and cannot be performed with or without consent”. Against a benchmark of no legislation it doesn’t even make sense.

If there was any doubt the government was coming for churches, parents, and anyone taking seriously traditional Christian ethics and a process of sanctification, the Ministry makes it quite clear in two paragraphs on page 22 of the RIA.

And finally there is the Bill of Rights consistency vet, undertaken by Crown Law. There isn’t much to it, and you have to wonder a bit about the degree of detachment applied given who the head of Crown Law is, but what there is seems almost laughably light weight – at least if there were not an agenda to champion, never mind the rights of minorities.

Recall that under the (non-binding) New Zealand Bill of Rights Act there are these provisions

14 Freedom of expression

  • Everyone has the right to freedom of expression, including the freedom to seek, receive, and impart information and opinions of any kind in any form.

15Manifestation of religion and belief

  • Every person has the right to manifest that person’s religion or belief in worship, observance, practice, or teaching, either individually or in community with others, and either in public or in private.

Crown Law recognises that freedom of expression could be at risk (talking of a “potentially chilling effect on legitimate expressions of opinion within families” they claim with a straight face (apparently) that these concerns are “substantially mitigated” in three ways

7.1 The Bill is clearly expressed to ban only practices that are intended to change or suppress rather than merely confront or reject the individual’s sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression.
7.2 One of the purposes of the Bill is expressed to be the promotion of respectful and open discussions regarding sexuality and gender.
7.3 Attorney-General consent is required for any prosecution.

Just officials desperate to support repression. As noted above 7.2 is just a (rather sick) joke, since the whole bill works in the opposite direction. 7.1 isn’t much better, at very least without a proper definition of “gender expression”. Crown Law don’t even engage with freedom of expression within religious or other communities. And if just possibly the Attorney-General provision might limit actual prosecutions, they won’t limit Police harassment, perhaps under social media pressure, potentially large legal bills, and a general chilling effect.

What about freedom of religion? The author of the opinion clearly knows little or nothing about Christianity, has no sense of a sermon as (potentially) a call to conversion or reformation(think of Ezra and mixed marriages) and then falls back on this question-begging line

The conversion practices could themselves constitute the manifestation of a genuinely held religious or other belief. To the extent that they do given the profound harm they cause to the individuals that are subject to them, their
prohibition is demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society.

No evidence, no differentiation of one type from another, just the bald assertion that all conversion practices cause “profound harm” to individuals . It is laughably bad – worse I suppose if one took the Bill of Rights more seriously.

Which brings us to the end of the documents.

Perhaps in the end the Select Committee will make a few minor changes to the bill – hopefully at least to the grosser absurdities – but the core issue with the bill is fundamental: it is the extreme antagonism of today’s governing elite to orthodox religion and the demands that faith places on individuals and congregations, and to any sense of self-restraint, discipline, of channelling and limiting the expression of sexual desire, of right and wrong (beyond the criminal law of the particular day). That won’t change. It appears deeply held, and as such restrictions have their own perverse logic as the expression of a newly dominant faith.

And that is why I’m not bothering to put in a submission to the Select Committee. Even the centre-right members basically go along with this attack on orthodox Christianity: I suppose they feel they have to keep close to the median voter. As for the government, recall that this is just another step in the agenda to normalise what Christianity has long seen as sinful conduct, with “hate speech” laws next. Dominant ideologies will do what they must. But the challenge for the church – which so many church leaders seem to be abdicating – is how do we form people and communities to live faithfully under Christ, even if we face persecution – small or great – for following His way. It is all too easy to seek to adapt, to minimise differences, to avoid hard choices, and in the process erode all the makes the way of the Cross a radical counterculture – one that is supposed to threaten dominant ideologies, that may mean a path of imprisonment, job loss, fines, or social stigma. Those are hard choices, and all the harder when leaders do not prepare people, do not proclaim the sort of world we now live in.

I wrote here some time ago about Franz Jagerstatter, the Austrian Catholic layman who went to the executioner’s block in Nazi Germany rather than serve in Hitler’s armies, out of faithfulness to Christ. That sort of discipleship takes great courage for anyone, but almost unbearably so for many when left to themselves when the church leadership offers no clear call to the way of the cross, even unto death.

I’ve tried to be clear in this post – and if not then, here now – that the church is not uniquely concerned with sexual sin (important, almost foundational in some respects, as it is), but with all manifestations of sin – in areas that are currently socially respectable and those that are not. Greed is a serous issue many struggle with, but we aren’t to be prohibited from actively addressing that in our people and in our midst. It is the New Zealand government that wants to single out sexual sin: it wants to prohibit churches and Christians from treating it seriously. It has chosen a path that is openly and aggressively anti-Christian. They and their supporters like to bemoan “culture wars”, but they launched a whole new round themselves.

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Music for Holy Week: O Sacred Head

There are hymns that speak deeply to us. For me, one of them is O Sacred Head.

This is version (from the 1962 Baptist Hymn Book) that I first encountered (and mostly sing).

o sacred head

It wasn’t a hymn that was much (if at all) sung in the congregations I was part of as a child, even on or around Good Friday, and I only recall encountering it as a late teenager, probably (and perhaps not coincidentally) about the time I was learning about that hugely influential 12th century church figure Bernard of Clairvaux in school history (the Second Crusade). Now it is one of those hymns I could not sing too often, even as congregations I’ve been part of more recently don’t often do. It is one of those hymns that, at this time of year particularly, I find myself singing aloud – perhaps not very loudly – as I walk down the street. Taking the form of a personal prayer, yet it gains strength as we sing together as congregations.

The various hymn book companions I’ve got on my shelves suggest that if there is a direct connection back to Bernard of Clairvaux is, at best, loose. Paul Gerhardt seems to have translated (into German) the final part of a multi-stanza Latin poem dating to at least the 14th century that stepped through seven different parts of Christ’s body, and which was apparently intended to be used on successive days during Holy Week. Commentators suggest that the poem may at least have been inspired by Bernard’s own writings – some of which, with confident attribution – still speak across the centuries. Gerhardt’s German hymn was brought into English in the 19th century by a prominent US Presbyterian minister, with a strong interest in hymnology.

The tune to which the hymn is sung, “Passion Chorale”, has such strong associations with Holy Week music – both this hymn and its use by Bach repeatedly in his “St Matthew Passion” – that it is slightly surprising to learn not only that the tune wasn’t written for purpose, but that it had firmly secular origins, appearing as early as 1601 as the melody to words beginning “My heart is distracted by a gentle maid”. But then why should the devil have all the best tunes (apparently not said by Luther, even if he was very ready to use popular tunes as setting for good, sometimes great, hymns)?

What of the words? In some senses, the first verse is mostly a scene-setter (recall the origins in a sequence of meditations of aspects of body of our crucified Lord) but one that vividly reminds us of the horror and anguish of crucifixion. And done to this “sacred head”, the meaning perhaps dimmed through repetition, but very God.

Verse two goes to the heart of the atoning sacrifice: mine was the transgression, but thine the deadly pain. Jesus, in some mysterious sense, takes the place each of us deserves. And in that sacrifice the means of grace, expressed here as the prayer for God’s grace and reconciling mercy.

But it is the final two verses that strike deep with me – did so 40+ years ago, and do so now in late middle age. It is the prayer for the grace to persevere, through the vicissitudes of life, the temptations, and (in our age) the decline of faith, the shrinkage of churches, the abandonment of faith by some of those we knew/know who once followed. And death approaches for each of us: if not today, then one day before (in my case) many more decades pass.

Gerhardt’s hymn in the prater for endurance, and that through all the changes scenes of life, our eyes are kept firmly on the cross, and one who embraced it for us and for our salvation. Is it easy? Not always. There are things to pull us away, things to discourage us, but discipleship is the call to the long obedience in the same direction.

This then is my prayer this Holy Week

Be near me when I’m dying

O show thy cross to me

and

And should I fainting be

Lord, let me never never

Outlive my love to thee.

I thank God for writers of great hymns and songs, and the tunes that accompany them, that touch places in us that mere prose often doesn’t.

On perseverance to the end, having chosen the path of discipleship, I saw this clip this morning.

Elena on Twitter: “The end of the film about Mount St. Bernard Abbey is one of the greatest minutes ever aired on British television https://t.co/khaoRVFhf1” / Twitter

If anyone still knows the hymn I might well suggest to family that O Sacred Head be sung at my funeral. But if all the hymns that spoke deeply were chosen, it would be a long service

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A bleak statistic

I was doing some research earlier this week on the history of Baptist churches in south Wellington. In the 1890s the Wellington Central Baptist Church started establishing new congregations in the growing suburbs; first Brooklyn, then Berhampore. Berhampore, in turn, helped establish a congregation at Island Bay, and for some decades there was a small congregation in Houghton Valley.

In digging through some of the historical publications I noticed again this photo recording the names of those from the Berhampore congregation who served in the forces in World War One (one of my relatives is among them, described then as missing, but killed in Iran in 1918). Almost 70 of them, all but one of them men. From a single congregation.

berhampore honours board

The Brooklyn Baptist Church has been gone now for some decades. In the 1970s the Berhampore and Island Bay congregations merged into Wellington South Baptist Church (including the Houghton Valley congregation, which itself was closed about 30 years ago. So there is now a single Baptist congregation in the whole of southern Wellington, an area with a materially larger population than it would have had 100 years ago.

And yet last Sunday there was no more than 20 people – all ages – at worship in the single Baptist service. It wasn’t an unusual weekend – not school holidays, not major civic activities. And there were 20. A couple of weeks earlier there had been 15.

I guess I knew this stuff in the abstract, but somehow the concrete comparison across time – the stark contrast – hits home.

Are there consolations? Not that I can see. It isn’t as if all the previously suburban Baptists have decamped to the central city church. Presbyterians, Methodists and Anglicans have all closed churches, and most (or all?) of those that remain seem small, and the Catholics seem to be struggling too. I guess there are now some Pacific congregations and independent charismatic/Pentecostal churches, but even if that represents growth over 100 years, it represents decline over the 40+ years I’ve been in Wellington.

But from a Baptist perspective, the denomination used be regarded as holding up better than many. Perhaps in some places it has, but in southern Wellington it has just imploded.

And for all its faults – ecclesiology among them – that is a deep loss as, in their heyday Baptist churches proclaimed the call to repentance and discipleship, formed individuals and families in the faith, and sought to live as communities of Christ, witnessing- here and abroad – to the saving work of God.

At a personal level, it hurts (a lot). I had family involved in the founding of the Berhampore and Island Bay congregations, my father was minister of the Wellington South congregation and in times past I was heavily involved in various leadership roles.

As the Easter approaches I pray Lord have mercy, Lord revive your work in this part of our city.

UPDATE: In this post I overlooked the Wellington Chinese Baptist Church which has operated in Newtown for several decades. Going by the photos on their website there appears to be a reasonably-sized congregation, but drawing (I presume) from across Wellington.

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