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).

2 Comments

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2 responses to “Churches and “vaccine passports”

  1. There would seem to be a lot of potential options for Churches that would wish to minister to the unvaccinated while maintaining safety for the broader congregation – particularly elderly members. In those elderly cohorts, vaccination does still provide substantial protection. But elderly vaccinated people face risk comparable to unvaccinated people perhaps 25 years younger than them. And a lot of elderly vaccinated people, and particularly those with underlying health conditions, wind up in ICU. The vaccine still protects, but their baseline risk is so much higher, and the vaccine only does so much.
    Under a vaccine passport setup, in which Alert Level restrictions had harder restrictions on numbers at gatherings if the unvaccinated were not excluded, Churches could consider running separate services with sufficient time for the place to air out after the unvaccinated service – and ideally with really regular testing of the priest or minister who administers to both. They could ask Government to allow a recent PCR test as substitute for vaccination – and supplement it with a rapid antigen test before entry – while asking those parishioners unable to provide a negative test result to refrain from service while potentially infectious. And in the same way that priests will minister to the sick and infirm at their homes, the same could here be done (again, with regular testing to help avoid the priest passing it on).

    There seem to be ways through this that both maintain public health while allowing religious services to continue.

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    • Yes, there are technological options of the sort you outline. The question for the churches is whether they are theologically/ecclesiastically acceptable. I would argue that in general (perhaps exceptions for congregations that are mostly the very very old) they are not.

      Setting aside the explicitly Christian dimension, I’m chilled by the rush towards fresh repressions – which often don’t end well – before we know (a) what vaccinations rate we get too without coercion, and (b) without seeing how things work out in places like Norway and Sweden.

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