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.

1 Comment

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One response to “Churches and the “vaccine pass”

  1. Craig

    Good write-up.

    Frankly, I found the Anglican statement to be very strange and was pretty annoyed about it. It doesn’t really affect me as our church has broken from the main structure (and as you point out the CCA-NZ statement was much better), but having been part of it for many years it disappointed. However given their recent history it perhaps did not surprise.

    It seemed more an option of convenience than anything, but pretty inconvenient if you are not vaccinnated!

    It seems that in many cases – not just churches, to be institutions going further than the govt recommendations, which is concerning. We now have universities (definitely) and polytechs (still deciding) excluding students who are unvaccinated next year (and for who knows how long). It is one thing to be unable to attend a concert or show, but quite another to be excluded from tertiary study. This seems wrong.

    Liked by 1 person

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