Down Under in Aotearoa New Zealand we are moving into the Traffic Lights mode on Friday this week, meaning when a region is Green certain freedoms are permitted, Orange fewer freedoms, more restrictions, and Red the most restrictions and least freedoms, where, roughly, more freedom is granted to the fully vaccinated (adjudicated by possession of a vaccination pass) and more restrictions apply to the non-vaccinated.
Last Friday the bishops of Tikanga Pakeha of ACANZP issued the following pastoral statement:
"From the time of our nation’s first lockdown response to the Covid-19 pandemic and subsequently throughout these extraordinary times, we as Bishops have met weekly together to pray, to support one another and to reflect on our leadership through the rapid changes in our nation’s continuing response to Covid-19. The foundational unit of the Anglican Church is the Diocese; that group of individuals, communities and organisations who gather around the bishop. We honour and respect the independence and integrity of each Diocese, whilst seeking in these circumstances, to offer as much consistency and commonality as we possibly can.
Out of a deep love for the church and the people we serve, we have sought to approach the next stage of our nation’s response to this world-wide health emergency in a way that reflects two key agreements in common:
- 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.
- We have a pastoral responsibility for the care of all people. This responsibility is to both vaccinated and non-vaccinated, but particularly to the most vulnerable. This care includes those who may not be able to worship with us because they have chosen not to be vaccinated. It also includes those who are in quarantine after exposure to infected people and are awaiting test results. Such pastoral responsibility also includes those who are ill, or those who are choosing to limit their potential exposure to infection because of their level of vulnerability or the level of vulnerability to members of their households. We are committed to supporting local Churches in finding ways to minister to all.
As bishops, we are committed to constantly reviewing these principles, and the protocols and policies that are being established in each Diocese regularly, to ensure that we continue to reflect the greatest level of care possible.
As we continue to navigate this season together, we would also like to take this opportunity to thank and honour all those who lead and serve within our church in Christ’s name and who work for the coming of Christ’s Kingdom. We continue to faithfully hold each other before God in prayer.
“Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” Philippians 4:6-7
Yours in Christ,
Bishop Ross Bay
Bishop Steven Benford
Bishop Peter Carrell
Bishop Justin Duckworth
Bishop Andrew Hedge
Bishop Steve Maina
Bishop Philip Richardson
Bishop Eleanor Sanderson"
There is, I note in some comments in NZ social media, some lines of response to church leaders who (e.g. above) follow rather than resist the Government's lead in managing our national response to Covid-19, which accuse us of a degree of spinelessness.
"If you want to attend church this Advent or Christmas, bend them knee and show your govt papers at the door.
What has the country come to? Or the churches that accept this?"
"The church's subjugation to the state is one of the more disturbing aspects of NZ's situation"
"When churches allow govts to determine who may or may not worship, they have bent the knee."
A slightly different strategy is to cheer on one of our MPs when he writes to the Government asking why they would not support his attempt to amend legislation passed last week so that churches are exempt from requiring vaccination passes from our attendees.
There are other ideas and ecclesiastical decisions to be found on the net (which I won't link to because this post is not intended to spark discussion of other church leaders' announcements), the gist of which amounts to "the church must not exclude people so must not impose vaccination pass requirements."
Are some churches - my own included - both spineless and exclusive?
On the latter, the question of "exclusion" is not quite as simple as it might seem. Under the Traffic Lights Framework, for instance, to include the unvaccinated in services is to exclude people who turn up once the maximum number for a service is reached (100 at Green, 50 at Orange, and 25 at Red). Given that we are heading towards 90+% of the population being fully vaccinated and that at Green and Orange there is no ceiling on numbers of attendees, there is actually greater inclusiveness of people gathering together in person for worship when vaccination passes are required.
Further, as our statement above makes clear (and similarly but with some differences, also the Roman Catholic Church), even where vaccination passes are deemed normative, there is an obligation to find ways and means to connect with the unvaccinated. One way is that "normative" actually allows for some services to be exempted from the norm.
What about the matter of meekness in following the Government? The charge that we have too readily given in to allowing the Government to determine who can come to worship and who cannot?
Is it time to "return serve"?
My response is:
1. We are in a pandemic fighting a virus which (a) affects people irrespective of nationality, race, culture, colour or creed, and (b) is well known to spread quickly through unvaccinated people gathering for large events, but less quickly through vaccinated people when they gather.
2. Accordingly there are no special groups who have special ability to determine their own health and safety requirements let alone special reason to be exempt from regulations and guidelines that apply to all gatherings. (The MP's letter mentioned above is very strange in its special pleading without rational underpinning.)
3. In my experience travelling around my Diocese, Christians are not uniformly compliant with requests from their church leadership to do things which are currently only enccouraged: mask wearing is the stand out example of variability across congregations.
4. Further, the range of viewpoints among Christians on how the virus spreads and what is best to manage its spread is a large range, so the chances of a church or a denomination determining for itself what would be best practice and for that best practice to be supported by sound scientific advice is remote.
5. Put a little differently, there is no reason to think that churches could do better than the Ministry of Health advised Government in the determining of regulations and the issuing of guidelines.
6. Ergo, what the Government advises is the best we can do under the circumstances.
7. Consequently, to follow that advice is a matter of wisdom and not of abject subjugation to a secular power.
8. Much matters here re the language we use. Yes, a vaccination pass can be described as "a Government paper" but it can also be described, in the context of a pandemic, as a declaration of health status and of minimal risk factor in spreading the virus. And that declaration is important to all the people planning to gather for worship through this season.
As we say in our message above:
"Out of a deep love for the church and the people we serve, we have sought to approach the next stage of our nation’s response to this world-wide health emergency ..."
1. The above apologia for the line we Anglicans (and other churches) are taking is not intended to critique churches which are taking a different line (e.g. to live with limits and to not impose vaccination pass requirements). A decision has to be made, one way or another, and there are good reasons for decisions being made. The apologia is against the critique of being subjugated, not against those whose decision is different.
2. After composing the above, I happened to read a little further on into Rowan Williams' book Looking East in Winter: Contemporary Thought and the Eastern Christian Tradition (subject of some posts here recently). Just before I sat down to write this Addendum I posted a comment below to the original post which mentions Bonhoeffer ...
++Rowan, discussing both Evagrius and Bonhoeffer, in a chapter entitled, "Justice, Distance and Love," writes, with some pertinence to my discussion above:
"... a 'contemploative' political practice might be summed up as one that seeks to make room for the narrative of the other; one that does not begin by attempting to absorb this narrarive into itself, and thus is willing to learn how it is itself seen and understood. Only a practice of this sort can ultimately ground a politics that works towards the difficult common ground on which majority and minority can negotiate together: the prevalent pathology of our political life seems to be the idea that majorities obliterate the interst of the minority and that political victory is - while it lasts - licence for a majority to enforce its agenda. ... [pp. 192-93]
"To say we must learn to distance ourselves from our commitments in politics in order to arrive at both justice and love is at first sight a bizarre recommendation, suggesting a corrosive indifferentism. But the dustance involved is not a refusal of commitment; it has rather to do with what it is that we are committed to. Bonhoeffer's commitment is manifestly a serious and costly affair, but it is a commitment neither to victory nor to innocence. It is a commitment to the Wirklichkeit he evokes - the reality both of a many-layered and historically complex acting self and to the rpecise demands of a particular context; as well as a commitment to a radical and all-powerful mercy beyond all planning and justification. [p. 193]"