Durham Cathedral is dividing its flock into sheep and goats for Christmas. The Dean is setting the Covid-vaccinated sheep on his right hand, but the goats who lack an NHS Covid passport shall go on his left. Then shall he say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, and attend our service of lessons and carols for Advent as we prepare to celebrate the birth of Jesus at Christmas. For ye were unclean, but now ye carry an NHS Covid pass as proof of vaccination. Or ye suspected ye were unclean, yet can now prove that ye are not with a negative PCR or lateral flow test taken up to 48 hours before the event.
Then shall he say also unto the goats on the left hand, Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels. For ye have neither an NHS Covid pass nor a negative PCR or lateral flow test. Ye are ritually unclean and cannot attend our service of lessons and carols for Advent as we prepare to celebrate the birth of Jesus at Christmas. Nay, not even if ye wear a face covering. It is what Jesus would want.
Durham Cathedral is the only cathedral in England (so far) to make attendance at a public act of Christmas worship contingent on the production of an NHS Covid pass, under the pretext of ‘Keeping everybody safe‘. By introducing this requirement, the Dean is ignoring the Church of England’s official guidance:
The Church’s position has been a clear policy of encouraging people to be vaccinated, but, other than in very exceptional circumstances, opposition to limiting access to church services or organisations on the basis of vaccine certification (also referred to as vaccine passports). Such an approach would run contrary to the principle of the Church being a home and a refuge for all. Similarly, only in exceptional circumstances is the Church likely to utilise vaccine certification in order to facilitate additional services to its members or to the wider community, preferring to continue to emphasise existing mitigations.
So Durham Cathedral shall not be a home and a refuge for all during the season of Advent, but only for those who are ‘clean’ and can prove it. This is rather odd, not least because proof of vaccination neither prevents a person from catching Covid nor transmitting it.
It is a strange approach to mission when the Dean of Durham Cathedral determines to place hurdles to worship which are demanded neither by the Government nor the Church of England. Why would he do this? And why during Advent, as the whole nation of believers and non-believers alike look forward to celebrating Christmas? Why put a stumbling block in the doorway to a glimpse of salvation at a time when the harvest is at its most plentiful; when a cathedral (of all church buildings) should be preparing to welcome especially those who are seeking and also those who believe but who do not belong?
For all the discriminations which the Church of England has incrementally eradicated over the decades, why is Durham Cathedral introducing a new one based on Covid status? Why is the Dean treating some people like lepers? Christ ‘came unto his own, and his own received him not.’ Isn’t Advent the season for receiving, for welcoming, for being hospitable, generous and loving? Why should that mission always be ‘safe’? May it not consist of a little danger? Can’t people be trusted to make up their own minds?
One’s vaccination status should not become an entry ticket for the right to attend a collective act of public worship, not least because some are unable to be vaccinated for health reasons. And to compound people’s loneliness and isolation at Christmas with further rejection is unconscionable; indeed, it is fundamentally un-Christian. It should not be made a condition of church attendance that one must produce an NHS Covid pass or any other kind of licence to worship. It may be a risk too far for some, and theologically unpalatable for others, but ‘There is neither clean nor unclean, for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.’
The Dean and Chapter of Durham Cathedral ought to meditate on the message and meaning of Advent, and reconsider.