Peter Carrell Bishop of Christchurch New Zealand covid vaccination certificate
Freedom of Religion

Should you need a Covid vaccination certificate to attend church?

It was a question posed by the Rt Rev’d Peter Carrell, Bishop of Christchurch in the Anglican Church in Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia. Seeking the corporate wisdom and discernment of Twitter (which isn’t advised), he asked: “Is there any reason churches shouldn’t generally go with the flow [of requiring production of a Covid vaccination certificate] for the safety of our nation?”

And Twitter’s wisdom was divided:

“Of course they should be required for all churches, clergy, verger, choir, congregation. No exception,” decreed Bonnie.

“A sensible setup would say something like ‘At Alert Level 2, venues including churches can have no more than 50 people. But if all attendees are vaccinated, these number restrictions do not apply’. Then it’s up to the church, or other venue, to make the call,” Eric expounded.

“I would be v reluctant to attend a church service that required me to show govt-issued ID. It isn’t the gospel…..generally, or that of someone like Father Damien,” warned Michael.

“We could seek to require them for the safety of all but how is it practically going to work; who will turn people away – our greeters? security guards?” mused Helen.

“I’ve been thinking about this, esp because of the demographics of my parishioners. We have to choose between (1) excluding the vulnerable, including those who are most at risk from disease or have a medical exemption from vaccination; or (2) excluding the voluntarily unvaccinated. I can’t see that there’s a good case for excluding group (1). They have no choice. Group (2) are often deceived, but do have agency. So I’m strongly inclined towards requiring evidence of vaccination or exemption,” lectured Lyndon, as only an Oxford DPhil student might.

“I wonder what congregations would choose if it was a choice between masks and no refreshments, or only attend if vaccinated? It would have to be for the whole church to be worth doing, not ‘if you yourself are vaxed you don’t need to mask’. But I haven’t looked at the stats,” reasoned the Rev’d Miranda.

“I have been thinking about this too. Church has seemed to be open & public, welcome to all. & yet how to do so safely perhaps becomes a ‘thing’ – at least in the shorter term? It’s a difficult situation, I guess. Clergy & staff to be safe too. & parishioners & those who can’t Vax. Currently under 12’s can’t be vaxed either. So how do we do our part in protecting them from non vaxed people who may come, gather, hang out, share food etc etc etc. It’s an interesting thing to ponder. Businesses will get some say as ‘private’ ultimately. Churches?” Gendi wondered.

“We have a lot of rural Maori in our congregation and vaccine hesitancy — would be tricky for us,” said Courtney, with a woman shrugging emoji.

“Only realistic if there’s a govt mandate? Church’s and their leaders should back the measures to help w ‘safety of the nation’ but should also be open to robust discussion and dialogue. I imagine difficulty in graciously enforcing, training required!” exclaimed Ty.

“I am not convinced you even have a right to know whether or not a person is vaccinated,” cautioned Wayne.

So it is left to the Bishop of Christchurch to discern from this morass of advice whether or not the churches of Christchurch, New Zealand, will make attendance conditional on the production of a Covid vaccination certificate.

St Paul exhorted: ‘Be ye followers of me, even as I also am of Christ‘ (1Cor 11:1).

Would Jesus say: “Sorry, you can’t come in and fellowship with us, for the safety of our nation Israel”?

In the 1980s, when there much ignorance, alarm and dangerous falsehoods about the transmission of HIV/AIDS, with people believing it could be transmitted via toilet seats and door handles or mosquito bites, did any church make attendance at an act of worship conditional on proof of non-infection? The annual flu pandemic kills many tens of thousands in the UK. Do any churches say to the elderly and vulnerable: “Sorry, but for other people’s safety, you may not enter unless you’ve had your jab”?

A few months ago, the Vatican decreed that their jobs were conditional on the production of a Covid vaccination certificate. Cardinal Giuseppe Bertello, the Governor of Vatican City, said getting a vaccine was “the responsible choice”, because of the risk of harming other people; ie, for the sake of the nation. He has now rowed back on this demand after critics thought it “contrary to Pope Francis’ general call for mercy”. They now say that “alternative solutions” will be found for those who decline to be vaccinated, and that “freedom of individual choice” will be respected.

The Bishop of Christchurch is up against Jacinda Ardern’s zero-Covid policy. The Prime Minister of New Zealand has shut her country down for months on end in the hope (and prayer) of eradicating Covid-19 from their midst. New Zealand became a secure national bubble with all travel suspended, and if saving life is the sole metric of success then her strategy worked: until recently, just 27 New Zealanders had died of Covid-19. But like the Vatican, she is now showing mercy and rowing back on the most draconian and punitive aspects of her policy, having realised that the social, mental, economic and financial costs for millions might just outweigh the costs in life for dozens.

There are sound scriptural principles which may be adduced in consideration of discriminating against fellow believers:

My brethren, have not the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory, with respect of persons.
For if there come unto your assembly a man with a Covid vaccination certificate, and there come in also a poor man without a Covid vaccination certificate;
And ye have respect to him that waveth the certificate, and say unto him, Sit thou here in a good place; and say to the poor man without a certificate, Sod off:
Are ye not then partial in yourselves, and are become judges of evil thoughts? (from Js 2:1-4).

Ah, but this is manifestly not concerned with crucial matters of public health, you may respond. And indeed it is not, but it is concerned with social acceptability and judgments of status; with those who are considered worthy, and those who are treated like lepers. One’s vaccination status should not become an entry ticket for the right to attend an act of public worship, not least because some are unable to be vaccinated for health reasons, and to compound people’s loneliness and isolation with further rejection would be unconscionable. And let’s not forget that for many millions of Christians attendance at church and participation in Mass is the path to salvation: there is life in the body and blood of Christ. It should not be made a condition of church attendance that one must produce a vaccination certificate or any other kind of state-sanctioned 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.