I love our local Anglican church. I won’t name the parish, for reasons that will become apparent soon (although it’s not their fault in any way). We won’t be there for Christmas. I’d really like to be, but I’ve chosen not to be.
I’m vaccinated against COVID-19, and I think you should be, too. I’ll delete any comments that try to argue with this stance. Don’t argue with me. Argue with your medical doctor, if you really must. I only point out that I am vaccinated and I believe in the value of being vaccinated to make it clear that I did not write this letter for my own sake. The bishops of the Anglican Church in Aotearoa New Zealand and Polynesia recently decided that no person without a vaccine certificate, proving that they’ve had two vaccine shots, is permitted to attend public services in any Diocese in New Zealand. Whatever you might think of people who cannot in good conscience be vaccinated (for reasons that I do not accept), do you think they should be treated as part of the Church? When the Church gathers to worship, hear the word preached, and share in the communal act of receiving the Lord’s Supper, should they be excluded?
If you answered “yes,” then I am very sorry you are in that place. It seems obvious to any reflective person that we are not facing a dichotomy of “exclude unvaccinated people from Church” or “do not care about physically vulnerable people who might get sick.” Nobody (or as I said, no reflective person) can take such a simplistic view. An obvious option is to require a recent negative COVID-19 test if a person is not vaccinated. This is an even more feasible option with the availability of rapid antigen testing. The point is that reaching for the simplest, bluntest, most harmful tool that just happens to align nicely with what the secular authorities approve of without so much as raising a single public concern is a dreadful turn of events.
Although the identity of the bishops in this diocese is not secret (yes, there are two bishops), I have removed their names from this letter. They acted in accordance with all the other bishops, I do not know what they believe about this situation, and I don’t want this post to have the appearance of hostility towards them. This blog post is just to express my lament at this action, and to let you know how I expressed that lament in a letter I recently sent to the bishops. That letter is as follows:
Dear Bishops ___ and ___
I am writing to express my dismay about the recent announcement to require everyone who does not have a vaccination certificate to stay away from public worship in our Diocese. Although I do not presume that my views will make any difference, you really ought to hear at least a little of the lament that this decision has caused, and will continue to cause.
I am aware that the government has mandated changes that affect churches, and it is in response to these changes that you have made your decision (which, obviously, is why your decision coincides with theirs). I am addressing you not as citizens of New Zealand, but rather as leaders in Christ’s Church, whose primary allegiance is to the Kingdom of God. I believe that this decision is wrong needs to be heard by you even if you believe that you have no other option but to obey Caesar (which is a view I do not think you should hold, but I am not going to try to persuade you otherwise here).
I discussed this with the priest in charge at our parish when they (he and his wife, the co-priest in charge) announced the coming change. As he told me, whatever his own misgivings might be, part of being a priest is obedience to the Bishop. The buck does not stop with him and his co-priest in charge. Nor does it stop with any committee, process, or impersonal policy. It stops with you, the bishops of this Diocese. You have decided or agreed (these really amount to the same thing) that people without a vaccine certificate should be prohibited from public worship and participation in the Lord’s Supper in our Diocese.
Your pastoral letter on this change makes reference to “those who may not be able to worship with us because they have chosen not to be vaccinated” [emphasis added]. This type of language is being used by many people at the moment. It is more comfortable to think only of their decision, as though that decision is the reason they cannot worship with us. But it isn’t. Let’s remember that a month ago these same people were not vaccinated and they were able to worship with us. Their decision has not changed between then and now. Yours has.
We are, in fact, talking about those who are not able to worship with us because you have decided they are not permitted to do so, on account of being unvaccinated (or rather, not having a vaccine certificate). They are not excluding themselves. You are excluding them. You may believe this exclusion is the right thing to do, but it is you who are doing it. We are not talking about sick people who can return when they get better (as we all know, vaccinated or unvaccinated people may be sick).
Bishops of our Diocese, excluding people from public worship and in particular from participation in the Lord’s Supper in this manner is de facto excommunication, even if not in name.
I implore you to try to see this from the perspective of someone who takes what some would call a “conservative Evangelical” stance, but which is really just the historic Anglican and Christian stance (as many Evangelical stances are). You allow people who participate in, celebrate, and defend same-sex relationships and marriage to attend churches and take part in the Lord’s Supper in spite of them openly disobeying the teaching of Scripture and all of historic Christianity – and denouncing the teaching of our Church on marriage. This is said to be acceptable, because there is disagreement on the matter within our province. But there is disagreement on the matter of vaccines, as well. Some people cannot in good conscience be vaccinated, for reasons that I do not share (I am vaccinated). This, obviously, is a matter to which Scripture does not speak directly, and for this you are treating these brothers and sisters worse than those who are advocating disobedience (for this is what adherents of the historic Christian faith maintain on the matter of marriage and sexual relationships).
You may dismiss the comparison on the grounds that lacking a vaccination certificate is a matter of safety for those in the church, while advocating disobedience is not. But firstly, lacking a vaccine certificate is obviously not the same as being sick. Secondly, excommunicating those advocating false teaching or disobedience is a matter of keeping the members of the church safe. How thoroughly saturated in a secular mindset we would be if we only recognised the risks the government or health organisations say are real, and not spiritual risks to the people of God. I am using the example in the hope that it highlights the way your stances (or rather, your actions) on specific issues may speak to more orthodox Anglicans, and how they will definitely seem to those you are now excluding.
It grieves me to observe that in effectively excommunicating the people who already feel under attack by the authorities and by many in society (whether you think they should feel this way or not), you are conforming to some very unfortunate stereotypes of Anglican leadership in the province. You are conforming to a pattern of consistently siding with those who want to expand or steer the church’s stance in order to conform to worldly values and culture (e.g. on sexuality and relationships or other policy positions of secular liberal society in general), while siding against those who fall under the conservative umbrella. As you know, for better or worse, it happens that those who are not vaccinated are generally those who would be deemed conservative and at odds with liberal secular culture.
As I have heard you say many times, Bishop ____, our church is shrinking. Each time I hear you say this, I think again that nearly everyone who hears you must clearly understand that this drift, this pattern of consistently favouring the so-called progressive and liberal positions that the church does, while dismissing and minimising the concerns of historically, biblically minded Evangelical Anglicans, is a culprit. We are bleeding faithful Christians. The difference made by this decision may be small. I am not, of course, saying that remaining unvaccinated is the biblical or Evangelical thing to do. But you know as well as I do who is affected by this decision, and it is the Evangelical rather than the liberal wing of the church. This decision is another small step in the direction of the now somewhat inevitable demise of the Anglican Church in Aotearoa New Zealand and Polynesia. This church will be replaced, and by movements that are already well underway in the Anglican communion and in this country.
But that is a secondary matter. Unvaccinated people are already outcasts, and I am sorry to say that in making this decision, you have made their position worse. They cannot eat or drink with us in many settings. There are many places they cannot buy. Although they are not sick, they are treated verbally and socially by many as lepers. Now they are rejected not only by Caesar and the city of man, as it were, but by the very Church of Christ.
There are ways of working to make church services safer and inclusive. Other churches are exploring these. There are obvious questions to ask – which are not visibly being asked – about whether or not safety from the unvaccinated (not the sick) is chief among our values to be weighed up in this conversation. Indeed, this is a discussion where inclusion of all faithful Christians in our worship does not even seem to have weight as a factor. You have reached for the cudgel of simply telling them they are not welcome.
I have lost count of the times I have heard clergy in our diocese repeat your saying, ___, that we have a mission to the last, the lost, and the least. “There is room at the table,” our progressive friends in the diocese say, and sing. Well yes, there is, for some people. Of course, when we exclude a group and add to their stigmatisation, we never think of ourselves as one of the forces that make people outcasts, and not for sin or non-repentance, but for adherence to conscience. We need someone to tell us we’re doing it.
You’re doing it.
As I said, I am vaccinated. But you may count me with the excluded. How can I in good conscience use the advantage of being vaccinated to worship in a place that would exclude those whose conscience will not allow them to do so and yet who are every bit as faithful a follower of Jesus as I am – in many cases, doubtless, more so? I don’t do this joyfully. I love the Church and belonging to it. I look forward to a time when they are permitted to return, so that I may do likewise.
May God bless and guide you in your ministry in the Church
Dr Glenn Peoples