Vaxxed and unvaxxed in church at 80 per cent (in Sydney anyway)

Re-opening church only a few weeks away

Todays’ announcement that unvaxxed and vaxxed people can be in church together in Sydney and locked down regions of NSW once 80 per cent of over 16-year-olds are vaccinated, will greatly relieve pastors and church attenders concerned that not everyone could be welcomed to church. NSW expects to hit 70 per cent by October 11 with 80 per cent two weeks latter, maybe October 25. “Covid normal” comes from December 1. Victoria is tracking along a few weeks later.

“Please pray for my church in xxx”, one pastor posted a few days ago. “… Whatever decision we make cannot make everyone happy. People have started leaving the church, equating the approval/decline of vaccination with loyalty to Christ.”

For there to be a few weeks when being vaxxed/unvaxxed means different degrees of freedom, including church attendance, across the vaxx/unvaxx divide, might be an occasion for frustration, disappointment and sadness. But is it a reason to leave your church? Is being kept away a little longer than others a reason to leave?

It is not only in Sydney that “vaccinations passports” will be temporary.

“It looks to me that we will be over 95 per cent vaccinated both within our staff and within our students,” Professor Brian Schmidt, Vice Chancellor of the ANU told Q and A.

“And we’re going to be embedded in Canberra, which is well on its way of also achieving over 95 per cent. So, at that point, the modeling I have seen – but we need to keep on working on this as we understand what’s going on – indicates that requiring vaccination is not as important as probably other interventions we can do. But we’re not going to be able to just have a wide-open campus, it looks like, for the foreseeable future. We’re going to have to have interventions with respect to air quality, masks, probably limits within rooms.”

Victoria’s roadmap has a “phase D’ of over 80 per cent double dosed for those aged 12 and above – when “restrictions will align with the National Plan to transition Australia’s National COVID-19 Response, agreed to by National Cabinet.” Victoria will learn from NSW’s experience, as well as conducting its own trials.

While Britain has opened up at 80 per cent, Singapore has re-imposed restrictions. The freedom tap can be turned on and off.

In other states, premiers like Mark McGowan of WA, Annastacia Palaszczuk of Queensland, Steven Marshall of SA, and Peter Gutwein of Tasmania have to make tricky decisions as they lead their states from the safe harbour of lockdowns to the stormier weather of a vaccination strategy.

The Ezekiel Declaration – a petition begun by three Queensland Baptists – set out a polite plea that government avoid using vaccine passports, and the pastors who wrote it clearly had a concern that vaccine passports would trap the church into having to exclude the unvaxxed.

Today’s announcement means those fears will be unrealised.

The Ezekiel-ers did not argue for civil disobedience, for churches to defy the law. Eternity has checked this with one of the authors.

The Sydney Anglicans steered a middle path between those who want insurrection – a public refusal to follow the law – and those impatient with the refuseniks. As outlined by Bishop Michael Stead, churches could hold a soft launch at the 70 per cent double vaccination mark which allows the vaxxed to attend under the NSW plan while waiting – possibly for a few weeks – till all can attend for “real church”. The wisdom of this gentle approach is now palpable.

While pushing for a quick opening up, the Australian Christian Lobby’s Martyn Iles has said he accepts “reluctantly” a step-by-step path out of lockdowns, (while opposing vaccine mandates).

The message from mainstream leaders is to treat everyone with respect – there’s not been any need for a battle over this.

But wider social media and online events have featured extreme language calling those who sought a peaceable path “hirelings” or “conformers” who “knuckle under” to the government. Besides Eternity, the Gospel Coalition and the NSW Presbyterian Gospel Society and Culture Committee and many church leaders have been attacked.

If there is likely to be only a few weeks wait for everyone to be in church, vaxxed and unvaxxed, why the high anxiety? This may simply be about the unknown future for many, but for others, there’s a desire to build new alliances, and for some to grow their influence.

The debate on how to respond to the complicated and shifting road maps has revealed an attempt to build a libertarian political group – a fusing of Christianity and a political philosophy. A syncretism of Christianity and Marxism has long been criticised from the right – sometimes this has been an exaggeration and at other times justified. But the vax wars reveal a similar project on the right. Politicians such as Craig Kelly, George Christensen, Pauline Hansen and vaccine skeptic doctors have appeared on Christian forums or been reported approvingly on websites.

Jumping on to an issue that is causing distress and using it to pull people into adopting a political cause has been the hallmark of left groups since the early days of the Soviet Union. It is sometimes called “The French Turn” after the tactics Leon Trotsky used in the 1930s getting his followers into a more moderate party to take it over.

The language from libertarians has become stronger and more pointed in the last few weeks. This is because Christian leaders who are working to have pragmatic solutions through gentle negotiation – rather than an immediate political fight – are seen by the libertarians as a threat. Websites and live stream events that one might have thought of as merely very conservative politically, have recently published articles attacking the efficacy of the vaccines, promoting alternative medicines, and alleging the state having seized extra powers will not give them up.

This is because the attempt to build a Trump-like movement in Australia, a political movement like the US Republican party, is likely to have been slowed by the vaccination issue – which many Christian leaders recognise as calling for gentle negotiation rather than flamboyant language.

And, alongside gentle negotiation, some pragmatic solutions have been put forward by church leaders – without resorting to extreme language.

Here is some of that pragmatism – possible ways of setting up church for the vaxxed and unvaxxed together:

  • Wait and re-start church after everyone is allowed to attend
  • Open up church during the period when only the vaxxed can attend, but making it clear “real church” will start when everyone can come.
  • Have a place in a church building set aside for the unvaccinated and those who are confident to sit with them.
  • Or the reverse: have the vulnerable, such as cancer patients with suppressed immune systems, in a special part of a church with vaxxed only with them while  a mixture of vaxxed and unvaxxed gather in the rest of the building
  • Given that we will have a one-person per 4sq m rule at least at the start of re-opening, churches may need to use two facilities at once or have more services anyway.

Another issue that is emerging is ventilation. Open all your windows is the advice from experts, and having the vulnerable seated where fresh air is available.

The best way to help those unable to get vaccinated for medical reasons, for conscience issues, or even for vaccine skepticism or political reasons, is for the rest of us get vaccinated.


Some prayer points to help

Pray for wisdom, patience and ingenuity for church leaders as they navigate the path back to churches re-opening in the cities and regions where they have been closed.