So how do we get back to in person gatherings for ALL sooner?

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This is a follow up article to this morning’s article on Vaccine passports.  My aim in writing that article was to get us thinking about how we open up for in person meeting sooner, with the aim for all who wish to gather in person to do so. My aim is to enable church families to fully gather to worship, hear teaching, share fellowship and share communion. It is also to enable people to visit a church service who may not yet have heard the Gospel.

It is helpful to set out the problem as is. Let’s do so with a scenario.  The church I pastored for the past ten years had about 180 people in regularish attendance, this was spread over 4 -5 services over a weekend.[1] We also saw lots of occasional and less regular visitors. Currently observing regulations and guidance on social distancing and with a concern to maintain good cleaning routines, they are limited to 1 meeting and a capacity of about 20. In other words, it is not possible for 160 people to gather in person regularly as things stand. 

However, even for the 20 who do attend, they are unable to sing, to mingle for conversation, to break bread and share the cup as was their practice pre-COVID.  So 100% of the regular attendees are not really able to gather in a way coming anywhere close to what they would consider genuine in person church.

As things stand, it seems that we won’t see a lot of the restrictions on how we meet lifted before the Autumn. I don’t think that is good for the church family or for the wider community the church is witnessing to. So, my question is:

How do we get back to in person gatherings for ALL sooner?

I would love to see that conversation happening but at the moment it isn’t.  So I’ve asked the question “what if we use a COVID passporting approach?”  My view is that we should then be able to get running with full in person gatherings and indeed probably should have been able to for over a month now.  My basis for this is that you have three options, you can either show the equivalent of a vaccine passport, you can take a lateral flow test, or you can show that you’ve had a positive COVID test within the last six months and so are likely to have the anti-bodies. 

Now, there are always risks involved with any proposal. So, if I put forward a proposal, I try to do at least a quick, in my head, risk assessment.  I reckon there are 3 main risks here.

  • That the Government might extend this into a permanent infringement on civil liberties.
  • That false negatives and false positives might occur requiring some people to go home who did not need to and exposing the congregation to contagious people.
  • That there would still be one or two people who for whatever reason are unable or unwilling to avail themselves of any of the three criteria options.

My calculation is that in each case the risk is low. However, I recognise that people might assess things differently.  So, in terms of the first option, I accept that we need to do something to put more robust constitutional defences in place against overbearing government extending measures – I think we need that anyway.  As regards the second option I think the risk is low both in terms of probability and in terms of impact. I might miss one Sunday with a false negative and the extent of vaccination now means the risk of serious outbreaks is rapidly receding so that hopefully we won’t need any measures at all before long. 

The third one seems to be where a lot of the focus has been.  In fact the question keeps being formulated as “on what basis am I going to refuse access to the Lord’s table for some people.” I think that formulation is wrong because we are not talking about barring people who can currently come. We are rather looking at opening up access to all. However, the risk is that some will still not be able to come. You then have a decision to make. I think you can either ask those refusing to do any of the three options to consider themselves the stronger brother and for the sake of those weaker who may be afraid of the virus to just take a quick lateral flow test. Alternatively you can decide that the person unwilling to do that is in this case the weaker brother. In which case, your option is to ask the church members to vote to extend the moratorium on in person gathering a little longer.  Finally, if you think that the current restrictions are unnecessary and especially if they move to guidance, you could very simply choose to go ahead with full in person gathering with singing and mingling as soon as possible.[2] With the latter you will have to weigh up considerations in terms of the impact on your witness.

So, there are options there. However, I really don’t want us to miss the main point which is this. Our desire should be to be able to return to full in person gatherings as soon as possible. I expect that this is not likely to be possible under government plans until the Autumn at the latest and probably longer.  I would be delighted to hear that we will be able to sing, mingle and fill our buildings to capacity in June, if so my advice is hang tight a little longer. However, I’m not convinced this will happen so, in the absence of that, I’m asking a genuine question.

Do we have ideas that will enable us to get meeting in person within the next month which do not restrict people from attending?  Let’s get sharing those ideas.

[1] 4 every week and one was monthly with an aim to move towards a weekly gathering.

[2] My suspicion is that even by June that this will be going against at least guidance if not regulations.

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