We need to be honest about who we include and who we don’t include

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A few weeks back I wrote arguing that we should be willing to consider the possibility of some form of immunity certification if it enables large gatherings to open up sooner enabling capacity audiences, mingling, singing and the end of social distancing and face masks at such events. There is a concern that such measures will become the basis for future authoritarian controls. I don’t consider that to be a high risk but I do agree that measures should be taken in order to minimise the risk of this.

However, my point was less that we should definitely have COVID passports. I’m not brilliantly keen on the idea, I’m simply willing to consider practical options to open things up and particularly to make churches as inclusive and welcoming to all as possible. All I ask is that we have the conversation about how we go about doing this. So far I’m waiting for someone, anyone to seriously take up the challenge and provide us with alternatives.

Instead, what we have seen is a doubling down. A recent open letter accompanied by articles such as this one in Premier Christianity argued that if churches used an immunity certification system then it would mean that we were failing to welcome and include all as Jesus did.  There have been a few rather bizarre and peculiar comparisons to how Jesus treated lepers for good measure thrown in to. It is worth noting that when Jesus met with lepers, he was not taking the risk or asking others to take the risk of catching an infectious and deadly disease, rather he was claiming and demonstrating that as the Lord of life, he has complete authority over sickness and death so that he was able to heal leprosy.

So once again, I want to make the appeal. If people have suggestions for ways in which we can re-open churches fully with singing, mingling and an end to face masks and social distancing then please put the ideas forward. Alternatively if you simply believe that those measures are not needed at all at this stage, then argue your case. However, I would ask that what we don’t make something that is not in the Bible a pseudo test of orthodoxy and that we don’t claim that a debate about how best to maintain civil liberties is about being more or less welcoming than others.

To do this, we need to be honest and recognise that although we seek to welcome and include all, churches constantly make decisions about inclusion and exclusion. Now, this may not be overtly obvious to some of our more suburban and genteel parishes but it is the reality for estate and inner city churches.  From  time to time, we would have people who would show up for Sunday worship and for what ever reason they would be in a bit of a state, sometimes it was because they had taken drugs or were under the influence of alcohol. Sometimes it was because their medication wasn’t quite right.  In such situations, they could become physically disruptive that wasn’t merely disruptive to the meeting but meant that they proved a risk to the safe guarding and wellbeing of others.

At that point, we had to make a decision. Do we intervene and if so that would probably involve asking them to leave, ensuring of course that they were supported and looked after or do we allow them to stay which would mean that the disruption would continue. If we did not exclude the person concerned from the meeting then others were effectively excluded, even if they were present it would become impossible for them to participate and some vulnerable people would also find that they needed to leave. We had to strike a balance.

Now, whenever we found that someone could not access the particular meeting, this dod not mean we excluded them from hearing the Gospel or from fellowship with Christians. WE simply had to work harder to find ways in which we could do this for as long as necessary.

My point is this. We are constantly making decisions that will restrict access for some even as it opens up access to others.  The choice that covid passport decisions asks you to make is as follows.

  • First of all, will you continue to exclude people because COVID-19 restrictions such as the 2 metre rule mean that your capacity will be limited. You may have the luxury of a building with twice the capacity you need. If so, that’s great but be careful not to bind others.
  • Secondly  you can choose either to exclude people whose moral sensitivities mean they must refuse all three options in terms of confirming they’ve had the virus, had a vaccine or taken a test, or, you must choose to exclude people who are sensitive still to the risk of the virus and so will be very reluctant to enter a building where COVID restrictions have been removed and there are no checks in place to try and protect against someone with the virus turning up.

The choice is yours but unless we are able to move out of restrictions quicker than currently seems possible, it does mean that we are going to be restricting some people in some way from attending as they would wish.* We would do better to acknowledge that and then open up a conversation about how we best provide to welcome and include as many as possible.

Since I wrote this there have been reports that facemasks/social distancing may be relaxed in the summer. That will be fantastic if true. I still wish that we had moved quicker to enable full gatherings earlier but if we do get back to full in person corporate worship in the summer that is brilliant news. I think there are two points of caution here, first that I wouldn’t be surprised if there is a catch, that vaccine passports are part of the package and secondly the reports suggest a return in the Autumn to some restrictions.

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