4 Nov 2021

Churches ponder on Covid-19 vaccine certificates and balancing safety with values

9:26 am on 4 November 2021

Many churches in Auckland are already preparing to deliver Christmas services online as church leaders weigh up if they will re-open only to vaccinated people when the traffic light system kicks in.

A lady singing from a hymnal at the Samoan Methodist Church in Levin.

File photo. Photo: RNZ / Koroi Hawkins

What the traffic signals mean for churches

Churches with more than 100 people can only meet under the orange setting without restrictions if vaccine certificates are used. Without a vaccine mandate only 50 people can gather one meter apart - which isn't workable for larger churches.

Green allows the same numbers as orange for vaccine certificate gatherings, and up to 100 people one metre apart for gatherings without the mandate.

Under the red setting, churches using vaccine certificates can have 100 people gathered one metre apart, or alternatively without vaccine certificates only 10 people can gather with social distancing.

Discussions underway on operating under traffic light system

Grant Harris is the senior pastor at Windsor Park Baptist, a church to 1500 people on the North Shore of whom he estimates 150 could be unvaccinated.

"Who's going to be that person at the door that checks certificates and turns people away? It's a really difficult position for churches, I mean, bouncers at the door?"

He said churches were open to everyone but also needed to be safe places, and this weighed on leaders' minds.

Harris is part of a Covid-19 response team set up by Baptist churches across Auckland to discuss the ethics and practicalities of the traffic light system for churches.

"As far as our freedom to religion that's not curtailed at all, the government hasn't said anything about that and rightfully so. We're still free to worship, we're still free to be the church, we just have to be creative about how we go about that in this particular time."

RNZ contacted different denominations to find out their stance on the vaccine. Most actively encourage their parishes to support the government's vaccine programme but were also still discussing whether to use vaccine certificates.

The Auckland Church Leaders Group brings together 45 churches across denominations, and is convened by Jonathan Dove.

He is senior pastor at GraceCity Church and said leaders supported the vaccine programme and wanted to keep those who attended safe.

"Certainly, the vast majority of churches throughout this pandemic have been supportive and cooperating with government health measures and will continue to do so," Dove said.

"The science is showing that churches are really in a challenging situation, because we tend to meet indoors and we love to sing and hug and these are the things that science is showing us spread the virus," he said.

"We're doing everything we can to take it seriously and proactively assist with health measures.

"At the same time, we want to make a place available for all people and welcome everybody regardless of their views and perspectives or political allegiances and so this is an incredibly tough time for leaders."

'Ethical dilemmas' for church leaders

The church leaders' group has a lot to discuss.

"It's a clash of our values as we really identify in the way of Jesus, which is loving your neighbour, which is being inclusive to everybody and providing safety to people, particularly people who are more at risk. So these are the things that church leaders are having to grapple with," Dove said.

One of Auckland's largest churches, Life, has about 10,000 people attend its - now online - services each weekend.

The church declined an interview but in a statement on its website, senior pastor Paul de Jong said they "strongly object to any legislation or government restrictions that would limit in-person church attendance based on vaccination status."

He said the church "has always been open to everyone, without discrimination".

Destiny Church did not respond to RNZ's request for comment.

The New Zealand Catholic Bioethics Centre director John Kleinsman said churches were generally safe places, open to all without prejudice, but that was far from clear cut during a pandemic.

"It is tricky and we've never been in this place before. Churches should be safe places and at the same time they should also be places that are open to all people without prejudice or any discrimination."

Kleinsman said some people would feel unsafe and would not want to come to church if non-vaccinated people were present, while some would feel excluded if non-vaccinated people were unable to attend.

"Ethical dilemmas inevitably involve balancing competing values and rights and this is a case in point, the ability and autonomy of people to choose and of course we respect people's conscience," Kleinsman said.

"How do you balance competing rights, that's what we're debating and struggling with and reflecting on at the moment?"

Greeting Christmas online

Some overseas churches had offered separate services for the vaccinated and unvaccinated.

The Nathaniel Centre is providing advice to Bishops ahead of a meeting this week.

Dr Kleinsman said they would be leaning on important values to guide parishes.

"Within our own Catholic social teaching, we have principles to assist in those dilemmas," he said.

"In this case, I would say that the key principles that apply would be the principle of the common good, the principle of the option for the most vulnerable, the principle of solidarity and as well the dignity of the individual, which for me includes the right to be protected from harm from other people."

GraceCity Church will continue holding online services until the new year, with smaller gatherings in homes when the traffic light system allows.

"For large churches like ours, the red zone is just problematic even with vaccination certificates, it's limited to 100 people in a gathering so at this stage we'll focus more on house churches and church online and just be really innovative in how we do that," said senior pastor Jonathan Dove.

And Windsor Park Baptist pastor Grant Harris said they would also usher in Christmas online.

"We're planning for a digital Christmas and putting some creativity around that more, because of the size of our church, I think others will still have that problem around vaxed and unvaxed if they do decide to do Christmas services."

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