By Cole Hartin
Hospitals are filling up with people who can barely breathe. Nurses are breaking down in tears. Our chief medical officer warns that hospitals are teetering into over-capacity. The fourth wave of COVID-19 has been the worst New Brunswick has seen.
Until a few weeks ago, the Canadian province in which I live has been one of the few places in the world virtually untouched by the pandemic. While the rest of Canada was fighting with several heavy waves of infection, and while much of the world was hunkering down to shelter-in-place, we were fortunate to have only handfuls of cases in our region, with stretches of time with no active cases at all. Over the past weeks, however, infections have spiked. And though our situation is much better than it was a year ago (over 79 percent of eligible adults are fully vaccinated at the time of my writing), the rising cases have already put significant strain on the healthcare system. Unless we curbed the slew of new infections, we knew, hospitals would be overwhelmed.
In response to this situation the provincial government reissued an emergency order, reintroduced mandatory masking, and began requiring proof of vaccination for most public facilities. Churches were treated more leniently than concerts or theaters. They were given two options. One option was to limit their primary worship gatherings to those who have been fully vaccinated. The second option was to remain open to all people, including the unvaccinated, but to introduce several further restrictions in their facilities (reducing capacity, mandatory social-distancing, contract tracing, and forbidding congregational singing, for example). After giving some direction, our bishop left the final decision for parishes.
I spent a couple of days last weekend praying, thinking, and generally agonizing over what was best for our community. After consulting with the church wardens, we decided to require proof of vaccination.
While our circumstances here in New Brunswick are unique, throughout the decision-making process I’ve learned some lessons that might be of benefit to other priests who will likely be faced with similar decisions.
In some ways, our dilemma was a version of the trolley problem with rather low-key stakes. If we required vaccinations for parishioners, there was greater assurance of everyone’s overall safety, but there was the potential that this would come at the expense of a minority of unvaccinated individuals who would not be permitted to gather with us.
On the other hand, we had the option to inflict some baseline misery on the whole congregation (no singing! stand further apart!), but we would be able to welcome anyone, even if their conscience led them to decline a vaccine.
My instinct here was to go with the latter. A little collective suffering is worth remaining open to all people. The parable of the lost sheep (Matt. 18:10-14) leapt to mind. To serve as a shepherd of souls under the watch of Jesus Christ means it is never acceptable to sacrifice the individual for the “greater good.”
But on further reflection, this parable cut another way. I know that many vulnerable people who are at significant risk of contracting COVID-19 might find meeting in a large group, even without congregational singing, an intolerable risk when the stakes are so high. To keep the door open for everyone in theory might mean subtly pushing out those with the most precarious health.
Still, my instinct was to keep our doors open to everyone on principle.
I decided that it would be good to poll my parishioners to find out just how many of them would benefit from this. In other words, I wanted to know how many parishioners would be left out if we were to require proof of vaccine. From previous conversations I had a hunch that it would be a small handful. I reached out directly to a couple of individuals who I thought might be affected. Every person I heard from was vaccinated. I learned, then, that not one of our parishioners who would normally gather with us for the Eucharist would be left out if we did require proof of vaccination.
These contextual and personal dimensions complexified a problem that in principle was relatively easy to grapple with. “Nobody will be excluded” is a powerful rallying cry, but when there is no one threatened with exclusion, it starts to ring hollow. To reject the requirement for vaccination for worship would mean collectively suffering some low-grade frustration to the benefit of no one in particular, save for the hypothetical unvaccinated person who might walk in the door.
With this knowledge the calculus changed, and after consulting with the church wardens, we decided to ask folks to show proof of vaccination. Not only was no one in our worshiping community left behind, but the size of our gathering increased. And, just in case I missed anyone, I offered to bring home Communion to anyone who did not feel comfortable gathering on Sunday (vaccinated or not).
Now to be fair, I was told after the service that one individual was turned away at the door. She was not a regular part of our community, and I regret that this was the case. In the future, we will have cards to give those who cannot show proof of vaccination so that I can connect with them.
Obviously, this decision was not ideal. The whole pandemic has thrust us into situations that are not ideal, and we have to do our best to work with what we have. And while our decisions were welcomed by our parish, I know many other pastors in our area could not in good conscience make the decision that we did.
I anticipate several objections:
First, I expect many pastors and leaders will object to closing the doors to the unvaccinated on principle. To them, I concede that they are right, in principle. And I expect if I were serving in many other congregations in many other places, it would be inappropriate for me to ask for proof of vaccination. But in our situation, in New Brunswick, in a parish with such a high vaccination rate, the pastoral situation on the ground meant that defending an abstract principle would not be of benefit to anyone, save as a symbolic gesture.
I certainly think having publicly accessible worship is important, but the principle that “all are welcome” is probably rooted more in secular liberalism than in Christianity. The gospel is for “all” (Matt. 28:19), but including everyone, all the time, in the same place, is not essential for gathering on the Lord’s Day. In the early Church, Christians had to gather secretly, shielding themselves from prying eyes for fear of persecution. And after Constantine even catechumens were kept out of the congregation for the Eucharist. The safety of the faithful and awe for the holy can override radical openness. One could at least make the case that requiring vaccination protects the faithful.
I imagine others will object that requiring proof of vaccination could deter unvaccinated seekers. This was likely the case with the single individual we did have to turn away recently. I think this is a legitimate objection, but I will note that there are other ways to encourage seekers along their journey, and in fact Sunday worship — especially Holy Communion — is not primarily for those exploring Christian faith. The presence of the Spirit and the beauty of the liturgy can be compelling, but ultimately common worship is about what the Church offers to God and receives from him. Onlookers are generally welcome but are peripheral to what we do on Sunday morning. A healthy parish should have other opportunities and initiatives for those exploring the faith.
A third objection might go something like this: While there are other legitimate reasons for not admitting folks to Sunday worship (for instance, if they are visibly ill, or if they are a threat to the vulnerable because of past criminal behavior), declining vaccination is not a good reason for one to be left out. The argument here is that simply because someone has declined vaccination does not mean that there is something morally or physically wrong with them. They may in fact be quite healthy.
I think this again is a fair objection and is worth discussing with unvaccinated persons. They do have a claim on the community and might point to St. Paul’s encouragement to “wait for one another” (1 Cor. 11:23). It may be that this is enough to drop the vaccination requirement, but this should be in consultation with the most vulnerable, those who are most likely at risk of death from COVID-19. In this case, the exercise of the political freedom of some individuals must be weighed against the risks this poses to their neighbors. The conversation then moves from the abstract to the concrete, and this makes all the difference.
On a final note, I would add that at least within Anglicanism, the basic unit of the church is not the parish but the diocese. Thus, a parish does not need to be all things to all people, but a diocese should ideally be comprehensive. There is significant room here for cooperation amongst diocesan churches then, to make sure they can collectively serve the whole community. Some might forego vaccination requirements and opt for a spoken service of Holy Communion others will keep tighter parameters to protect the vulnerable. By working together they are providing opportunities for all people to worship.