This is part 2 in a series where we will be exploring and imagining how faith communities may need to evolve in order to adapt to our changing times. You can find part 1 here.
Last week the Government released their new Traffic Light system which laid out the plan to move us out of lockdowns, utilizing a new system that took into account the reality of life with Delta in our community.
It was a sobering moment, perhaps not unexpected, but sobering none the less.
We were finally forced to face the reality we all knew was coming, yet somehow hoped would never come. Covid19 is in our communities, Covid19 is here to stay.
The question the Government has had to wrestle with is how do we keep as many people as safe as possible, while bringing us out of lockdown, and avoiding overwhelming our strained and struggling health system. In the end they have developed a system that utilizes vaccinations, alongside a level of health restrictions, in order to slow the spread, protect our health system, and, well hopefully, do what can be done to protect those in our society who are the most vulnerable to this virus. I know for some this feels like people who aren’t able to be vaccinated, or choose not to, are being targeted and punished (and I have a lot of sympathy for those who are in that position), but from what I can understand the Government is trying to find a way to bring us out of Lockdown, while also acknowledging the reality, that the very thing that took us into it, is still present in our communities.
Elsewhere I’ve also spoken about the feeling of oppression and persecution that some of our whānau are feeling, I looked at the claim that our Government is basically becoming something akin to the Nazi party and explored why I don’t believe the comparison stacks up (you can read that piece here).
But, in this piece I wanted to address the issue of Religious Persecution and the church.
Since the announcement there have been several people who have come forward arguing that the traffic light system is religious persecution. Under this system, in the Red level (a time when Covid is rampant in our communities, our vulnerable whānau are at greatest risk, and our health system is under pressure) faith communities can gather to worship with up to 100 people if vaccinated, and up to 10 if not. In the Orange level (a time where community transmission of Covid is growing, and the risk to our health system and vulnerable whānau is increasing), church communities can gather with no limit on attendance if vaccinated, and up to 50 if not. In Green, (a time where there are sporadic covid cases in the community) churches can gather with no restrictions if vaccinated, and up to a 100 people if not.
One group of Christian Pastor’s (who have set up a group called Free to be Church to challenge the Protection Framework) has argued that the Government has no right to limit how many people can gather for a church gathering, and decisions to limit church gathering’s or not, should be completely up to individual faith communities to decide. They believe, and are attempting to argue, that the restriction’s the Government has put in place to protect our communities undermines the “god given authority” of pastor’s and elders to govern their church communities and interferes with the freedom necessary to practice our faith.
Peter Mortlock from City Impact Church is another Pastor who has serious concerns about these restrictions. In a recent video on social media he echoed the sentiments of the Free to Be Church whānau arguing that the Protection Framework forces the church to discriminate between the vaxed and the unvaxed. Putting church communities into the position of having to choose between the vaccinated and the unvaccinated, including some, while excluding or segregating others.
Beneath a lot of this kōrero seems to lie a belief that we are – or we soon will be – expierencing religious persecution. In a previous piece I’ve addressed the question of whether we are being persecuted or not. You can read that piece here, but the long and short of it is, I don’t believe we are. I believe that our government is making some really hard decisions, seeking to keep our communities safe, and protect those who have the most to lose (their lives) if this virus gets out of control.
And though I don’t agree with this sentiment, there is a couple of points that I can find agreement on with Peter and the Free to Be crew. The first is this. Whether a person is vaccinated, or unvaccinated, whether they have legitimate health reasons for this choice, or whether they’re just scared or don’t trust the government, whoever they are, they should be accepted, loved and embraced by all who seek to follow the Way of Love that Jesus laid for us. Another point where I can find agreement is in the importance of meeting. Though online gathering’s have their place, and they have served a purpose when we haven’t been able to meet together in person, there is something important about gathering together as a community.
However, in acknowledging both these points, the Government’s Protection Framework does not prevent either of these things from happening. Church communities can both embrace, welcome and accept, vaccinated and unvaccinated alike, while still gathering together in person.
We are not being prevented from doing either of these things.
What we do have is a choice. Our gatherings will have to evolve, we will have to change.
If we want to be able to accept all people regardless of whether they are vaccinated or not, then we will need to reimagine the form and shape of our gatherings in order to accommodate that. In a future blog we’ll dig into this a bit deeper, but for now, I just want to clarify something.
We are being told that we either follow the Protection Framework (thus excluding and discriminating against unvaccinated people), or we resist it, opening our church communities up for all, and accepting all regardless of whether they are vaccinated or not. This is a false dichotomy.
The only thing stopping us from meeting together, from welcoming all, will be our refusal to let go of our traditions for the sake of the vulnerable within our communities.
Meeting together is important, but it is not as important as protecting the health, and the lives of those who are most vulnerable in our communities. Our choices will impact others. Not just within our faith communities, but the vulnerable and at risk in our wider communities as well. As followers of Jesus our faith is being tested. Will we stick to our traditions? Stubbornly holding firm to the old wines skins of our past? Or will we sacrifice everything? Restructuring and reorganize ourselves in order to be a community that can truly embrace, love and accept all people? Are we willing to lay down our own comfort, security, and traditions in order to serve those who have the most to lose from this virus?
Our faith does not require us to worship in large gatherings. In different contexts, in different times, the gathering of the church community has always been able to adapt to meet the needs of the people. In fact, where it has not done that, where the church structure has become out of step with the needs of the community, it is in those times, and those spaces, that the church has become a harmful and oppressive institution. And so, here we are, faced with a decision.
Will we evolve, laying down the comfort of some of our traditions, in order to serve and Love our communities? Or will we hold firm to the old wine skins of pre-covid days?
As always, the choice is up to us.
A.J. Hendry is a Laidlaw College graduate, and now a Youth Development Worker and housing advocate, working in the Youth Housing and Homelessness space. He leads a service supporting rangatahi experiencing homelessness and is also an advocate working collectively to end youth homelessness in Aotearoa. He is also the curator and creator of When Lambs Are Silent.
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