Vaccination, Inclusion and Exclusion: The ethics of regathering for worship in a part vaccinated world

24 Sep 2021 by Rev Dr Rob McFarlane in: Latest News

The Uniting Church holds two core values as part of our ethos.

First, we believe that our gatherings should be safe places for all, especially the most vulnerable. Appropriately, we invest considerable resources in policy, codes of practice, and training to make our worship and other activities as safe as possible.

Secondly, we believe that all are welcome at worship. We sing this in our hymns: “Come as you are” and “All are welcome in this place”. We proclaim our inclusive welcome in spoken words, as well as on our signs, websites, notice sheets and orders of service.

When we think about regathering for worship after this current lockdown, we are faced with a new ethical challenge that wasn’t present last year. What do we do when society is moving towards a situation where being fully (double) vaccinated will be a requirement of entry to businesses, offices and indoor events?

The two core values which I have described point in opposite directions. The first principle of safety for the most vulnerable implies that people who are not fully vaccinated may need to be excluded for the safety of the vulnerable. The second principle of inclusion implies that we can’t turn anyone away.

There are two further principles, or at least questions, that flow from this clash of equally valid principles.

First, we have a duty of care to our volunteers. Can we reasonably ask a door steward or greeter to tell someone at the door that they can’t enter?

Second, we have a duty as Christians, individually and collectively, to obey the state, unless there are compelling reasons to disobey when our “citizenship in heaven” (Philippians 3:20) conflicts with our national citizenship. Paul describes our duty to obey the state in Romans 13:1-2.

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgement.

The Gospels speak to these questions. When questioned by a lawyer, Jesus affirmed the centrality of the command “Love your neighbour as yourself” (Leviticus 19:8; Luke 10:25-28). Now, the lawyer’s next question may be a dodge, “Who is my neighbour?” (Luke 10:29). However, this is exactly our question. “Who is my neighbour?” becomes for us “To whom do we owe our primary duty of care: the vulnerable or the unvaccinated?” The principle of being a safe place tells us that the vulnerable are our primary neighbour. However, the principle of being inclusive tells us that the unvaccinated are our primary neighbour.

Taking this to the next step, the dilemma becomes deeper. Whichever path we take will exclude someone. Obviously, protecting the vulnerable means excluding the unvaccinated. However, including the unvaccinated leads to exclusion of the vulnerable who are afraid to come into an unsafe place.

In both lockdowns, and the return to face-to-face gatherings after the first lockdown, congregations have already wrestled with questions of inclusion and exclusion. Several examples from the experience of congregations in Parramatta Nepean Presbytery illustrate the reality of wrestling with inclusion and exclusion,

First, people with limited access to broadband internet, adequate devices or technical ability have experienced exclusion from online worship. The “digital divide” in all of society arises from social inequality, such as crowded and insecure housing, low levels of education and English, as well as personal limitations, including disability and (for some) age. Already, people who we would most want to include as “the last, the least and the lost” experience exclusion. Despite this, many congregations have decided that it was better to have online worship, that may exclude some, than no worship at all. Other congregations have followed a different path, distributing printed or pre-recorded DVDs to people’s homes, with no streamed or Zoom worship, so that all are included equally.

Secondly, some congregations have wrestled with the “good-problem-to-have” of being at full seating capacity before the first lockdown. Turning people away at the door or rationing members’ attendance did not seem like acceptable options to deal with the two and four square metre rules. Instead, they have developed new ways and patterns of gathering, at least one of which echoes patterns in the early church. For instance, in a typical month having one or two online services, and one or two resourced home church gatherings across the congregation (when home gatherings were allowed). As well as these online and home gatherings, the whole congregations have gathered monthly in the open air or a large borrowed space for Communion.

What the challenges of the digital divide and physical space constraints illustrate is that we have already been dealing with questions of inclusion and exclusion. Exclusion in the physical, face-to-face space has seemed too unpalatable to contemplate, and instead, not gathering face-to-face has been a better path. Exclusion in the digital space has for most, but not all, seemed like an acceptable compromise.

What we do in the next stage of emerging from the pandemic, with its new inclusion/exclusion challenge around vaccination status, is still unclear. Nevertheless, as Wesley would have said, our struggle can be informed by our UCA tradition and scripture on one hand, and our experience and reason on the other.

Whichever way we go, our ethics are not just a matter of opinion or theory, but decision and action. Blessings to all as we decide and act.

Rev Dr Rob McFarlane

Rob McFarlane has served for over 20 years on institutional ethics committees in public hospitals and non-government agencies in NSW & Queensland. He has also served on Uniting Church ethics working groups around issues such as euthanasia. Rob brings together theological reflection and pastoral experience to his teaching, public speaking and writing in health ethics. He currently serves as Presbytery Ministry Leader with Parramatta Nepean Presbytery.