The challenge of COVID-19 to Social Ethics as we know them

A guest blog by the Rev. Dr Geoff Dornan, minister with the Wesley Forrest Uniting Church Congregation in Canberra, ACT.

COVID-19 has turned the world upside down. Its impact upon the way we reason ethically has been immeasurable. There were the portentous signs in the first wave of infection of 2019-2020, especially in Italy, as clinical practice was tested as never before. I recall the Italian peak body for anaesthetics and critical care issuing a divisive guideline about the allocation of intensive care resources, suggesting an upper age limit for ventilator eligibility, the implicit condoning of ventilator withdrawal if necessary, and a ‘pragmatic’ focus upon maximizing clinical outcomes.

It could be said that there was little new in this. After all, much of it had been anticipated in longstanding clinical policy about the allocation of scarce healthcare resources, in what was known as the “fair innings” argument. The point, however, was not the clinical theory per se, but rather the shock of having to actually put such theory into practice on a wide scale.

Another clinical issue, as the virus spread across the world, was the relationship between patients and healthcare providers. Hospitals cancelled elective surgery to save on PPE supplies, beds, and human resources. Access to ICU level care was restricted and strict infection prevention controls were also put into place. Many patients faced prolonged precautionary isolation without the reprieve of visits from friends or family.

As if these challenges to clinical ethical practice, were not enough, COVID has also tested public health policy. As governments implemented biosecurity powers to ensure compliance with business closures and social distancing measures, available technologies were deployed to ensure adherence to new laws and contact tracing of those who contracted COVID-19. The use of phone metadata to locate and track individuals, occurred even in liberal democracies, as the seriousness of the pandemic intensified.

Phone applications were also introduced by governments in several countries to communicate with surrounding phones through Bluetooth, so as to record those with whom a person had been in close contact. In some cases, GPS tracking was also utilized: something generally restricted to police functions.[i] The public health emergency powers enacted in liberal democracies during the COVID-19 crisis have permitted to some extent a power imbalance between governments and citizens. Moreover, and most importantly, the framing of public health as a security issue, continues to allow exceptional actions to be taken, beyond what would be normally politically acceptable.[ii]

The Church’s Conundrum: Inclusion and Safety

While COVID-19 has ‘set the cat among the pigeons’ in the ethics of clinical practice and public health policy, the impact continues, raising new issues and challenges for many institutions, not least the church. Most recently, as countries open-up, and governments set policies which distinguish between the vaccinated and unvaccinated, denominations have made their own responses. Roman Catholic and Anglican leaders of Sydney have been quite clear about their reservations in following public policy.

The Roman Catholic Archbishop of Sydney, Anthony Fisher OP, in his message of September 9th, declared, “I would insist that ‘Jesus is Lord of all, and his gospel is a gospel for all. A ‘No Entry’ sign at the door of the church is wholly inconsistent with the Gospel preached inside.’ Race, gender, ethnicity, age, education, wealth or health status (including vaccination) must not be points of division within the Christian community or barriers to communion with Christ Jesus.”

The motivation for this stance is the high view that Catholicism harbours of the Church and the centrality of the Mass as the fundamental liturgical expression of being church. Moreover, speaking broadly, as evidenced in recent statements of ‘push-back’ from the Polish Catholic Bishops’ Conference, the Catholic Church is wary of the extension of state powers as a weakening of democracy and a slide into authoritarianism. Something we have seen as not entirely without foundation.[iii]

There have also been evangelical responses, such as the “Ezekiel Declaration” recently published by three pastors from Queensland, directed to the Prime Minister Scott Morrison, which states concern for those suffering mental and emotional stress from lockdowns, and which appeals to Morrison to resist the policy of vaccination passports on the basis that such a practice “risks creating an unethical two-tiered society”.

In spirit and mood, the declaration reflects not a high view of the Church in the Catholic sense, but a libertarian ethos with a strong inclination toward a priority for individual freedoms. More disturbingly, the document raises questions of soundness as it slides into a barely concealed ‘anti-vaxxer ethos’, and mistakenly implies that vaccination will be made mandatory. The declaration appears to be primarily ideological. [iv]

For the Uniting Church in Australia, thinking our way through the current challenge of the conundrum of the ‘vaccinated-unvaccinated’ as we prepare to ‘open up’ is confronting. Rather than seeing the issue in the singular terms of inclusion, for us, there is also the issue of safety.

Robert McFarlane has succinctly explained it, “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”.[v] https://www.insights.uca.org.au/vaccination-inclusion-and-exclusion-the-ethics-of-regathering-for-worship-in-a-part-vaccinated-world/

John Squires, in an article ‘On Vaccinations, Restrictions and Fundamentalism”[vi] https://johntsquires.com/2021/09/20/on-vaccinations-restrictions-and-fundamentalism/, notes that there is a strong defence of the priority of vaccination, and by extension mandatory vaccination, plus the need for that priority to be exercised in deciding who attends worship and who does not. Of course, within the opinion piece, the author accepts that there may be good reasons for people not being vaccinated, especially underlying health issues.

He also argues for the continuation of on-line worship to serve the unvaccinated from the safety of their homes, so that the principle of inclusion can still be maintained in unison with that of safety. He concludes, “So, at the moment, I will advocate for complete adherence to government restrictions. My faith calls me to work for the common good, to care for the vulnerable, to love my neighbours, both near and far. Minimising risk of transmission as we gather is our first duty. Ministry takes place in many ways other than sitting in an enclosed space for an hour once a week!”

Considering the Problem through the Lens of our Ethical Traditions 

Given the various Christian responses, which range from a priority for unrestrained inclusion of all comers to a physical place of worship, to a priority for safety, limiting physical presence at worship to the vaccinated alone, at least until the danger of COVID subsides, I think we need some help. My suggestion is to appeal to and examine the three major ethical traditions which have shaped and continue to shape the way we moderns think about ethics. My question is simply this: what would each have to say to us about this problem?                                                                   

There are three traditions that I shall briefly examine: the Ethics of Duty, the Ethics of Consequence, and the Ethics of Virtue.

Ethics of Duty

The ethics of duty are not concerned with the consequences or results of actions, but rather their inherent rightness. The point is do the right thing, do it because it is the right thing to do, irrespective of the results; after all results or consequences cannot be entirely foreseen or controlled. The father of the ethics of duty was Immanuel Kant, whose august figure you can see below.

Within the ethics of duty there are what are called categorical imperatives, one of which you would already know: “act so as to treat people never only as a means, but always as an end”. There is another categorical imperative which you may not know. In it, Kant points out that you should not do something if it cannot be done by everybody. Put another way, “you ought not act according to any principle that cannot be universalized”.

A simple example has to do with cheating. What a cheat wants is not that everyone else should do what they do, but that an exception should be made in their case.

Turning to the issue of the vaccinated and unvaccinated, of course people have a right to remain unvaccinated as a question of individual conscience, but it does not end there. The question must be, what if everyone were to do the same, to remain unvaccinated? Clearly the results would be catastrophic, with immeasurably more sickness, substantially more deaths, the collapse of medical systems and glaring economic damage. Moreover, communities and organizations have the duty to protect people from such a scenario. Short of mandating vaccination, the ethics of duty would tell us that it is both reasonable and necessary that a community differentiate between the vaccinated and those who choose in conscience to remain unvaccinated; and this for reasons of the community’s wellbeing and safety. That said, such measures should always be taken treating people, all people – to quote Kant – as ends not just means.

Ethics of Consequence

The ethics of consequence think about ethical issues, as the name suggests, from the perspective of what results from an action. Utilitarianism, a school established and shaped by Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, the latter caricatured below, embrace this idea.  Central to its understanding is that good ethical policy should seek to maximize the good or utility in a society.

Bentham and Mill explained that good as “happiness”. In other words, the broader and greater the happiness, the better. This ethics that focuses upon results, correlates closely to the way Christianity thinks about ethical issues: for example, the Golden Rule – “do to others what you want them to do to you” (Matt 7:12, Luke 6:31).

As an ethics for maximizing happiness, the ethics of consequence is particularly important for thought and decision making about public welfare and social reform: pensions, benefits, health, education; fundamental dimensions of what we refer to as the common good. This idea of maximizing happiness through welfare, was significant in the post-World War II reconstruction of many societies, including the establishment of the welfare state.

In broad terms, the ethics of consequence which focus upon the welfare of a community, would support the comprehensive vaccination of a society as a means of protection for its members. On the other hand, it does not do especially well when considering the rights of minorities, simply because they are minorities. Because it focuses upon the bigger picture of collective gain, particular heed needs to be paid to what it is prone to ignore: as J.S. Mill put it, “the rights of freedom of expression”.

This deficit serves as a warning in our current circumstances, to understand that ethical policy and practice – to be ethical – requires a committed balancing of majority rights with those of a dissenting minority. In this sense, any church practice that brusquely favours safety over inclusion, meaning the ‘exclusion’ of the unvaccinated, needs to be rebalanced.                                        

Ethics of Virtue

Virtue ethics is quite different to the ethics of duty or consequence in that they focus upon the individual character with the question, “what and who ought I be?” Going back to even before Aristotle – the gentleman we see below – virtue ethics dominated ethical thought for centuries. Thomas Aquinas was particularly important in developing a Christian ethics of virtue, in the light of his theology built upon the shoulders of Aristotelian thought.

In recent times there has been a return to virtue ethics as a way of completing the more modern approaches of rules-based ethics of duty and situational ethics of consequence. In a sense virtue ethics offers depth in that ethics are understood as a way of life.

Virtue ethics address two very human issues: the first, the emotions and the second, wisdom. In developing the virtues, the emotions are trained to serve the virtues, not undermine them. Likewise, in developing the virtues, practical wisdom (phronēsis) is cultivated, meaning that it is not sufficient to only do what a just person does, but to do it in a way that a just person does it. In other words, the emphasis lies with the how as much as the what.

Moreover, the content of the virtues changes depending upon the purpose (telos) that a person lives for. For the Christian, the primary virtues have been considered to be charity, patience and humility as pathways to living out the kingdom of God. For Aquinas, charity reigned supreme: “Charity is the form of all virtues”.

Finally, conscience constitutes a significant aspect of virtue and the moral knowledge entailed in living virtuously. That said, the virtue tradition insists that conscience can never be lazy, for we are bound to subject our conscientiously held views to rigorous analysis.

As we consider the question of how to proceed with the challenge of giving expression to the values of inclusion and safety in our services and liturgies, the ethics of virtue would counsel us to do so aware of the priority of charity and the need for an informed conscience.

Conclusions

What is it that these ethical traditions offer to us as we find ourselves on the horns of a dilemma, caught between two noble and necessary practices: inclusivity and safety?  All suggest, either explicitly or implicitly, that a good decision will likely need to include a balance of each.

Unconstrained inclusivity alone, will open congregations to the possibility of infection. Safety alone, will open congregations to excluding those for whom they love and care. After all what good is safety if it cuts us off from each other?  

Additionally, for those who refuse vaccination in conscience, the challenge is to ensure that their conscience is well informed, not determined by ideological bias or irrational partisanship.

Of course, there are multiple ways to balance these requirements. Each congregation, presbytery and synod will need to do just that, accessing and utilizing the knowledge of their specific contexts and the technologies to which they have access, keeping in mind that how we do things is every bit as critical as what we do.

Rev. Dr. Geoff Dornan, October 3rd, 2021

Geoff Dornan is minister in the Wesley Forrest Congregation in Canberra, ACT. He holds a PhD in Philosophy, Theology & Ethics from Boston University, USA.


[i] In March 2020, the government of Singapore, launched a smartphone application to assist in monitoring COVID-19 by enabling public health authorities to investigate infections and limit further transmission. In May 2020 the Australian government announced it would implement similar technology.

[ii] Kamradt-Scott, A., & McInnes C. (2012), The Securitization of Pandemic Influenza: Framing Security and Public Policy. Global Public Health, 7, 95-110, 106.

[iii] Jonathon Luxmoore, “Polish Archbishop criticizes anti-church Covid measures”, The Tablet, August 11th, 2021.

[iv] Timothy Grant, Matthew Littlefield, Warren McKenzie, The Ezekiel Declaration, https://caldronpool.com/ezekieldeclaration/

[v] McFarlane, R. “Vaccination, Inclusion and Exclusion: The Ethics of Regathering for Worship in a Part Vaccinated World”, Insights Magazine, September 17th, 2021.

[vi]  John T. Squires, “On Vaccinations, Restrictions and Fundamentalism”, blog at https://johntsquires.com/2021/09/20/on-vaccinations-restrictions-and-fundamentalism/

On vaccinations, restrictions, and fundamentalism

I have never before been tempted to be a fundamentalist. As a child, I had the good fortune to attend a Sunday School and then a worshipping Congregation where fundamentalism was given a wide berth. Thinking about our faith, learning the essentials of Christianity and pondering how they related to the world we live in, was my spiritual bread and butter.

As a teenager and young adult, I was encouraged to question and explore. As a theological student, I was expected to question and explore! As a minister, I regularly and consistently encouraged people not to be content with the status quo, but always to explore and investigate for themselves. Always for the sake of deepening their faith, gaining better insight into how we are to live as faithful disciples in this world.

But recently, I have begun to wonder. Am I turning into a fundamentalist? Have I succumbed to the lure of absolute certainty? Have I lost the nuances and shading that I have so enjoyed over the decades of exploration, research, discussion, and debate?

It’s that blessed pandemic that has done this to me. Before early 2020, I would never, ever have considered myself to be a fundamentalist. But now, eighteen months down the track, I feel myself sliding into the assured convictions, the absolute dogmatic certainty, and the hardline declarations of a fundamentalist.

Well, it’s not the pandemic as such. It’s the way that people are responding to the pandemic—or, more particularly, to the restrictions that have been put into place because of the pandemic that SARS-CoV-2 has brought to the world. Or, to be even more specific, it’s the matter of vaccinations and the role that they play in our response to the pandemic.

Yes, it is true: I am now a vaccination fundamentalist. Now, perhaps some people might have observed that over the period of my ministry, I have been something of an inclusivist fundamentalist. I have always believed that the church should be open, welcoming, inviting, incorporating diversity, valuing people no matter what they bring into the community of faith.

But that quasi-fundamentalist viewpoint has been shaken, and rather stirred up, by some of my experiences of the past few years—and particularly in very recent times. So much so, that it now allows me to claim my real fundamentalism: on vaccinations.

I believe, first and foremost, that everybody should get vaccinated. Well—everyone who can safely and legitimately get vaccinated, should. I’ve been vaccinated. I think everyone else who can, should be vaccinated.

Of course, there are exceptions. We know that some people are being advised not to get vaccinated, because they have an impaired immune system, or for other legitimate and serious medical reasons. And, in addition, we know that there is currently no vaccination that has been developed for children under the age of 12.

And more than this, we know that there are people in regional areas and in poorer communities who have not yet been able to access a vaccination centre. There are structural flaws in the way that the vaccine has been rolled out, meaning that there are inequities—not everyone has equal ease of access to being vaccinated, just yet.

So, with those caveats, I believe that everyone who can safely get vaccinated, should get vaccinated. Vaccines have a number of benefits. Being vaccinated lessens the time that a person who becomes infected, remains infected. Being vaccinated lessens the likelihood that an infected person would be hospitalised, or even die, if their situation became serious.

A person who is vaccinated carries the viral load for less days than an unvaccinated person. A person who is vaccinated does not get as unwell as an unvaccinated person. And it may well be (this is an assumption—it has not yet been rigorously tested) that a vaccinated person does not suffer as many of the problems that Long Covid brings, compared to an unvaccinated person. Let us hope that turns out to be a valid assumption.

As well as benefits for the individual who is vaccinated, there are benefits for the community as a whole. In general, being vaccinated reduces the likelihood that an infected person will infect other people with whom they come into contact. Being vaccinated lessens the rate of spread of the virus through the community. It’s a positive contribution, not just to an individual’s health, but to the health and wellbeing of the community of which that person is a part.

A really important reason for getting vaccinated is that this course of action lessens the likelihood that a variant strain will develop and spread through the community—and beyond. High rates of vaccination will reduce the pool of people amongst whom a new variant of the virus can develop, and then spread. It is a contribution to the common good.

Now, I am not so much of a fundamentalist, that I don’t recognise that there are limits on vaccination. I accept that being vaccinated doesn’t guarantee that I won’t get infected. I still could. And if I do get infected, I can still become symptomatic and infectious and spread the virus to others. Being vaccinated doesn’t guarantee that I am completely safe from all of that; it doesn’t guarantee that I wouldn’t be a spreader in the community. It just reduces this likelihood.

So being vaccinated doesn’t mean that a community can “get back to normal” without any restrictions. There are still all the usual precautions that need to be followed, even when vaccinated. We know them because they are regularly promoted: wear a mask, practise good hygiene, wash your hands, sanitise with alcohol-based hand rubs, maintain social distancing. (And we should continue to practise some of the less-publicised means: don’t touch your face; cover your mouth or nose with your arm, not your hand, when you cough or sneeze; close the toilet lid before flushing.) A person who is vaccinated, and infected, will still be infectious to others, whether they are symptomatic or asymptomatic. They will just pose a lower risk to other people.

So getting vaccinated isn’t a magical fix. It is a sensible, reasonable way to respond to the pandemic. Which is why, I believe, it is entirely reasonable for governments to require people to be vaccinated before they enter places of business, or hotels and clubs, or other places where people are gathering. Including churches. Especially, in my mind, churches. (At least, this requirement for churches is being mooted by the NSW Government for a few weeks’ time. Not yet in the ACT, where I live.)

What we do in church—in worship services, to be specific—is high risk behaviour. Perhaps the highest risk behaviour. We come into one building from all sorts of different locations. We sit close to each other. In “normal times”, people will hug one another or shake hands quite freely as they “pass the peace”, at least in many (if not all) churches. We used to be quite unaware of how readily we were passing “bugs” to each other week after week.

And most strikingly of all, we sit and listen to people talking towards us (praying, reading, preaching), projecting their breath towards us. And, of course, we sing together, indeed, we may sing heartily and joyfully—that is, we use the force of breath from our lungs to expel air, droplets carried through the air from the force of that breath. That expelled air mingles amongst us all. We all breathe it in.

We drink coffee and eat morning tea, sometimes after we have shared a plate of bread and some wine or grapejuice earlier in the gathering. (Lots more touching went on there, back in the “normal times”.) We do lots of things that are high risk for passing the virus from one person to the next.

So it makes sense for churches to adhere to the government directive that only people who are vaccinated can be permitted to enter and participate in worship. I agree with that. I agree absolutely. To be honest, this is actually my point of absolute fundamentalism.

We can only have vaccinated people in worship services because we are committed to making church a Safe Place for everyone who participates. We already require church leaders to have undertaken a compliance check (a Working With Children Check in NSW, or Working With Vulnerable People in the ACT). We already have a requirement that a Person of Concern can only attend worship services or other church activities if they have signed a Safety Agreement. We already adhere to the government requirement that everyone attending worship will first check in using a QR Code to register their presence.

We can only have vaccinated people in worship services because we are committed to prioritising the vulnerable, making sure that their needs are given clear attention and the highest priority in the way we operate. That’s why we have had check-in codes, hand sanitisers, socially distanced seating, and no “free-for-all” morning teas at worship services, when we are meeting in person, over the past year. And, of course, when we resume services in person, we will need to continue with wearing masks, not singing, not having a collection plate, not handing out hymn books or orders of service, and we will need to follow appropriate food handling protocols.

We can only have vaccinated people in worship services because this is one of a number of restrictions we operate by, that are designed to reduce the risk of transmission of the virus, should there be an infected person present amongst the worshippers. And if unvaccinated people do attend and participate in worship, then they are placing themselves at great potential risk, as well as possibly exposing others to greater risk, if there is anyone present who is infected.

So I can’t understand those church leaders who, even before we are able to gather in person, are already claiming that they will exercise civil disobedience, that they will not turn away anyone who has not been vaccinated. My newly-found inner fundamentalist says, “No: you must turn them away”—as much as that goes against the grain in a church that prides itself at being open, welcoming, inclusive. Because it is the loving thing to do. Because it is the responsible thing to do. Because it is the Christian thing to do.

And what we have learnt over the last 18 months, is that we can actually include people in community, even when they are not able (or now, not permitted) to participate in person. The various online options for communal worship—Facebook, YouTube, ZOOM—as well as the multiple means of one-on-one communications—telephone, email, FaceTime, GoogleDuo, and even AusPost—and group communications—WhatsApp, Facebook groups, Snapchat, and many more—have demonstrated that there are multiple means for maintaining (and even, I have learnt, expanding) community connections as the body of Christ.

So forbidding the physical presence of a person in worship (because they are not vaccinated) does not mean that we are giving up our connection with them, or that they are no longer a part of our faith community. Those connections, that sense of belonging, can be nurtured in many other ways. We can continue to be an open, welcoming, inclusive—and safe—community for everyone.

I recently came across this quote, which sums it up for me: “Given the nature of churches — places where children and adults closely intermingle, where seniors and the immunocompromised regularly gather, where diverse groups share food, sing together, and meet in often small, old, poorly ventilated buildings — wouldn’t a mandatory vaccination policy make sense? Wouldn’t it be the Christian thing to do?” ( John van Sloten, pastor at Marda Loop Christian Reformed Church in Calgary, Alberta, Canada)

So at the moment, I will advocate for complete adherence to government restrictions. My faith calls me to work for the common good, to care for the vulnerable, to love my neighbours, both near and far. Minimising risk of transmission as we gather is our first duty. Ministry takes place in many ways other than sitting in an enclosed space for an hour once a week!

*****

My friend and colleague Rob McFarlane has written a most helpful and measured consideration of the ethical issues involved at https://www.insights.uca.org.au/vaccination-inclusion-and-exclusion-the-ethics-of-regathering-for-worship-in-a-part-vaccinated-world/

*****

Appendix: in further conversation, I have clarified my thinking. I maintain my overarching commitment to be an inclusive church. I believe that we can do this by (a) ensuring that any in-person worship service is as safe as it can be for as many as are able safely to attend, and (b) ensuring that those who cannot gather in person—because they are vulnerable to infection or because their medical condition prohibits vaccination or because they have chosen not to be vaccinated—are welcomed and included and valued in the regular weekly online worship that is offered alongside of the in person worship.

A Pastoral Letter for the people of the Canberra Region Presbytery

Colleagues in ministry leadership, and people of the Congregations of the Canberra Region Presbytery,

The news, late last week, of the return of lockdowns to all locations within our Presbytery did not come as a surprise. The Delta variant of the SARS-CoV-2 virus appears to be a potent variant, and the wisdom of locking down while it is spreading cannot be doubted.

We encourage you to think of the restrictions that we are currently experiencing as our contribution to the common good. We are avoiding social contact in order to lessen the risk of transmitting the virus. We are accepting deprivations for ourselves in order to lessen the number of people who might become ill, hospitalised, or die. As we act in this way to contribute to the common good, we are demonstrating the priority of loving our neighbours. This is how Jesus called us to live.

The impact on each and every one of us will be to the fore of our thinking in the coming days. No doubt each one of us has our own personal ways of dealing with the lockdown period. Special routines are helpful for the duration of lockdown. Special treats at designated times can assist to encourage us. We are experienced in caring for ourselves; we have done this before, we can do it again.

We can spend time praying for others who have needs greater and deeper than ourselves. The events in Afghanistan, the earthquake in Haiti, the floods in Japan and Turkey, the bushfires occurring in the northern hemisphere: these news items remind us that there are people in other places on the globe who are in terrible peril. We can pray for them. We should pray for them.

We can offer thankful gratitude for the blessings that we experience. We are able to connect with other people in so many ways other than in person—by phone, FaceTime, ZOOM, email, WhatsApp, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter … the list seems endless. We can gather-apart for worship using one of the platforms available (YouTube, Facebook, ZOOM) to reconnect as a community of faith.

We can give thanks for the doctors, nurses, cleaners, security guards, police officers, contact tracers, and others who ensure that hospitals, vaccination centres, walk-in clinics and COVID testing centres continue to operate well, despite the pressures they are experiencing.

We can know that “we are in this together” is not just a slogan—it can be the way that we gain strength from our encouragement of one another. We have friends to connect with at our point of need. We can give thanks for the existence of LifeLine, Beyond Blue, Headspace, YarnSafe, MindSpot, ACON, and many other agencies dedicated to ensuring that we have a safe, caring listening ear available to us when we need it.

And in our praying and reflecting, let us hold one another, the people whom we serve, and those for whom they care, in the bonds of compassion and care.

Ross Kingham and Judy McKinlay, Presbytery Co-Chairpersons
Jared Mitchell, Presbytery Deputy Chairperson
Robbie Tulip, Presbytery Secretary
Elizabeth Raine, Pastoral Relations Committee Chairperson
Andrew Smith and John Squires, Presbytery Ministers

*****

What if you thought of it
as the Jews consider the Sabbath—
the most sacred of times?
Cease from travel.
Cease from buying and selling.
Give up, just for now,
on trying to make the world
different than it is.
Sing. Pray. Touch only those
to whom you commit your life.
Center down.

And when your body has become still,
reach out with your heart.
Know that we are connected
in ways that are terrifying and beautiful.
(You could hardly deny it now.)
Know that our lives
are in one another’s hands.
(Surely, that has come clear.)
Do not reach out your hands.
Reach out your heart.
Reach out your words.
Reach out all the tendrils
of compassion that move, invisibly,
where we cannot touch.

Promise this world your love–
for better or for worse,
in sickness and in health,
so long as we all shall live.

Lynn Ungar, March 11, 2020

http://www.lynnungar.com/poems/

Values and Principles in the context of a pandemic (revisited)

Cases of COVID-19 continue to occur in Australia. Lockdowns and enforced periods of isolation have taken place in numerous locations over the last few months; they are taking place again now across the country; and given the slow vaccine rollout and the emergence of variants that spread far more easily and rapidly, they will take place again in the future.

As these new strains of the virus emerge with greater rates of infections, uncertainty continues as to how long and and how hard the restrictions will be needed, and where the next outbreak will occur. In this context of uncertainty, people of faith would do well to reflect on how we respond to the guidance provided by our leaders.

Our faith offers us some support as we navigate the difficulties and dangers that we find ourselves in. There is comfort, as well as guidance, in the beliefs we hold, and in the ways that they are applied to our current situation of pandemic. Whether we gather together for worship and fellowship, or we are gathering-apart by online means, there are principles which hold good for us.

My thoughts follow on from my earlier biblical and theological considerations in https://johntsquires.com/2020/03/15/when-you-come-together-reflections-on-community-in-the-midst-of-a-pandemic/ and repeat what I wrote in a subsequent post, https://johntsquires.com/2020/05/11/when-we-come-together-2-values-and-principles-in-the-midst-of-a-pandemic/

So here are some key principles, along with some associated biblical passages that, in my thinking, shape our ethos and inform how we make responsible ethical decisions about how we gather as church.

1. Gathering for worship is important, but safety of people is more important

We know that, across society, there are many people who are vulnerable, who needs our particular care, support, and attention. Whilst gathering-together for worship, prayer, discussion, fellowship, and conversation, is highly valued, our highest priority must be to act in a manner that ensures the lowest risk for people in society, that offers a safe place and safe manner for people to gather-together.

We have committed to being a Safe Place some years ago, and whilst we have applied that to matters such as the safety of children and young people, the physical arrangement in our buildings, and acceptance of diversity. Can we now apply that to the matter of community health and wellbeing?

The psalmist reflects, “Because the poor are despoiled, because the needy groan, I will now rise up,” says the LORD; “I will place them in the safety for which they long” (Psalm 12:5). In another psalm, we hear the prayer, “O Lord, let your steadfast love and your faithfulness keep me safe forever” (Psalm 40:11). We need to echo that sentiment and follow that commitment to safety as we gather together.

2. The weakest or most vulnerable is the test for any decision we make

The people who have high risk of infection are those who have the following vulnerabilities: an impaired immune system, one of a number of chronic medical conditions, age, and people with Aboriginal and Islander descent.

Paul writes to the believers in a number of his communities, exhorting those who are “stronger” to attend to “the weak”, with the fundamental principle that “orientation to the needs of the other” undergirds everything. That orientation should govern how we think about, and how we act in, the days ahead. Those who are most vulnerable in terms of age or health should be the litmus test for anything that we consider doing when we gather-together.

Our own personal needs (or desires), the hopes and wants (or desires) of a community of faith, need to have this first consideration governing all that they decide. As Paul writes:

“Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.” (Phil 2:3-4)

“Let us therefore no longer pass judgment on one another, but resolve instead never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of another.” (Rom 14:13)

You can read more about this way of operating in Romans 14:1-15:13. This would form an excellent focus for a Bible Study to go alongside a Church Council discussion of what steps can be taken as we consider gathering-together once more.

3. Relationships with others are our first priority. Loving our neighbour takes priority over programs and activities

“Which commandment is the first of all?” Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12:28-31)

Relationships with other people are given priority in this passage, and in the teachings of Jesus throughout the Gospels. That’s a fairly simple observation, but it is incredibly potent in the current situation. How do we ensure that we are “loving our neighbour” in what we decide and what we do together?

Jesus places this as the second “greatest commandment”, alongside the first, of loving God. We need to hold these two aspects in tension, and ensure that we do not focus solely on “loving God” (and doing that in the old, familiar ways, unthinkingly), but we hold together “loving our neighbour” with “loving God”, and that we prioritise these over “returning to business as usual”. If business as usual is just about ourselves as a group, then our higher priority needs to be about how we operate in relation to all those around us.

4. We have a commitment to the common good—the good of all people in society

Almost a decade ago, the Uniting Church adopted a snappy slogan which expressed our commitment to “the common good”. This has been a rallying cry at many gatherings where matters of social justice are being addressed and advocated for—refugees and asylum seekers, affordable housing, care for the creation and environmental policies, sheltering the homeless and feeding the hungry, for instance.

Now, in this challenging time, we need to apply that same commitment “to the common good” to the question of what the implications are when we gather-together, after a time of gathering-apart. We need to ensure that whatever steps we take do contribute to that common good, not simply to the benefit of the group gathering together—be that Congregation, Church Council, Fellowship Group, Bible Study Group, our informal lunch gathering at the church.

And let us remember that “the common good” is itself an important biblical marker:

“So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith.” (Gal 6:10)

“To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” (1 Cor 12:7)

5. We need to ensure the safety of vulnerable people in leadership (ministry leaders, both ordained and lay)

“So the LORD said to Moses, “Gather for me seventy of the elders of Israel, whom you know to be the elders of the people and officers over them; bring them to the tent of meeting, and have them take their place there with you. I will come down and talk with you there; and I will take some of the spirit that is on you and put it on them; and they shall bear the burden of the people along with you so that you will not bear it all by yourself.” (Num 11:16-17)

This story from the Hebrew Scriptures demonstrates that God was concerned to take care of the leadership of the people of Israel. The seventy Elders were he people. appointed to assist Moses in his growing role as a leader of the people in a stressful and challenging time (as they journey through the wilderness, seeking a way to the promised land). The story from of old has strong resonances with our current situation!

If we accept that God demonstrated concerns for the pressures on Moses, can we see that this provides an analogy for the way that we offer care for our leaders, especially those who are vulnerable themselves, or living in a household with another vulnerable person?

Pressures on ministry leaders (both those ordained, and those lay people who are providing local leadership) to lead their people in gatherings should not be countenanced, until such time as it is clear that all the required protocols can be, and are being, adhered to, and they are not in any position of extra vulnerability because of this. That requires careful discernment and wise leadership at the local level.

See also https://johntsquires.com/2020/05/05/the-times-they-are-are-a-changin/

See also https://johntsquires.com/2020/05/04/not-this-year-so-what-about-next-year/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/04/22/its-been-just-over-a-month-but-there-have-been-lots-of-learnings/

From BC (Before COVID) to AD (After the Disruption)

When we look back over history, and explore it in the traditional framework that we use to mark the periods of history, people of the Christian faith see a large watershed around the time of Jesus.

Traditionally, we have marked this watershed by using the letters BC and AD—Before Christ, and Anno Domino (“in the year of our Lord”). Those letters stand us in good stead, however, when we reflect on the past year. The years prior to 2020 are BC years; we consider them to be “Before COVID”.

But then, from early in 2020, and spreading rapidly across the globe through the months of that year, we experienced a major disruption. COVID interrupted familiar patterns, forcing everyone to refrain from gathering together, pressing upon us all the imperative of using technology to connect, inviting us to provide pastoral care, worship, learning opportunities, and social gatherings in the virtual space online.

The disruptions of this time were extensive, reaching widely and deeply into our familiar patterns. From late 2020, then, we have been living in the years we can mark as AD: After the Disruption. Things are different. Events have made things different. Society has learnt to function in different ways—use the check-in app, sanitise, maintain social distancing, count numbers on the space, practice good personal hygiene, stay at home if you are unwell, or vulnerable.

People in the church have also learnt to function in different ways. We check in when we arrive for worship. We gather to worship and do not sing or hug. We support the church financially by online giving, not by “passing the plate”. We participate in regular learning opportunities online, and engage with people who are geographically quite distant from one another. We continue to offer worship in hybrid ways, both in person and online.

We continue the provision of worship resources in hard copy or via email to people who are vulnerable or frail. We have adapted to having morning tea after worship, served by people wearing masks and gloves, with individually-packaged food. We may not like all of these changes, but we recognise how important they are to ensure the safety of all our people.

When the Canberra Region Presbytery met on 20 March, we heard from the Secretary of Synod, the Rev. Jane Fry, who urged us to consider the new things that are emerging out of this change. “COVID erupted into society, and the church, bringing chaos”, Jane observed, “and we know, from scripture and history, that God works best through chaos.”

So what has been taking place in this time of chaos, as we move from BC (Before COVID) to AD (Anno Domino)? What changes have we recognised to be important? What new things is God doing in our midst, as a result of the chaotic disruptions of COVID. We explored various ideas during the Presbytery meeting conversation with Jane Fry.

Traditionally, we have ensured that stipended ministry is offered in places that can afford them; the challenge, now, is for us to move to a model that places community chaplaincy in an area with significant need. Work is underway on this exact matter, as Presbytery considers how to provide grater ministry resourcing in the South Coast regions which have been impacted so greatly by the bushfires.

We noted the importance of continuing our pastoral care of ageing people who have been faithful over many decades. The Synod Secretary affirmed that, and invited such groups to consider, “what is our legacy for the future?” Rather than “keeping the lights burning until we all done”, how might ageing congregations best envisage “how do we serve as midwives to the future?”

Relating to people outside the church is another challenge, and opportunity, facing us as the Uniting Church. The dominant voice for “Christianity” in the public arena has, for some time, expressed very different perspectives on many matters, when compared with the way the Uniting Church operates in society and what we value in our communities. How do we strategise to provide a stronger voice, in our distinctive tones, into those public conversations?

How do we leverage off the many assets that we have, as church, to ensure that mission and ministry are resourced and developed? What place does the “rationalisation of property” play in this process? Whilst church properties in the ACT have, in effect, a “zero dollar value”, nevertheless we are stewards of many properties—how do they figure in the ways that we foster our core activities as the people of God?

So, lots of important and helpful questions have been raised. How do we respond to them and work through them, is the challenge for the coming time.

As we head into the future After the Disruption, I personally yearn for a church where active discipleship is the key marker of membership; grace is the benchmark of who we are when we gather in community; the heart of the Gospel is known to be justice for all, where we work towards that goal for all people; and we take seriously those fearsome words that we pray all-too-easily, “your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as in heaven.”

*****

Footnote: many people will know that I have long operated with the scholarly convention to refer to “Before the Common Era” (BCE) and “Common Era” (CE), as this offers clearer respect to our Jewish brothers and sisters and avoids the sense of Christian supercessionism in our language. But, for the purposes of this reflection, I have reverted to the old BC—AD language. It seems to fit.

Coping in the aftermath of COVID-19: a global perspective, a local response

Now that 2020 is behind us, and 2021 lies ahead of us, we are beginning to consider how we might deal with the aftermath of the pandemic. The SARS-CoV-2 virus has spread around the globe, bringing the COVID-19 disease to millions of people—including some that we may know personally.

We have been dealing for many months now, with the lockdowns, restrictions on gatherings, inability to travel, loss of worship and fellowship times, greater vigilance with hand washing and social distancing. Coping with all of these factors requires careful attention, and patience.

One thing is for certain: life is going to be different post-COVID. For my part, I reckon that we will be pushed back to living our lives much more locally. Whilst we see the pandemic still raging in so many countries around the world, in Australia we have been fortunate to have been spared the very worst of the situation. It has felt bad, but (excepting those grieving for the loss of a loved one from COVID-19), it has been nowhere as bad as it has been for many millions of people in other countries.

For us in Australia, I would think that there will at least be regional connections that will be possible in the good times, and hard lockdowns that may come in the difficult moments. There will be minimal international travel for many more months (even years) yet, and limited interstate travel, fluctuating from time to time between “open borders”, limited travel, and “hard borders”.

We know we won’t be controlling the spread of the virus and the rate of infection until vaccinations have been rolled out; indeed, that assumes that current vaccinations will be effective against the newly-emerging variants of the virus.

So what is clear, is that nothing will “stay the same” for any real length of time. We will be shifting and shuffling week after week, for at least another year. We will just have to adjust and accept this. We have these shifts and changes in recent ones, with the Avalon and Berala clusters in Sydney, and now the Holiday Inn cluster in Melbourne.

These changes and adaptations will apply to our daily lives in society, as much as to our church lives in congregations and faith communities.

As I was thinking about this a few days ago, I started reading a newsletter from one of the NGOs that Elizabeth and I support—an organisation that works in the poorest and most needy countries of the world. It does good work: bringing fresh water supplies and sustainable “climate-smart” farming methods to local communities, developing local industries that will provide support for families, providing medical and psychological support to strengthen the mental health of communities, responding to crisis situations in countries with poor infrastructure, and (for the past year) offering guidance in appropriate COVID-safe practices.

The pandemic has hit us—and it has hit others around the world. But as we reflect on how we have been impacted, let us remember that people who are poor and vulnerable have been hardest hit by the impacts of the pandemic. Here are some key examples.

Hand hygiene. In the poorest tier of nations, 3 out of 4 people do not have immediate access to clean water and soap. How do they do their “20-second hand wash singing Happy Birthday” multiple times each day? (See the discussion by the US Centre for Disease Control and Prevention at https://www.cdc.gov/healthywater/hygiene/ldc/index.html)

Job insecurity. Half of the world’s workers (1.6 billion people) rely on jobs in the informal economy. They don’t have job security with equitable pay and conditions. When the pandemic hit, many of the people saw their jobs either disrupted for a time, or closed down. (The World Bank provides statistics on this and other aspects of the global economy at https://datatopics.worldbank.org/jobs/topic/employment)

Medical services. Over 40% of all countries have fewer than 1 medical doctors per 1,000 people and fewer than 4 nurses per 1,000 people. By comparison, the figure for Australia is just over 20 doctors and 12 nurses per 1,000 people. (The data is based on World Health Organisation statistics; see https://www.who.int/data/gho/data/themes/topics/health-workforce)

Ratio of doctors to population (per 1,000)

Gender-based violence. Calls to helplines have increased five-fold in some countries as rates of reported intimate partner violence increase because of the stresses introduced by the pandemic. Women are always the vast majority of victims in such situations. (See the discussion by UN Women at https://www.unwomen.org/en/what-we-do/ending-violence-against-women/facts-and-figures)

Poverty. And, as a summary headline, this NGO estimates that the pandemic will mean that another 163 million people will be living in poverty by the end of this year. Add to that, the impact of the other huge and long-term crisis that we are facing—climate change—will push yet another 132 million people into poverty by the end of this decade. These are very sobering statistics.

If we really do “love our neighbour”, as Jesus commanded us to do, we will be concerned not only for the neighbour who usually sits beside us in church, and the neighbour we pass at the local shopping centre who is homeless and asking for money … but also the neighbours who are hit hard because they live in nations where poverty, violence, unemployment, and poor hygiene are rampant — neighbours for whom the past year has been even more difficult and challenging.

We can assist by supporting UnitingWorld, Act With Peace, UNICEF, UNHCR, Oxfam, TEAR Fund, Red Cross, Medicins Sans Frontièrs, or our choice of another reputable organisation that works on the ground in third world countries. It’s an integral part of being faithful followers of Jesus.

Pastoral Letter to Canberra Region Presbytery—September 2020

It has been six months since we were propelled into the new world that we are living in at this time. Restrictions on gathering, imposed because of the rapid and worrying spread of the corona virus, meant that we had to cease, with very little notice, all of our in person gatherings.

The time since then can be characterised by two important words. One word is Challenge. It has been a challenging time for many. The challenge of needing to find ways to continue worship, in different ways from what we had long been used to. The challenge of knowing that people continued to be hungry, living below the poverty line, some without a place to shelter each night—and that our usual ways of serving them needed to be drastically changed.

The challenge of not being able to meet in person for a cup of tea and a good chat, and the impact that this has on our own mental health. The challenge of being distant from family, unable to visit them, or have them visit us.

The second word that characterises this time is Innovation. In each of these areas, we have seen great examples of innovation happening, right within our own communities of faith. We have adopted online worship—by ZOOM, by Facebook, by YouTube; we have set up personal sanctuaries in our homes, and made use of worship resources prepared and delivered directly to us, whether by email or by post or by hand.

We have seen innovation in the ways that take-away meals have been prepared and distributed to those who are hungry, and how we have found the telephone and the internet to be wonderful tools to ensure that we remain in contact with all of our friends and family members.

The ways we have met the challenges and created innovative responses is clearly seen in the series of videos with people in our Presbytery that have been made for our two online Presbytery meetings this year.

The videos of the interviews can be seen at

Judy Grasby @ https://vimeo.com/418299030/4174c41797

Daniel Mossfield 1 @ https://vimeo.com/418299127/42c6d88bdf

Gary Holdsworth @ https://vimeo.com/418299249/6246c5d2f4

Daniel Mossfield 2 @ https://vimeo.com/447367026/9a2ffbdf9a

Duncan McDiarmid and Kaye Anderson @ https://vimeo.com/447648198/e40c32e225

Darren Wright @ https://vimeo.com/446697971/ba50b74460

Elizabeth Raine, Sue Wald, Dorothea Wojnar and Bill Lang @ https://vimeo.com/447030335/9f50ad75cd

Our sense, as Presbytery leaders, is that the health of our churches is strong; the commitment of our people is deep; the expertise of our ministry leadership—lay and ordained alike—is growing; and the possibilities for the future remain hopeful. Hard work, prayerful reflection, compassionate concern, and openness to exploration are the hallmarks of our Congregations.

Our Synod leadership switched into a strongly collaborative mode from the very start of this period. Weekly meetings with leaders from Presbyteries right around the Synod, and regular guidance notes which provided links to key government and health resources, were immensely helpful in the early months. The ongoing collaboration of our leadership has been of benefit to every Presbytery and every Congregation.

We have been able to maintain a community of learning amongst those who had started the Mission Shaped Ministry course last year, and a good cohort of people has just completed that course. We are encouraged, also, to see the establishment of a Community of Practice amongst people from the Inner North Congregations, and we pray that this group will share hopes, see visions, and implement plans, for a renewed witness on the inner north area of Canberra.

Of course, we are acutely aware that pandemic struck so soon after so many communities were just beginning the slow and painful task of regathering their lives after the devastation of the bushfires. People were looking to rebuild their lives and, in some cases, their homes; the pandemic struck deep into this enterprise. The pain and despair of many communities is something that we have been working together to address. It has been made more complicated by the pandemic. But it is very heartening to see how organisations, congregations, fellowship groups, and individuals have all pitched in to assist.

So, we rejoice in these signs of robust life across our Presbytery. We hope that you share our sense of confidence in what lies ahead, because of the evidence of how we have responded over the past six months.

We encourage you to pray with us for people caught in painful traumatic memories; for people offering assistance and support to those who have been impacted by fires; for communities where the road to recovery is long and slow.

Pray too for those for whom the past months have brought new experiences of feeling isolated and lonely, depressed and discouraged or brought loss and grief. Pray that the healing power of the Spirit may renew and refresh all those who are suffering in some way and reassure them that they are the beloved children of God.

We encourage you to maintain hope, to continue offering compassionate care to the people of your faith community and to your local community. We challenge you to seek new ways of sharing the Gospel, seeking to offer fresh expressions of faith to those in the places where we each live and work.

We are grateful for all the signs of faithfulness and hope in our midst, and we look forward with confidence to discovering who God is calling us to be, and what the Spirit is leading us to do, in the days ahead.

Judy McKinlay and Ross Kingham, Presbytery Co-Chairpersons

Jared Mitchell, Presbytery Deputy Chairperson

Andrew Smith and John Squires, Presbytery Ministers

Minimising risks in the ongoing reality of COVID-19

Over the past four months, as a society, we have experienced various periods of restrictions: the most severe restrictions in response to the first wave of infections, requiring us to isolate in our homes except for essential matters; then gradual steps in easing those restrictions. And now, in the light of what looks like a second wave, a tightening of restrictions, with perhaps more of that still to come. It has been like a roller coaster ride.

And as a church, we have experienced the change from worshipping and meeting in person, to doing many things by phone, by email, and especially by ZOOM and YouTube. It has been a very significant time of transition—personally challenging, emotionally confronting, and draining of our energy. Yet we are all still moving on in the face of all that we encounter.

In the firm belief that it is helpful for us to keep up with the latest scientific research on COVID-19, I have been collating information about various matters that have drawn the attention of researchers, and produced clear guidance for how we function as we live with the ongoing reality of COVID-19.

A. On the importance of air circulation

Recently, 239 scientists from 32 different countries and many different areas of science (including virology, aerosol physics and epidemiology) penned an open letter urging the World Health Organisation (WHO) to change their advice relating to the ways that the corona virus spreads. “We ignore COVID-19 airborne spread indoors at our peril,” the scientists wrote.

In summary, the scientists who signed the letter have recommended three key ways to mitigate the risk of airborne transmission of COVID-19:

  1. Ventilation (maximise clean outdoor air, minimise recirculating air) particularly in public buildings, workplaces, schools, hospitals, and aged care homes
  2. Airborne infection controls such as local exhaust, high efficiency air filtration, and germicidal ultraviolet lights
  3. Avoid overcrowding, particularly in public transport and public buildings

These are practical and can be easily implemented and many are not costly.

https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-07-06/aerosol-transmission-of-covid-19/12425852

This video from a couple of months ago provides a striking demonstration about the way that aerosols operate:

https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=H2azcn7MqOU&feature=share

B. On the value of wearing masks

The ABC reports that scientific experts say masks are one of the best ways to stop aerosols in their tracks. “Masks stop the virus-laden aerosols exhaled by an infected person entering the indoor space and also protect others from inhaling it,” Professor Lidia Morawska of the Queensland University of Technology said.

Professor Guy Marks, an epidemiologist and respiratory physician at the University of New South Wales, agrees. “If you must spend time in a static environment with a lot of people, consider wearing a mask”, he says.

Physical distancing is insufficient by itself in a crowded, poorly ventilated space where there is rapid air mixing, says aerobiologist Professor Euan Tovey of the University of Sydney. A recent study from an outbreak on the USS Theodore Roosevelt has shown that the best protection from infection in close quarters is a combination of distancing and masks.

However, the type of mask has an effect on protection. While a home-made cotton face mask significantly blocks large droplets, research UK research shows it only blocks a proportion of those tiny aerosolised particles.

Links to specific studies can be found in the article at

https://www.abc.net.au/news/health/2020-07-11/the-who-says-airborne-spread-of-covid-19-possible-what-now/12443268

C. An overview of what is involved in taking good precautions

The World Health Organisation has recently published an up to date guide for how we minimise the risk of infections spreading, in a paper entitled Transmission of SARS-CoV-2: implications for infection prevention precautions (WHO, 9 July 2020)

To prevent transmission, WHO recommends a comprehensive set of measures including:

  • Identify suspect cases as quickly as possible, test, and isolate all cases (infected people) in appropriate facilities;
  • Identify and quarantine all close contacts of infected people and test those who develop symptoms so that they can be isolated if they are infected and require care;
  • Use fabric masks in specific situations, for example, in public places where there is community transmission and where other prevention measures, such as physical distancing, are not possible;
  • Use of contact and droplet precautions by health workers caring for suspected and confirmed COVID-19 patients, and use of airborne precautions when aerosol generating procedures are performed;
  • Continuous use of a medical mask by health workers and caregivers working in all clinical areas, during all routine activities throughout the entire shift;
  • At all times, practice frequent hand hygiene, physical distancing from others when possible, and respiratory etiquette; avoid crowded places, close-contact settings and confined and enclosed spaces with poor ventilation; wear fabric masks when in closed, overcrowded spaces to protect others; and ensure good environmental ventilation in all closed settings and appropriate environmental cleaning and disinfection.

https://www.who.int/news-room/commentaries/detail/transmission-of-sars-cov-2-implications-for-infection-prevention-precautions

*****

See also https://johntsquires.com/2020/03/15/when-you-come-together-reflections-on-community-in-the-midst-of-a-pandemic/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/03/05/passing-the-peace-sharing-the-elements-greeting-the-minister/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/06/03/pastoral-letter-to-canberra-region-presbytery-june-2020/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/03/19/pastoral-letter-to-canberra-region-presbytery-on-covid-19-pandemic/

Going “back” to church—what will our future look like? (4)

We got an email from the church office last week. It said that “worship services are resuming” in our church building. There was much excitement! It has been so many months since we have been able to be in our lovely church building, with all our wonderful friends, for times of worship.

It would be great to see our friends again in person—and to share in the prayers and the singing when we all gather together—and to hear our minister in the flesh once again. It seems like it has been such a long time since we have been able to do this.

Don’t get me wrong, it has been great to hear her speak each week online; but there is nothing quite like being there, in person, with all the others in the building, to soak up the atmosphere. It’s like a weekly “hit” that keeps me going for the next week. It’s not the same, online. Not quite the same vibe, the same buzz. Ah well …

Anyway, after cheering was heard throughout the household about this great news, we read on through the rest of the email. “Back to normal”, we had thought. “Back to what we used to do.” Hmmm. Maybe—maybe not.

It seems that worship will not be quite like it used to be. No single service, for a start. There are going to be three services each Sunday morning, staggered by 45 minutes. So we need to book in advance for the one we want. 8:30 for the early birds. 9:15 for those who want the regular time slot. And 10:00am for those willing to have a slow start. OK, not a bad idea. But we won’t all be together. That’s a bit sad.

And each service will be just 30 minutes long. That feels like a rip-off. What, not a full hour? This will take some adjusting to get used to, I reckon. Anyway, we registered for the 9:15 slot. Trying to get back, as much as possible, to “normal”. It will be great to be there, back in church!

Except then another email came back, saying that the 9:15 service was already full. How could that be? Our church easily seats over 200 people (well, if you make sure you fill up each pew and set out some extra seats down the aisles.)

Seems that we can’t have more than 30 people in the building at any one time. There’s talk about 4 square metres and 1.5 metres apart and social distancing and so on. You know, the stuff that the PM and his chief honcho medical advisor guy have been talking about. In church. In our church. Who would have thought it?

So we are now going to the 8:30am service. Harumph. But better than waiting until 10am, I guess.

And the email also said, please arrive 10 minutes before the scheduled time, and queue outside the east door. What is that? I have been going to this church for years now, and have always used the south door, the one that opens right onto the street. Something about not confusing those arriving with those leaving, making them use separate doors. Oh well, if that’s what it takes ….

And, then, the email said, when you get the the east door, you will be allocated seat numbers, and you will need to go directly to those seats—do not stop to talk to anyone else, do not mill about in the foyer. And that we will find that the seats are arranged in a different way inside, so we will not be able to sit in our usual spot. Wow! Now that will be quite different! Sitting in a different place! That will be hard. And I can’t imagine church without all the catching up with people beforehand. That’s a bit of a downer, really.

And the email also said, “no singing”. Seriously: “no singing”! How will church be church, if we can’t all sing together? It is going to be one weird experience, I reckon, in that building, all sitting apart from one another, not singing—not even hugging our friends when we see them, no chance to say hello. It will be weird.

And then, the last straw: “when the service ends, please remain in your seats until you are asked to leave, then move straight to the south door to exit the building”. To keep people entering separate from people departing. How anti-social is that!

And there is more: “Please do not congregate on the footpath, or in the car park, after the worship service. Please leave the site as quickly as possible.” No morning cuppa. No chat with friends in our small group. No hanging around in the kitchen to scab extra goodies for the week. No socialising. None at all!

It won’t be church, will it? Not really church. I fear that we are in for a rather sterile experience. And we will have to use the hand sanitisers when we come in, and when we go out. Aargh! I hate the smell of that stuff! But no hand sanitising, no entry permitted, we are told. So there’s no question about it. That’s just the way of things everywhere, these days.

So, off we go. In to church. Then back out again. Will it be worth it? We’ll give it one go. And then, if it is not any good—back to looking at services online, I guess. Ah well. Such is life.

(… the views expressed in this piece come from a fictional character, solely the product of my imagination …)

See also

https://johntsquires.com/2020/06/03/greet-one-another-2-cor-13-but-no-holy-kissing-and-no-joyful-singing/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/05/29/worship-like-the-first-christians-what-will-our-future-look-like-3/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/05/24/its-been-two-months-under-restrictions-what-will-our-future-look-like-2/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/05/22/its-been-two-months-under-restrictions-what-will-our-future-look-like-1/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/04/22/its-been-just-over-a-month-but-there-have-been-lots-of-learnings/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/05/05/the-times-they-are-are-a-changin/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/05/04/not-this-year-so-what-about-next-year/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/05/11/when-we-come-together-2-values-and-principles-in-the-midst-of-a-pandemic/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/03/15/when-you-come-together-reflections-on-community-in-the-midst-of-a-pandemic/

“Greet one another” (2 Cor 13). But no holy kissing. And no joyful singing. (Trinity Sunday A)

“Finally, brothers and sisters, farewell. Put things in order, listen to my appeal, agree with one another, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you. Greet one another with a holy kiss. All the saints greet you.” So the second (extant) letter to the Corinthians ends (2 Cor 13:11-12).

“Greet one another with a holy kiss” is also how Paul instructs the Corinthians in his first letter (1 Cor 6:20), as well as the Thessalonians (1 Thess 5:26) and the Romans (Rom 16:16). (The same instruction appears at 1 Peter 5:14). These five verses all indicate that first century worship was not just sitting formally and watching what went on at the front; it was interactive, engaging, personal.

What do we make of this instruction to kiss one another? Many people in churches that I know have interpreted “holy kiss” to mean “warm handshake”—so the “passing of the peace” has been shaking hands with as many people as possible in the Congregation. In some smaller gatherings, even, making sure that you shake hands with everybody present!

Well, not any longer. No more handshakes—not in church, not at the door after the service, not anywhere in society. COVID-19 has put paid to shaking hands for quite some time yet.

Other people have take a more literalist line of interpretation. A kiss means, well, a kiss! If not a lip-to-lip kiss, then, at least, a lip-to-cheek kiss. Yes, I have been in church gatherings where my hairy unshaven cheeks have been kissed. And even, when my hairy-encircled lips have planted a kiss on the cheek of another worshipper. I confess.

But not any longer. No more person-to-person contact; especially not any contact that involves the lips! COVID-19 has put paid to the socially-approved form of public kiss, for quite some time yet—if not forever.

One of my colleagues, Sarah Agnew, suggests that the best way to translate the reference to a “holy kiss” in these five verses, is by referring to a “holy embrace”. That understanding is premised on the fact that the Greek word which is translated as “greet” in these texts, contains elements of making personal contact which are both interpersonal (greetings) and also physical (the word can be used to signify hugging or embracing). See https://www.academia.edu/28243257/A_call_to_enact_relationships_of_mutual_embrace_Romans_16_in_performance

Given that, then, on each of the sixteen times that Paul instructs for greetings to be given to named individuals in Romans 16, he may well be saying something like, “give them a hug from me”. Such relationships were personal and intimate.

This rendering takes us to the heart of community—and to the centre of our practices during the current situation with COVID-19. The ancient practice clearly envisaged that physical contact was involved. The current situation proscribes any form of physical contact. It is just too risky.

Physical contact, in the intimacy of either a kiss (on the cheek) or an embrace (with the upper body), is now, we are told, not advisable, given the way that infectious diseases such as COVID-19 (or, indeed, the common cold—which is itself a form of a coronavirus) are spread.

How do we reconcile these current guidelines with the scriptural injunctions? Do we ignore current guidelines (and keep on meeting together) because “the Bible says…” ? Or, do we turn away from strict biblical teaching (and stop our gatherings), because of contemporary concerns about the pandemic?

Of course, we do not put our heads in the sand. We acknowledge the sense in the guidelines being proclaimed across society. We listen to those with expertise in infectious diseases and medicine. We refrain from physical contact. No kissing. No hugging. No handshakes. We look for alternatives to signify that we are greeting one another.

We aren’t yet meeting in person for worship. It will be some time before most Congregations are able to do this. But when we eventually do begin to worship in person, and it comes time to pass the peace, we might face the other person, place our right hand over our own heart, and say, “peace be with you”. That avoids direct physical contact, but incorporates a direct visual interaction.

Another option would be to clasp our hands together and place them in front of our chest, in the “praying position”, and then, as we face each other, bow in greeting.

A third option—one perhaps only utilised in a very distinctive liturgical setting—could be to “bump elbows”, using the recommended social alternative to “shaking hands”. But that option would need to be employed with care! And it may not be to everybody’s liking, to be sure.

Which brings me to singing. “Make a joyful noise to the Lord!”, the psalmist instructs us (Psalms 66:1, 95:1-2, 98:4, 6, 100:1). Sing “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs”, an early Christian writer exhorts (Col 3:16). “Be filled with the Spirit, as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts, giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ”, another letter writer directs (Eph 5:18-20).

So how do we interpret these passages? Do we adopt the same literalist approach—the Bible says we must worship, the Bible says we must song, so that’s what we must do! (Yes, I have heard this said, even in current times.) That is not really a satisfactory approach.

Of course, the same dilemma confronts us here. Just as direct physical contact is not advised in the current pandemic situation, so singing in a group of people is also deemed to be out of order, in the understanding of health professional and medical advisors.

Research clearly indicates that singing contributes to the spread of infectious diseases. Singing spreads droplets in aerosols which are expelled from a person’s mouth as they sing. They can carry the virus a significant distance and remain suspended in the air for some time after they have been expelled from a person’s mouth. A cloth mask is unlikely to be enough to provide protection as people sing together. This article canvasses the issues:

https://www.ctvnews.ca/health/coronavirus/does-singing-spread-coronavirus-choir-outbreaks-raise-concerns-1.4943265

So in the case of singing, as with physical touch, we need reinterpret our scripture in keeping with what we know about the spread of infectious diseases. We might have to be content with listening to a recording or watching a video of a favourite hymn or song being sung. One suggestion I have seen is to invite people to listen, then to share with a couple of other people what you have heard, what has connected with you, as you listen.

Another suggestion is to invite people to tap into their own wells of creativity, and after listening to the song, write or draw their own response. That could be in the form of a prayer, a modern psalm, an impressionistic artwork, a poem, a sketch drawing. The possibilities are endless.

Some other ideas are canvassed in this post:

https://godspacelight.com/2020/05/23/five-ways-to-worship-with-music-beyond-singing/?fbclid=IwAR07U327jYyIu8PKq3xmBnDSE3wDD56ySbiRlRxpT1Foc42o4ucgZOnHhJg

There’s another central aspect of worship that will need significant attention and careful consideration in the time ahead. Before we actually start meeting in person for worship, a decision will need to be made, in each local community of faith, with regard to holy communion.

We know that any action that involves direct physical contact is risky. We know that multiple touching of the same object is highly risky—it provides many more opportunities for a virus (any virus, not just COVID-19) to be passed from person to person. When we regather for worship, we will not be “passing the offering plate around”; it is too risky.

In the same way, we need to,consider carefully what we do when it comes to offering the bread, passing a plate of bread, drinking from the cup, or passing the small cups.

That’s a matter for future consideration. If anyone has any clear ideas or knows of useful guidelines in this regard, I would love to hear from you!

A prayer from Sarah Agnew https://praythestory.blogspot.com/

See also https://johntsquires.com/2020/05/29/worship-like-the-first-christians-what-will-our-future-look-like-3/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/05/24/its-been-two-months-under-restrictions-what-will-our-future-look-like-2/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/05/22/its-been-two-months-under-restrictions-what-will-our-future-look-like-1/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/04/22/its-been-just-over-a-month-but-there-have-been-lots-of-learnings/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/05/05/the-times-they-are-are-a-changin/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/05/04/not-this-year-so-what-about-next-year/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/05/11/when-we-come-together-2-values-and-principles-in-the-midst-of-a-pandemic/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/03/15/when-you-come-together-reflections-on-community-in-the-midst-of-a-pandemic/