When church members start being fully vaccinated in large numbers, should the church offer them more opportunities than those who are not vaccinated?
When I first moved to Boston to attend seminary in 2003, a new friend and I walked the “Freedom Trail,” a marked path on the cobblestone and brick sidewalks that leads to dozens of historical buildings, monuments, cemeteries, and attractions.
One of those spots was Old North Church, a majestic colonial church building. Being from Oklahoma, the land of megachurch long pews or movable cushy chairs, I was immediately taken aback by the pew boxes that families would sit in. The floor level of the church was divided into a few dozen boxes big enough for a family or for a couple to sit in. They weren’t just dividers: they were closed off, with swinging doors that you latched behind you when you sat. Originally, these were the only places to sit in the church: the outer walls and the balcony were standing room only.
A visitor to Old North Church wrote about this phenomenon:
Box pews allowed allowed families to sit together in a regular spot and provided shelter from cold drafts. They were typically purchased or rented by families and the cost could be substantial—sort of like the private boxes that ring stadiums today. During the colonial period, some churches, like the Old North Church in Boston, were “closed” church, which meant if you didn’t own a box, you couldn’t attend—or, at least, you couldn’t sit down.
The church was a visible example of division of the church into the “haves” and the “have nots,” and I wonder if we are moving in that direction again today.
A “Green Badge” for vaccinated church members?
Churches that have been following public health guidelines and worshipping online for a year are now planning ahead for the decision point: how do they reopen for outdoor summer worship experiences, and how do they reopen when sufficient numbers of the congregation has been vaccinated?
As they plan, they might begin to wonder these critical questions:
- Do we offer different experiences for vaccinated members as opposed to unvaccinated members?
- Are there some church activities that vaccinated folks can do safely, and if so, can the church offer them only to that group?
- And even if we can…should we?
Regional civil governments have begun experimenting with such variety of access. The New York Times reports on “Green Badges” that Israel is practicing for some regions. Folks who have been vaccinated get green badges that prove their status, allowing them access to closed events or recreational spaces:
Israel is one of the first countries grappling in real time with a host of legal, moral and ethical questions as it tries to balance the steps toward resuming public life with sensitive issues such as public safety, discrimination, free choice and privacy.
“Getting vaccinated is a moral duty. It is part of our mutual responsibility,” said the health minister, Yuli Edelstein. He also has a new mantra: “Whoever does not get vaccinated will be left behind.”
The debate swirling within Israel is percolating across other parts of the world as well, with plans to reserve international travel for vaccinated “green passport” holders and warnings of growing disparities between more-vaccinated affluent countries and less-vaccinated poor ones.
Regional governments and businesses, depending on the national and local laws, can deny entry based on vaccination status, and that leads to some areas and locations becoming controlled access.
I wonder what will happen if the church becomes one of those areas.
Prohibiting entry, controlling access, denying grace
The COVID-19 pandemic has opened up ethical and moral questions along those lines: should our wide-open church doors become country clubs with controlled access for public worship and events only for those with “green badge” vaccinated status?
The congregational leadership at my local church wrestled with these questions when considering limited access for worship services, currently capped at 25% of capacity in Seattle, Washington. Besides the myriad issues about worship itself, we got stuck on the problem of prohibiting entry. We couldn’t bear the idea of turning people away once we reached that cap, neither the heartache of turning away 50-year members nor the potential conflict with visitors who didn’t know the protocol. We decided to not offer in-person worship at all, in part to avoid that sort of access problem.
I cannot imagine our greeters who open the church doors each Sunday searching for a “green badge” before opening the door. That flies in the face of both church hospitality and our United Methodist theology of prevenient grace that offers grace to each person before they’ve earned it.
But likewise, I know it’s only a few weeks until one of our small groups of seniors that are fully vaccinated will begin to ask to gather. What’s the problem when the statistical risk is significantly lowered?
Indeed, entire churches might have this dilemma soon. One church in my region finds 90% of its membership at an adjacent retirement and assisted living community, all of which will be vaccinated in the next month or so. Why wouldn’t they be able to gather if everyone in the room is vaccinated, knowing the “credentialing” is handled by the retirement community? But what would they do if someone new stopped by—deny them access? Divide the church into the vaccinated “us” and “them?”
The science of transmission of COVID-19 by vaccinated persons is still being studied (see this summary article of the issues here). These are questions for the summer and fall, not now, so I wouldn’t risk it until we know more. But even if the practice is science-approved, the plans of tiered access by vaccination status remain an ethical question.
The next right thing
For clarity, you should get the COVID-19 vaccine. When it is my turn, I plan to in the name of personal and public health. So while this article is not about whether or not to get the vaccine (you should), it is about what churches should do when their membership starts to be of two tiers (one vaccinated, one not yet).
As your church debates the summer or fall offerings, consider the following:
- Worship should be for everyone. Perhaps offer the same type of gathering but give different roles to those who are vaccinated: while they are better protected and can take more at-risk positions, a vaccine isn’t a guarantee.
- Small groups with set memberships might have more options because their membership is known and controlled. If a small group reaches 100% coverage, then they might have more options available to them (meet at church, etc). Groups should continue to follow public health guidance (social distancing, masks) until Dr. Fauci tells us otherwise.
One final note: Those who are vaccinated right now are likely also the ones most at risk, so it’s not good to increase their exposure regardless. Go slow, follow public health and denominational authorities, but be careful that you don’t become a “Green Badge” church that gives some people more privileges than others.
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