By Andrew Humphries
As Victorians emerged from the sixth, and hopefully last, COVID-19 lockdown in late October, they were confronted with challenges around how the state could safely reopen and what role vaccination would play in that.
The Synod of Victoria and Tasmania is grappling with those same issues as congregations return to physical worship amid some confusion, and many questions, around vaccination requirements.
Early last month, Moderator Denise Liersch and about 45 Synod members gathered at an online forum titled Navigating The Road Ahead to discuss what reopening and vaccination would mean for congregations and the church as a whole.
Denise was joined by Ministers Rachel Kronberger, Salesi Faupula and Jennie Gordon, as well as Associate General Secretary Isabel Thomas Dobson and Synod Ethics Committee member Derek McDougall to offer guidance during a free-ranging discussion around the many issues on the path to reopening.
Denise says there are deep theological, Biblical and ethical questions to consider around reopening and vaccination.
“(We need to consider) how our faith guides us, what Biblical stories might shape our approach and the theological questions involved,” she says.
Denise says the many issues to consider around reopening and vaccination also need to be addressed in the context of the church continuing to be a welcoming space for all members.
“These are themes around our most vulnerable members, about personal rights and freedoms, (and the risk) of creating a two-tiered society of the vaccinated and unvaccinated,” she says.
A compelling question, Denise says, is how important is it that congregations are able to return to face-to-face worship?
Rachel says in metropolitan Melbourne the pandemic and associated lockdowns meant an obvious shift to online worship, which some congregations such as hers had come to cherish.
The question now to be addressed, she says, is what represents the best way forward?
“I think it’s important now as we start to pivot towards face-to-face worship that we ask the question, is one form of worship more preferable than the other?” Rachel says.
“There is an imperative from the New Testament about physical gatherings, about being the body of Christ, and I think new times call for new learnings from scripture, but the early church gathered at meal tables, homes and rivers.
“There is so much richness in being physically gathered, so I think there is a real imperative to gather, but finding a way during this pandemic to gather those bodies safely together is a real challenge.”
Derek says there is a real tension in the vaccination debate around wanting to acknowledge individual conscience and how that acknowledgement might affect the community as a whole.
“While you could argue that position (of individual conscience), you then have this other theme of anxiety, where you are saying let’s acknowledge individual conscience, but that might add to that anxiety, as you could have unvaccinated people in your community who are spreading COVID-19,” he says.
“So how do you balance that acknowledging of the individual, and wanting to be welcoming, against how that affects the community as a whole?”
Isabel says while every individual has the right to conscientiously object to vaccination and to be part of a respectful conversation around that, they can’t expect to have the right to attend a service for those vaccinated.
“That could open the congregation to potential financial breaches, so an individual’s right needs to take in other people’s decisions as well,” she says.
While reopening presents a number of challenges for congregations, Salesi says it is important to also look at it as an opportunity to take a fresh look at what being part of the Uniting Church means.
“I have been a part of the church for many years and some of the conversations I have had in different councils and committees are about how do we reimagine the church?” he says.
“What are the things that we are able to do but perhaps (now) need to do in a different way? There might be a real opportunity here to reimagine the church.”
Breakout group discussions canvassed a number of issues, with one theme emerging around the need to create a proper space to allow for comfortable conversations among people with different ideas about reopening and vaccination.
The issue of exclusion, relating to both vaccination status of members and those left behind in the return to physical worship, was also raised, and the need to make a real commitment to understand those groups excluded.
The possibility was also raised of separate vaccination and non-vaccination services being made available to accommodate members’ needs, with one congregation already deciding on a trial to have a second service, capped at 30 people, for those who are non-vaccinated.
Denise says there is much to ponder as congregations move towards reopening.
“There are questions around rights and obligations and responsibilities and relationships, and of personal and religious freedoms and the freedom to create spaces that are open to the realities of other people’s lives and the impact upon them, and not just ourselves,” she says.
An edited video of the forum is available by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org