There’s a lot of hype around the Victorian Roadmap, and high expectations. We read that 10,000 fully vaccinated people will be able to attend the Melbourne Cup: and we get excited. However, the reality is that the new freedoms are, in fact, very limited and are almost entirely directed at fully vaccinated people. We at Sanctuary are blessed to have a high ratio of children: but this means that many of our households include people who are not yet old enough to be vaccinated. Therefore, the leadership team has met to prayerfully consider the Victorian Roadmap, and to work through what it means for Sanctuary.
The short version is that services will stay on Zoom at least until the end of November. By then, we will have a better idea of the specifics of the National Plan (to which the roadmap is leading us), and we can revisit this decision then. For the long version, including the details which led to this decision, read on.
First, as a leadership team we affirm the importance of meeting together. As the writer of the letter to the Hebrews urges, ‘Let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.’ (Hebrews 10:24-25).
Too, we affirm we are created as fleshly beings. Our God, in whose image we are made, became flesh incarnate. He healed people by touch, taught among crowds, walked with groups, and ate with his friends; and we, too, are incarnate beings who long to touch, hug, eat and worship with our physically gathered friends.
Yet we affirm that, through his death and resurrection, Christ draws us into a communion which transcends time and space. Although we long for physical gatherings, the body of Christ spans presence and absence, life and death, everywhere and everywhen. The New Testament epistles remind us of this. For example, despite constant travel and incarceration, through letters and prayer the Apostle Paul enjoyed communion with many during his lifetime; and, through the communion of saints, he is with us even now. Likewise, we experience communion with each other and the whole of Christ’s church whenever we gather in Christ’s name, including over Zoom; and indeed we have been surprised and moved by the depth and vulnerability of our Zoom interactions, and the real sense of the Holy Spirit’s presence even through this medium.
Further, we affirm that we are subject to rulers and authorities. We take seriously the injunction: ‘Remind the people to be subject to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready to do whatever is good, to slander no one, to be peaceable and considerate, and always to be gentle toward everyone.’ (Titus 3:1-2). Given that unvaccinated children are being sent back to school, some may ask whether the restrictions on churches are reasonable. This may be a matter for debate; however, it is not a matter for civil disobedience. Government policy makers are guided by experts in epidemiology and public health, that is, people who study how viruses spread and how people interact in different social settings; and we are subject to their authority. Therefore, we submit to their directives and follow their guidance.
And their current guidance for regional Victoria, in brief, is this: Once 80% of the population aged 16 and over is fully (doubly) vaccinated (estimated date: 5 November), we could have an indoor gathering of 35 fully vaccinated people (based on density quotient of 4sqm; every single person in the building is fully vaccinated, no exceptions); or 20 people with mixed vaccination status. We would be permitted more fully vaccinated people if we met outside.
We affirm the importance of the unity of the body. In Philippians 2, we are urged to ‘be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. 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. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.’ (Philippians 2:3-5). Because of our particular make up, we have many members who are not yet able to be vaccinated and who would not be able to attend a larger gathering. Yet the gathering size of 20 would not allow our usual attendance, let alone our full congregation. We don’t want to split into two congregations: one vaccinated and childfree, the other of mixed vaccination status and including all our youngest folk. Nor do we want to privilege the vaccinated with an in-person gathering which is then streamed for others (nor do we have the resources for that). One of our strengths and joys as Sanctuary is our unity of the body. Our gatherings include all ages: but in the current situation, this means that the vaccinated must set aside their privilege, and look to the interests of others.
For we affirm that we are called to care for the most vulnerable, which right now means the unvaccinated. Although we could meet in multiple groups of 20 or less, at this stage we as a leadership team are unwilling to risk being a disease vector for the little ones, particularly as the pandemic is now in Warrnambool and predicted to peak in the coming months.
Bringing this all together, as a leadership group we believe the best way forward is for us to continue to meet on Zoom at least until the end of November. This enables us to meet government directives; maximise safety; and continue to worship and pray together. We acknowledge the frustration that, of all people, children most need in-person gatherings, but are not yet eligible to be vaccinated and therefore not yet able to be part of a larger gathering. We acknowledge our deep sadness at this decision, but also our deep hope that this is a temporary measure and a bridge to a time when we can gather physically as one group again. We acknowledge also the reality that, while we have not been able to meet as a physically gathered body, Zoom has enabled our congregation to grow beyond geographic boundaries, so that at such time as we can meet again in the flesh, there will be some who by reason of geography will not be able to join us.
One final thing: we affirm that church is not limited to Sundays. We may not be able to meet physically as a whole group for worship, but there are lots of other ways we can stay connected. We encourage you to call someone for a chat, invite someone for a walk, meet another family at the playground, organise a table of ten vaccinated adults at the pub, and pray, pray, pray for one another. And if you want to connect with others but struggle to arrange this for yourself, please let Emma or one of the other leaders know, and they will help facilitate something.
This has been a difficult decision to make, and a difficult email to write; and space has precluded us from outlining all the bits of the puzzle. But please be assured that we have engaged with this topic carefully, seriously and prayerfully. And if you have any questions or comments, the leaders (Emma, Greg or Rachel) and I (Alison) are very happy to talk things through with you.
Alison, with Emma, Greg & Rachel
PS – On a separate but related issue, I am over the moon to be fully vaccinated. If you have any medical questions about vaccination, I encourage you to speak with your GP; but if you have any theological concerns, please, make a time and we can talk it through.
PPS – This is based on the advice given to Sanctuary at 11 October 2021. Of course, government advice is changing all the time.
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