22 March 2023

Tricky times as churches navigate vaccine tensions

Churches nervous about COVID-19 numbers in the community as they prepare to reopen.

Churches are ready to meet in person, but vaccination status requirements are causing tension.

By Stephen Cauchi

28 October 2021

TENSION over vaccinations is marring relief at churches’ reopening in Melbourne and beyond, church leaders have warned.

Some churches have even banned unvaccinated people from attending services.

Ministers say their congregations are excited to return to in person service, but some are hesitant about the amount of COVID-19 present in the community.

St Margaret’s Eltham minister Reverend Keren Terpstra said her church only had on parishioner not yet double-vaccinated, so it would not offer a separate service.

Ms Terpstra said instead she would probably offer one-on-one home communion or encounters for people.

If an unvaccinated person tried to attend St Margaret’s she would arrange to make another time with that person one-on-one, she said.

But Ms Terpstra said she did have mixed feelings about separating people by their vaccination status.

“Jesus excluded no one and I have great problems with this but I don’t know what other choice we have because there’s the aspect of safety and the greater good,” she said.

Oakleigh Anglican minister Reverend Colleen Arnold-Moore said her congregation was feeling excitement about reopening, but some concern about levels of COVID-19 in the community.

She said people wanted to see each other, but were being very cautious about it.

Ms Arnold-Moore said all Oakleigh parishioners would be double vaccinated by 10 November, but would still have to pre-register to come to church. Like St Margaret’s, the numbers meant they would solely run vaccinated services.

But Ms Arnold-Moore said Christmas services might be difficult, as they were major outreach events and unvaccinated people could be expected to attend.

Bishop Paul Barker said some clergy were particularly concerned about taking unvaccinated services, or services with unvaccinated children.

He said some churches had even banned unvaccinated people.

Dr Barker said some parishioners believed no unvaccinated people, including children, should be able to attend services. 

He said others wanted three types of services: vaccinated with children, vaccinated without children, and one for the unvaccinated.

Dr Barker said the majority of churches were also offering an open service for unvaccinated people as well as a service for the fully vaccinated.

He said the diocese had asked churches to offer a service for everyone, but some had refused unvaccinated people.

Dr Barker said the diocese was concerned about societal divisions, and did not want to exclude the unvaccinated, as the distinction between vaccinated-unvaccinated might last until 2023.

He said the diocese wanted everyone vaccinated, but the present was a time to show compassion and love from people whose viewpoints and practices were different.

“[Some churches have] simply said, ‘We do not want them to come’,” Dr Barker said.

“We’re disappointed about that because I think the gospel should invite everybody.

“To say that the staff in a supermarket have to serve unvaccinated people, but we clergy can’t be bothered to do that with the gospel for unvaccinated people in a church, seems to me to be pretty sad.”

Churches have been able to host indoor services from 24 October and can now have 150 people indoors, provided they keep to the four-square-metre rule.

From 24 November – assuming a vaccination target of 90 per cent of those 12 years and over is met – vaccinated services will have no cap on size.

Services for unvaccinated people will remain capped at 30 from 80 per cent double dose. 

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