‘We want to minister to all’: Faith leaders welcome capped services for unvaccinated

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After months of lockdown, the doors at St Dominic’s Catholic Church in Camberwell are finally open for worship and prayer again.

In the Dominican newsletter, Father Peter Nguyen reflected on the blind man, Bartimaeus, being healed by his faith. “Our feeling is like that of a blind man in today’s gospel that he can joyfully see a bright future in front of him,” he wrote.

While religious leaders in Australia have been broadly supportive of vaccinations, mandates have presented a Gordian knot: turning the unvaccinated away, while a public health imperative, is theologically very difficult for many religions.

Father Peter Nguyen is grateful he can hold a small Mass for people with “unknown vaccination status”. Credit:Justin McManus

Father Peter is grateful for an easing of restrictions in Victoria from October 29, that allows him to hold a small Mass for people with “unknown vaccination status”.

“I didn’t want to say, ‘Sorry, you can’t come’ to the unvaccinated,” Father Peter says. “Jesus was about including rather than excluding people.”

While most Masses at St Dominic’s will require all people to be double jabbed and carry proof of their vaccination status, a special Mass for those of “unknown vaccination status” will be held at 6pm on Sunday.

The St Dominic’s website stresses that online bookings are essential – a link is provided – given the maximum number of attendees is 30.

From last Friday places of worship are allowed to hold indoor services for the fully vaccinated, with a density limit of one person per four square metres, outdoor services for the fully vaccinated capped at 500 and services of up to 30 for those of “unknown vaccination status”.

Faith leaders do not need to be vaccinated to conduct a service.

“We know there are some activities that are essential and necessary to access whether a person is vaccinated or not and have factored that into particular settings including real estate, hydrotherapy, religion and essential retail,” a Department of Health spokesperson told The Sunday Age.

Melbourne Catholic Archbishop Peter Comensoli – who says Catholics are strongly encouraged to get vaccinated – welcomed Victoria’s second last opening-up stage from Friday.

But unlike NSW – where unvaccinated people will have the same freedoms by December 1 – Premier Daniel Andrews has flagged in Victoria they will be barred from most venues and events until 2023.

Archbishop Comensoli believes Victorians also need a marker when a unified gathering might happen. He says he will continue to work with other faith leaders on proposals that allow both vaccinated and unvaccinated people to worship in person safely.

“After many long months of isolation, continued forms of segregation within the community are deeply damaging. We cannot let this become the only way for COVID-accommodation,” he says.

“As faith communities we are here to support and comfort those in need, and to be open to all regardless of who a person is or why they come.”

Rabbi Gabi Kaltmann is worried that those who refuse to get vaccinated are at risk of becoming more disconnected from society.Credit:Eddie Jim

Rabbi Gabi Kaltmann from the Ark Centre, a modern Orthodox synagogue and community centre in Hawthorn East, says most synagogues are unwilling to risk COVID transmission by allowing the unvaccinated to attend services or prayer groups.

But he worries that those who refuse to get vaccinated are at risk of becoming more ostracised and disconnected from society if they can’t attend places of worship.

Rabbi Kaltmann has found himself fielding calls from congregants who had watched videos saying the vaccine shouldn’t be trusted because it hasn’t been tested or they were concerned vaccines came from a fetus.

Dr Kylie Quinn, a vaccine researcher from RMIT University, says fetal cells are not present in COVID vaccines.

“When the AstraZeneca vaccine is being made, it is grown up using some laboratory-made descendants of cells derived from a fetus that may have been miscarried or aborted decades ago. The vaccine is then purified carefully,” Dr Quinn said.

“However, the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines do not use any cells during their manufacture – they are pure mRNA and lipids.”

Rabbi Kaltmann says he begged congregants to take the vaccine but while successful on a number of occasions there were people who wouldn’t buckle.

Those who were resistant tended to be older men, he says, who don’t like being told what to do by the government.

“What I am seeing is the people most in need of a sense of community are the ones who aren’t taking up vaccinations,” Rabbi Kaltmann says. “I’m seeing people falling through the cracks of society and becoming increasingly isolated. I think once we reach 90 per cent double vaccination the government must re-evaluate.”

Islamic Council of Victoria president Adel Salman last week voiced frustration that non-essential retail was opening to the unvaccinated from Friday for a month-long transition period while numbers were capped for places or worship.

“It’s clear double standards here,” he said. Mosques had demonstrated very high levels of compliance with COVID protocols with no reported outbreaks in Victoria, Mr Salman said, and were a safer and more controlled environment than crowded retail outlets.

Bishop Paul Barker from the Anglican Diocese of Melbourne is horrified by Mr Andrews’ suggestion that the unvaccinated will remain excluded in Victoria until at least 2023.

“We are anxious that in society – not just in churches – we don’t create a division or an underclass of the unvaccinated,” Bishop Barker says, noting that Professor Sharon Lewin, the director of the Doherty Institute, had also voiced concerns.

Bishop Barker said he understood Victorian health officials were reluctant to set a date for when unvaccinated people could have the same freedom because they didn’t want them to simply wait it out.

“But I think personally, if we get to 90 per cent double vaccination and low case numbers it should end then.”

In the meantime the capped services for those of unknown vaccination status was a reasonable temporary measure, he said, which balanced health concerns with places of worship being welcoming to all.

“Probably the bulk of our churches will be offering services for the vaccinated and a separate service for a mixed congregation,” he said. “There are some churches who have said we don’t want anyone unvaccinated, they are not welcome, which we’re very sad about actually but we can’t control that even as bishops.”

Reverend Andrew Price says 98 per cent of parishioners at his churches are vaccinated.Credit:Eddie Jim

A survey of Anglican churches Holy Trinity in Doncaster and St John’s in Blackburn recently revealed 98 per cent of parishioners were either already vaccinated or soon would be.

“But we believe Jesus died and rose for all people, that all who believe in him can have the guarantee of life eternal,” Senior Pastor Andrew Price says, citing John 3:16, one of the most famous verses in the Bible.

“So we want to minister to all people, including the few who for their own reasons are not yet vaccinated.”

This meant holding interim services for the vaccinated only and providing extra services which were open to all, something Reverend Price said the government had thankfully allowed.

“This will be more work, but we want to live out our faith and practice the love Christ Jesus has for all.”

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