Aotearoa New Zealand faith leaders have met with the Parliamentary Select Committee on Epidemic Response, to discuss Level 2 restrictions on public worship. Many faith groups say the limits have caused real hardship, especially for grieving families and communities unable to mark major religious commemorations in person.
Among faith leaders that presented to the Epidemic Response Committee yesterday was Anglican Bishop of Tai Tokerau, Bishop Te Kitohi Pikaahu, who shared his peoples’ experience of Alert Level 4, 3 and 2 restrictions on worship – alongside leaders from Sikh, Jewish and other Christian denominations.
The virtual Select Committee meeting with religious leaders was called after ongoing requests from churches and other faith communities to be allowed to gather for worship in higher numbers – while adhering to all the required COVID-19 safety requirements such as handwashing or sanitising, physical distancing and gathering contact-tracing details.
Last week, (before the new 50-person limit on funerals and tangihanga) Archbishop Don Tamihere, Archbishop Philip Richardson and Cardinal John Dew, Catholic Archbishop of Wellington wrote to the Prime Minister and Cabinet asking for clarity and change on the Level 2 church service numbers cap.
The Catholic and Anglican Archbishops pointed out that 10-person limits placed on churches stand in stark contrast to the gathering sizes allowed in commercial outlets like malls and shopping centres, or even in professional contact sports,
“ …we do not understand the rationale that regards churches as ‘uncontrolled environments’ by comparison with public venues, or playing professional sports, which are ‘controlled environments’.” the Archbishops wrote.
“Many permitted activities are much higher risk than attendance at worship, or attendance at a carefully attended funeral service.”
In yesterday’s Epidemic Response Committee meeting, Bishop Kito made it clear that Anglican churches respect and welcome the Government’s authority to set what are safe gathering practices based on scientific advice. Echoing the Archbishops’ earlier letter, Bishop Kito acknowledged that churches respect and understand limits have been put in place to protect kuia, kaumatua and the most vulnerable in our communities from COVID-19.
He shared with the Select Committee how pāriha in the North had responded by innovating ways to connect with people online with both worship services and pastoral care. And he explained how the Pihopatanga o Te Tai Tokerau minita had also worked to provide isolated people in the North with the digital devices and training they needed to connect with the church’s online pastoral care and worship.
The Archbishops’ letter highlighted many other churches’ online ministry that has blossomed in response to lockdown needs.
“ We are very aware of the innovative ways our people have sought to worship, pray and gather virtually during this crisis, providing much needed support and pastoral care not only to our own members,” they wrote.
However, the Archbishops questioned the Government’s choice to prioritise the needs of business activity over spiritual needs when it came to setting number limits on gatherings.
“The impression is being given [by the Government] that because faith is not regarded as a contributor to economic activity it is thus discounted.”
“We now find ourselves in a situation where people across the faiths will be denied the opportunity to gather to express their faith and gain from that contribution to their wellbeing that is essential.” they wrote.
The Archbishops referred Government decision-makers back to Sir Mason Durie’s well-known model of holistic health; ‘Te Whare Tapa Wha,’ which identifies Te Taha Wairua (the spiritual dimension of health) as one of the essential needs of human wellbeing.
“We request an urgent response as to why the ability of faith communities to contribute to that aspect of wellbeing remains so severely and unfairly constrained,” they concluded.
This afternoon, Dr Ashley Bloomfield confirmed in the daily COVID-19 response briefing that the Government has not expanded the numbers allowed at worship this weekend beyond 10, with the only exception being funeral services and tangihanga that have been granted a limit of 50 people.