It’s not quite ‘the night before Christmas’ but it’s close. The timing could hardly be worse for Justin Welby to clumsily wade into the argument over Covid vaccination. In an interview with Julie Etchingham on ITV, the Archbishop of Canterbury asserted that vaccination is a ‘moral issue’. Getting the Covid jab, he said, is ‘not about me and my rights to choose’. It is instead a fulfilment of the commandment to love our neighbour. ‘To love one another, as Jesus said, get vaccinated, get boosted,’ he continued. ‘It’s Christmas: do what he said’. What a grim and joyless corruption of the beautiful and familiar Christmas Gospel. And what wasted opportunity to deliver an uplifting Christmas message of God’s deep and enduring love for mankind.
Let’s start with the suggestion that being vaccinated somehow fulfils the requirement to love our neighbour. It is misleading to suggest that the vaccinated automatically occupy the moral high-ground. Many people have accepted the vaccine for purely selfish motives such as travel or because they believe it will increase their own safety. I observe this without criticism: it’s hard to criticise anyone for their choices after nearly two desperate and uncertain years in which we have all had to make do. My point is that it’s wrong to assume that people who choose to take the vaccine are acting out of altruism.
And what about the loyal, devout, faithful but unvaccinated members of the Church of England who the Archbishop implied are being selfish or unchristian (although he dodged the question when asked directly if it was a ‘sin’ or ‘immoral’ not to get the jab). Many of them are (and I know a good number) exemplary men and women, both in their faith and in their faithfulness. Many, though not all, are evangelicals of staunch conviction, prodigious in their loving good-works towards their neighbours. I should also be interested to know how unvaccinated Black and Asian members of the CofE are affected by the Archbishop’s comments. Forty-one per cent of the Black population of the UK is unvaccinated, along with 26 per cent of the Asian population. And what about the poorest 20 per cent of the population, of whom 29 per cent are unvaccinated? Aren’t Christians enjoined to listen to the poor, especially around the time of Christmas? Perhaps that’s because the poor, according to the Gospels, are very often onto something and we could learn a thing or two?
How will this public kicking by the Archbishop help unvaccinated Christians in their last hours of preparation for Christmas? There have been loud calls for some time now, on radio, television and in the papers, demanding that the unvaccinated should be treated as second-class citizens. The Archbishop’s comments will only serve to legitimise this kind of divisive and abusive behaviour. It’s not a great Christmas message.
At best the Archbishop’s intervention is hopelessly clumsy. What’s more worrying is the possibility that he’s showing an appalling lack of compassion and emotional intelligence.
It is perhaps the saddest indictment of the Archbishop that he claims to be ‘really puzzled’ by those who decline to be vaccinated. Christians have a number of legitimate grounds for vaccine refusal, which include opposition to coercion and scapegoating. What will it take for the Church of England’s leaders to speak out against these ugly and genuinely immoral dimensions of the Covid crisis?
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