[Episcopal News Service] COVID-19 vaccination mandates are gaining steam across The Episcopal Church, with two dioceses now requiring vaccination for all clergy and staff, and others issuing similar requirements as the delta variant spreads rapidly among unvaccinated people.
In the Diocese of Long Island – which includes the New York City boroughs of Brooklyn and Queens – all clergy and diocesan staff must show proof of vaccination, effective Sept. 15. The only possible exemption is for those who cannot be vaccinated for medical reasons, in which case they would have to wear a mask at all indoor gatherings and be tested every 10 days.
“We have an obligation as the church to do everything in our power to ensure the safety and well-being of the people we are called to serve,” Long Island Bishop Lawrence Provenzano wrote in the diocesan announcement. “Getting vaccinated is a way to express our love of God and our love of neighbor in the midst of this crisis.”
St. John’s Episcopal Hospital in Queens, which is affiliated with the diocese, will provide the vaccine to any member of the diocesan staff or clergy who has not received it yet, Provenzano said.
Maine Bishop Thomas Brown enacted the same requirement in his diocese on Aug. 23. In his announcement, he quoted Presiding Bishop Michael Curry’s early August appeal to Episcopalians to protect themselves and their vulnerable neighbors by getting vaccinated.
The U.S. now has more than 100,000 people hospitalized with COVID-19 for the first time since January, with some states reporting their highest case counts ever. The vast majority of COVID-19 patients in intensive care units are unvaccinated people, who are 29 times more likely to be hospitalized than vaccinated people, according to a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Just over half of Americans have been fully vaccinated.
In response, dioceses and congregations are reinstating indoor mask requirements and other restrictions, as well as promoting vaccination campaigns, especially in states with increasing infection rates due to higher numbers of unvaccinated people. The Diocese of Oklahoma, for example, has now launched a video series featuring members of the diocese – including Bishop Poulson Reed – explaining why they got vaccinated and encouraging others to do the same.
“Public health agencies, governments, corporations, schools, and not-for-profits are also announcing mandatory vaccinations,” Brown wrote. “We are not all doing this because we are heavy-handed, but because vaccinations are the best tool we have to curb the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Other dioceses have enacted more limited vaccine requirements. On Aug. 11, Oregon Bishop Diana Akiyama announced that all of her diocesan staff were required to get vaccinated, adding that she “strongly recommends parish clergy and lay leaders to have conversations about vaccination requirements with their staff.”
On Aug. 16, the Diocese of Massachusetts announced it would require vaccination for all clergy and laypeople who work with vulnerable people, including children, the homebound or immunocompromised, and those in hospitals and care facilities.
“We strongly urge vaccination against the coronavirus for all our members as soon as they are eligible,” Massachusetts Suffragan Bishop Gayle Harris wrote. “We reiterate, however, that our congregations must not require vaccination, nor documentation thereof, for attendance at worship services.”
At least one Episcopal church, however, is doing just that: Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, seat of the Diocese of California. Starting Aug. 29, anyone entering the cathedral to attend services or events must provide proof of vaccination, either by uploading a photo of one’s vaccine card in advance through an online form or showing it in person.
Some dioceses are considering vaccine mandates but have not enacted any yet, like the Diocese of Hawaii, which is experiencing its worst surge in hospitalizations since the pandemic began.
“Can the church require vaccinations of clergy and employees? The chancellor is considering guidelines, but generally the answer is ‘yes,’” Bishop Robert Fitzpatrick wrote to the diocese on Aug. 4. “I do believe this is a pastoral situation. I am not inclined to move to ‘requiring’ vaccination of the clergy and lay employees. I trust those of us serving in God’s church are morally responsible people and are willing to do the right thing for the common good, and have already been or will soon be vaccinated.”
The Episcopal Church’s Office of Government Relations has developed a toolkit for individuals, congregations and ministries to facilitate and promote COVID-19 vaccine distribution in the United States. It is available in English and Spanish here.
– Egan Millard is an assistant editor and reporter for Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.