Photo by Sylvain Brison

Priest holes and priest hunters

By excluding the unvaccinated from the Eucharist, the church sets its face against the faithful

Artillery Row

The police can be seen arriving through the window. In panic the priest, there to administer sacrament to the householder and their family, breathes deep and hard. Fortunately the family has taken precautions: he, and his contraband host, are squirrelled away behind a false panel in the pantry.

At the door stands a curate, masked and flanked by the forces of law and order also masked, with body armour and weapons at the ready.

“I note from the app that you have not yet been vaccinated, and nor have your family.”

The father bristles, but knows that indignation is useless.

The curate continues in a sanctimonious voice of faux caring. “Our records say that you have been a punctilious attendee at the Grace Cathedral, ever since we started allowing in person services again. Yet, even though you have continued to register over the last month, you have not been seen, not even for the Taize services, and your wife is no longer attending the yoga workshops.”

Armitage mumbles a classically Episcopalian apology. 

“Mr Armitage, I put it to you that you are conducting unlicensed services here at home. You are taking communion, I am sure I can smell a whiff of incense, and is that wine I can smell on your breath? A  bit early for drinking on a Sunday, isn’t it?”

The curate pauses for dramatic effect, then reads from a crisp sheet of paper pulled from her rainbow cassock.

What is important is not the saving of souls, but the saving of lives

“Mr Armitage, these officers and I have been licenced by Dean Young and the office of Tomás J. Aragón, MD, DrPH, Director and State Public Health Officer of the State of California to make a search of the premises. We believe you are habouring a priest who is conducting clandestine and illegal services to those who refuse vaccination for the Covid virus. This is in breach of The State order, dated 10th September 2021. This Order is issued pursuant to Health and Safety Code sections 120125, 120140, 120175, 120195 and 131080 and other applicable law.”

At that moment the SWAT team burst into life, ramming Mr Armitage into the wall and barking orders to the young family. Glass smashes, children scream in fear; behind his safe wall the young priest breathes short, silent breaths as he incants, inwardly, the 23rd Psalm.

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want…

Dystopian nonsense, of course: the time of recuancy is past. The shade of St Nicholas Owen is not needed to design high-tech priest holes in California or anywhere else. But the announcement by the Dean of Grace Cathedral San Francisco, Malcolm Young, that henceforward access to services at the cathedral will only be granted to those who carry a vaccine passport, has echoes of all of this.

It is hard to conceive of an act so fundamentally contrary to the spirit and purpose of the church. According to this stand-out branch of the Centre for Disease Control, what is important is not the saving of souls, and the promise of salvation to all, but the saving of lives. 

To paraphrase St Mathew’s Gospel, “For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies: These are the things which defile the man; but to reject vaccination does not defile the man.”

The global church has not had a good pandemic

The global church has not had a good pandemic; it has rejected its believers in many ways, barring them from sacrament, from succour. In England priests were barred from carrying out their duties to the sick, initially they were barred even from entering their own churches. To actively encourage division like the San Francisco Cathedral is a step beyond this. There are many people, often those most in need of pastoral and spiritual support who cannot, for medical reasons, have the vaccine. Even the Centre for Disease Control accepts that there are those (mostly those who experience severe allergic reactions) for whom vaccination should not be attempted.

Yet they are to be excluded from Eucharist. 

It seems that the church, at least in San Francisco, is setting its face against the faithful. By its actions it emboldens those who would launch witch hunts against the recalcitrant. It divides not unites. It is walking away from the very fundamentals of its own professed faith, to fall in line with the prevailing political wind.

Will there be priests that feel it is their duty to engage with the newly and politically unclean? That remains to be seen. If so, and my guess is that this will be the case, then this bleak vision of priest holes and priest hunters may turn prophetic.

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