The theology, ethics, and polity of the PC(USA) calls us to care about COVID-19

In the middle of the 225th General Assembly, how should we respond to COVID-19 in a way that prioritizes affirmation of being a Matthew 25 denomination?

Even with the best efforts, and thoughtful, science-based mitigation efforts in place to prioritize the safety of attendees of the 225th General Assembly, as of June 25, 2022, there is a report of 13 positive COVID-19 cases among those in attendance. While it is unfortunate, it is not a surprise. The current variants are among the most contagious and, outside of the Presbyterian Center, there are no mitigations in place or recommended.

As a healthcare leader, chaplain, theologian and clinical ethicist, I was impressed by the work done by COGA and OGA that aimed at reducing the risk of contraction for the participants. As one who has been deep in the weeds, writing pandemic ethics and ethical frameworks around COVID-19, I’ve been disturbed by the racial and social inequities that have always existed but are now exposed in the virus’s morbidity and mortality rates.

From where we started in March 2020 to where we are now because of the miracles of God revealed through the amazing science of vaccines, we have moved into a new stage of this pandemic. However, we are not out of the woods yet — especially for those who, even with vaccines, are particularly vulnerable to severe illness and death. In the middle of the 225th General Assembly, how should we respond to COVID-19 in a way that prioritizes affirmation of being a Matthew 25 denomination?

This is a theological, ethical and polity question. When it works at its best, our polity is about mutual accountability and responsibility for one another, it is how we are a community together. At its worst, it is a legalistic idol that is interpreted to limit participation to those with privilege and power. Right now, there are commissioners and advisory delegates for whom it is not safe to participate in-person for their committee work because they are at increased risk because of the current rise in cases by attendees of the GA. Among those people at highest risk of negative outcomes are the following: those economically disadvantaged, Black, Latinx, Indigenous, and differently-abled people. If requested, they should be afforded a reasonable accommodation to participate in committee remotely and they should be allowed to fully engage in plenary. I believe the Standing Rules allow for hybrid participation and the spirit and the language support the inclusion of commissioners and advisory members to participate in plenary, even if they are not physically present in person in committee.

That is based on these elements of the Standing Rules:

  • 4 out of 5 of the references to “full participation” directly address making reasonable accommodations to promote involvement, further, restricting participation is contrary to the spirit and letter of the Standing Rules.
  • We demonstrate our core values and commitments in the introduction of the Standing Rules saying, “The General Assembly deliberates with fairness, attention to process, order, and the encouragement of minority voices …”
  • And finally, the intro references 1 Corinthians 12 which suggests, “If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it. Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. (vv. 26-27).

This commitment that we covenant in being church together must be embodied in word and action.

In addition to what should be done at this moment to maximize safety and inclusivity, I believe that this General Assembly needs to direct action for the future planning of assemblies that explicitly outlined include the following elements:

  • In addition to the public health and epidemiological markers that are used for guidance in establishing policy, receive bioethical guidance and establish an ethical framework that guides ethical pandemic decision-making.
  • Include ethical guidance for attendees at future GAs that recommend best practices for activities outside of the assembly gathering space.
  • To ensure that equity is at the forefront of the discussion, include all advocacy committees with voice and vote on any special committee formed.

Jesus makes clear that what we do matters to God. How we treat the “least of these” is critical to our identity as Christians. So, as we seek to embody the spirit of Matthew 25, we assume that how we care for each other is a reflection of how we care for our own Lord and Savior. With that guidance, we must choose to privilege the most vulnerable and utilize the agility afforded in our polity to respond to the COVID-19 numbers at the 225th General Assembly with grace and care that maximizes participation.