The recent public controversy over vaccination has produced strong opinions – and surprising divisions – in contemporary Australia on the competing concerns of public health and toleration of diversity. In a recent “Open for Discussion” interview (“Vaccination – A researcher’s insight”, October 20), Associate Professor Julie Leask spoke of the need to reach out for the cooperation of the “people in the middle” on this issue, and that’s where I find myself – perhaps surprisingly to many – as a Christian Scientist. The long experience of Christian Scientists as a religious minority might in some ways point to the possibilities of a “middle path” of mutual respect and understanding.
For many years, Christian Scientists have been known for their practice of prayer and spiritual healing.
For many years, too, our relationships with public health departments have generally been mutually respectful and cooperative.
As one state agency in the United States, the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, described it in an article on “Christian Science and Community Medicine” back in 1974, this relationship has involved a measure of give-and-take on both sides:
“The Church of Christ, Scientist, was founded and has its headquarters in Boston. Although Massachusetts has not always led in accommodating the beliefs of minorities, it has respected philosophic and jurisdictional limits through regulation by state and local health departments. In part, this mutual tolerance owes much to the original teaching of [Mary Baker] Eddy, [the church’s founder]. In modern practice, the Church has also drawn a careful distinction between what the individual may be forced to do against his own beliefs and what society may reasonably expect him to do for the general good…” (Massachusetts Department of Public Health, The New England Journal of Medicine, 2/14/1974, 401-2).
In Australia as in the U.S., public health officials in the past have been broadly supportive of religious exemptions from the requirements of vaccination when such exemptions were not considered a danger to the wider community. Christian Scientists in turn have appreciated this consideration and conscientiously reported suspected communicable disease. We strive to cooperate fully with quarantines and other measures considered necessary by public health officials in these cases as well as in times of general outbreaks. This has been a matter of basic Golden Rule ethics in our healing practice going back, as the Massachusetts official noted, to the church’s founder.
As I negotiated the challenges of parenting in the ‘80s and ‘90s, I chose to have our children vaccinated in respect for my husband’s differing beliefs and my own concern for the possibility, when my children became adults, they might question why I had not immunized them medically. Although aware of the legislative accommodation then in place permitting exemption from the immunization requirement, I did not seek that exemption. Because love for God and every individual is at the core of Christian Science practice, church members are free to make their own choices on all life-decisions, in obedience to the law, including whether or not to vaccinate their children. These aren’t decisions imposed by their church. We hope this kind of two-way relationship may still be possible in today’s environment.
Naturally, I’ve followed with great interest the current discussion about vaccination. While others objected to the changes in legislation, the Christian Science church has recognised that laws such as this may need to be re-thought and re-balanced in response to changing circumstances and conditions.
Over many years, because of the small number of Christian Scientists in the population, the exemption from vaccination was not considered, in medical terms, to represent a danger to the rest of the population. In more recent years, this has changed as the use of the exemption widened and public concerns over the number of unvaccinated individuals grew. For this reason Christian Scientists did not oppose the withdrawing of the exemption in Australia in 2015. The practice of Christian Science has been part of my way of life for decades and a practice that I’ve tried to approach responsibly and conscientiously. My own healing of infertility has been a landmark for me and is detailed on the Lismore Northern Star news site.
We share the desire of most Christians for the common good and value those professions and institutions that seek to better the human condition – including the medical profession – even though we choose to take a different route in our own approach to healing. In most cases, it’s a conscientious choice and part of a broader way of life that’s deeply meaningful to us even in this age of high tech.
Our actual experiences of healing obviously factor in. They are by no means all trivial or self-diagnosed. Many experiences have been life-changing. Some have been life-saving. They challenge medical assumptions and, even more profoundly, conventional material assumptions about the nature and processes of life. They point to the same tremendous spiritual reality and love that broke into people’s lives with original Christianity when it was new.
I’ve heard many testify of such healings over the years and I have visited the Christian Science church on Broadway across from the University. The accounts from Australia published recently in the denomination’s periodicals include, to mention a few, a healing of a paratrooper’s knee injury, a young woman’s healing of a severe head wound after an accident, a healing of life-long allergies, and the healing of multiple fractures.
I hope these comments will convey more fully what the practice of spiritual healing has meant in many Christian Scientists’ lives, and why it means so much to us. These healings suggest that there truly may be no incurable conditions. Though there are obviously cases that are not cured. Christian Scientists don’t attribute these either to God’s will or to personal guilt. Consistent effectiveness in spiritual healing requires a high level of dedication and above all love, just as the best of medical practice does. You can’t judge this healing practice by a particular case any more than you could judge or indict vaccination because of contrary individual results. In the long term, our community’s protection from dangers may depend as much or more on a culture of toleration, respect and love — in a Christian Scientists’ view, some spiritual understanding of God’s power and presence — as it does on any technological advances.
Christian Science Committee on Publication
A link to this response can be found following the Soundcloud podcast of the interview about vaccination between Dr Chris Neff and Associate Professor Julie Leask held at The University of Sydney on October 20, 2016. A transcript of the interview is also on the University website.