I sense a common theme, or at least a common presumption, to recent posts by Julie and Kristine (which is not to reduce either of their posts to the point I’m making; there’s a lot more to both of them than this). Specifically, both seem to be concerned with, exasperated by, or otherwise focused on the “public” operations of the church: leadership, callings, classes, etc. You know, all the stuff which happens on Sunday: this lesson on Lamentations needs to get taught even though that baby over there is screaming his head off and no one can hear a word being said; meanwhile the bishop has been led (presumably by revelation, but who knows?) to call a young man struggling with his testimony teach the Gospel Principles class to inactives and new converts, while a brand new convert with serious mental and physical handicaps has been appointed Scoutmaster. For all these reasons and more (infants on the loose, inexplicable policies invoked without cause, etc.), what happens in our ward buildings on Sundays seems to be (not always, or even most of the time, but often enough) random and unreasonable and downright infuriating, or at least that is the implication I draw from these posts.
I agree with that implication; well-run wards with clear lines of communication, articulate leaders, quiet children, responsible parents, with spirituality and respect and charity and good humor all around, are in my experience less than typical of Mormonism. But I also wonder if any of that matters.
It’s been noted before, in a couple of different contexts, that I’ve got a strong streak of some kind of traditional Prostestantism in me. That may be so. But I’m an ecumenical soul, with a decent chunk of Catholicism floating around in there somewhere, and I don’t feel it any more strongly than I do in relation to the sacrament. Like the host in the Mass, I see the sacrament as serving as more than just a “symbol” of Christ’s sacrifice and atonement: I think it embodies a living promise made by God, that it serves a real affective purpose and has real affective power, that it can and does move us closer to our covenants, that preparing and distributing it is profound act of worship in itself. In other words, I think the sacrament is the whole point of going to church. Which means, as long as the sacrament is prepared and shared, that the meaning of church-going has been fulfilled, and if everything else is chaos and banality and strangeness and incoherence, nothing really important has been lost. (This is one of the reasons I have a hard time taking stake or regional, or even general, conferences seriously: the sacrament ordinance doesn’t take place, which means they’re just…meetings. And I can always get notes on a meeting from someone else, or read the minutes when they come out in the Ensign.)
It’s not that meetings and callings are meaningless–there is fellowship and service and the missions of the church, all of which are important. It’s great if what happens on Sunday is something everyone can feel a part of, and supportive of, and not excluded from. But even if that’s not the case–even if you’ve no where to go with your infant and the ward clerk (that pinhead) won’t unlike the closet in the primary room because of some obscure bureaucratic policy–I can’t help but think that, assuming the bread and the water show up, then all is as it should be, or at least as it needs to be.
Stanley Hauerwas, reflecting on his years in the theology department at the University of Notre Dame, put it this way:
“I noticed that Catholics worshiped quite differently than Protestants: Catholics are noisy and not particularly ‘worshipful.’ Though I was at first bothered by this, I began to realize that Catholics do not have to be ‘holy’ at worship, because they think God is going to show up anyway. If the priest gets it right there is not a thing they can do to prevent God from being present in Eucharist. In contrast, most Protestants believe in the ‘real absence’ rather than any presence. Accordingly, we have to be especially ‘holy’ because otherwise we are afraid ‘God’ will go away.” (In Good Company: The Church as Polis [Notre Dame, 1995], p. 88)
I’m a hypocrite, of course; Melissa and I have long since developed a wide range of strategies to try to teach our children reverence during the Sunday meetings, and we feel embarrased when we fail, and we’re judgmental of others fail also. We’re in the same boat as everyone else. But I really think Melissa and I have been helped by coming to recognize that Sunday services are supposed to be opportunities for worship, with getting work done only a side benefit, at most. I couldn’t disagree more with the perspective of D. Fletcher, who asked, “Why do we need to bring children to Sacrament Meeting at all? How many other adult lectures do we bring our littlest to?” I mean, there’s a point to that question; I certainly wouldn’t bother to bring my children to listen to my classroom lectures, no matter how good I thought they were. But should we really assess our sacrament meetings in terms of the talks given? I want my littlest to learn about making covenants and receiving Christ into their lives; everything else (the talks and lessons, and whether or not you can hear them, and the callings and the policies, and whether or not they were inspired) is just institutional, isn’t it?