When my bishop announced that we would not be holding usual church services last Sunday, my main feeling was one of short-term relief: I absolutely love my calling as Gospel Doctrine teacher (I never want any other!), but I simply didn’t know where I was going to find time to prepare a lesson that weekend with all the other commitments that I had going on.
My second feeling was one of excitement. I’ve long believed that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints exists to serve families (rather than the other way around) and so the recent moves towards home-centered church have been very exciting for me. However–big caveat here–I haven’t actually been that great at following through in my own family. So I looked at this as an opportunity to really redouble my efforts to make our home one where we talk, study, and practice the Gospel.
My impression is that these feelings–short-term, half-joking relief at getting one freebie combined with a determination to rise to the occasion in our homes–was pretty common among fellow Latter-day Saints.
So I was surprised when I realized the optimistic attitude was not shared by many of our fellow Christians. My first clue was Lyman Stone, whom I follow on Twitter, and who is really not a fan of closing churches. This is surprising because, in all other respects, he takes the Covid-19 pandemic very, very seriously. (In on small part because he lives in Hong Kong with his family, including a very young child.) I can’t find the original Tweets where he voices this opinions (because he’s a super prolific tweeter and my Twitter-search skills are lacking), but in this thread he links to a Google Doc with a list of tips for Christian churches to hold meetings during Covid-19 that make clear how dimly he views the idea of canceling regular worship services.
And that’s when I realized: we Latter-day Saints are really unique in this regard.
A couple of days later, R. R. Reno weighed in at First Things, beginning his piece with the simple thesis: “Cancelling church services is the wrong response to the coronavirus pandemic.”
I’m not interested in debating either Stone or Reno on the merits of their case. I admire–and affirm–Reno’s statement that “When we worship, we join the Christian rebellion against the false lordship of the principalities and powers that claim to rule our lives, including sickness and death.” I agree with that completely, but for me–as a Latter-day Saint–it does not follow that we need to keep our churches open.
Because as a Latter-day Saint, church is not something separable from the membership. This is a profound expression of the impact of a lay clergy that I’ve never really had a chance to see cast in such stark relief before. For a Catholic, based on what I’m reading, there’s a real sense that the ordinary members can be cut off and separated from their clergy and–in this way–from the sacraments that bring unity with God.
This is unthinkable to a Latter-day Saint. As in, it literally would not occur to us without some outer referent to draw our attention to it. The sacrament we partake of is prepared, blessed, and passed by teenage boys from our congregation. If we do not go to church on Sunday, the priesthood is still with us in a literal sense.
Of course it is not necessarily the case that each and every Latter-day Saint has access to the priesthood. That’s not necessary to my point, which isn’t that every single one of us–individually and without exception–is the clergy of God, but rather than the priesthood holders of the Church are literally commingled with the membership. Our friends and our neighbors and our family members are former and future bishops and stake presidents.
This is not new, but–in the past week–I still feel like I’m seeing it for the first time.
A corollary, no less important, is that the duty to minister to the Saints is–just like the priesthood–distributed among the laity. In a very real and practical sense, all Latter-day Saints are ministers. We might not be very good at it yet, but it would never occur to us that ministering to the Saints is a job for specialists we interact with only in the church. Ministering to the congregation is the job of the congregation, and we strive to do it every day of the week and primarily in each other’s homes.
All this fills me with hope for the vibrancy and resiliency of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
It’s too early to count all the lessons that we will eventually learn from this pandemic, but I already believe that one category of lessons will be how we as Latter-day Saints can more fully live up to the inspired design of the Church to take better care of one another in times of crisis and need.
For–no matter how bad the pandemic gets or doesn’t get in the coming weeks and months–such times will surely come again and again in the years and decades to come.