Church Without Churches

Salisbury Cathedral from the Bishop’s Grounds ca. 1825
John Constable (Public Domain)

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. 

Why?

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.

9 comments for “Church Without Churches

  1. Brandon
    March 20, 2020 at 4:52 pm

    The pandemic will pass. How much economic and physical pain will be imposed on us we don’t know for sure. Physical gathering has been vital for the community. Hopefully that can return soon and hopefully we can figure out a way in the interim.

  2. March 20, 2020 at 8:10 pm

    Fascinating thoughts, Nate.

    Maybe you have also been told, as I have, that the smallest unit of the church that can possibly act independently is the Stake. I’m not sure this is true, but I kind of see the idea behind that. What are your thoughts about that in relation to your post? I get the sense that you might argue that the family is the basic minimum unit of the Church — but I’m also not sure that’s true, in part because its the argument used by the independent Mormon fundamentalists.

    I suppose a lot of this gets to the tension between individual and family on one side, and institutions on the other. Institutions are important for efficiency and for collaborative action, but institutions always end up hurting at least some individuals.

    [And this tension also is part of why I disagree with your view that Christians need to rebel against government (false lordship, etc.) — critiques are necessary, yes, but rebellion implies we can either do without or that there is an alternative. That’s a rather pessimistic view, and, I think, ignores the possibility of democracy. If a democracy exists, isn’t rebelling against it rebelling against yourself?]

    Regardless of the government stuff, I think this is a wonderful insight.

  3. ji
    March 21, 2020 at 8:49 am

    I appreciate the original posting. D&C 1:20 promises that every man (in the Church, every man can hold the priesthood) may speak in the name of God.

    Kent, I see stakes as the basic unit of the church — a stake can operate on its own, while its subdivisions (wards) cannot. I do not subscribe to the notion that the family is the basic unit of the church — as I see it, the family is autonomous and exists separately from the church. A husband and wife, or father and mother, do not receive their authority from the church, and the church does not direct or oversee their performance. A family is a sovereign unit.

  4. Wondering
    March 21, 2020 at 9:51 am

    Where does the idea come from that a stake can operate on its own, while a ward cannot?
    Each of the stake president and the bishop holds some priesthood keys. Neither has all priesthood keys.
    Why can’t each “operate on its own” within the scope of its presiding authority’s priesthood keys?

  5. SDS
    March 21, 2020 at 10:38 am

    This gets a bit legalistic for my taste, and it doesn’t exactly settle the issue here, but for what it’s worth . . . If you look at the old book “Priesthood and Church Government,” compiled by John A. Widtsoe, I’m pretty sure you will find statements saying basically that every Elder has (inchoately, so to speak) all the keys necessary to organize and operate the church. Those keys don’t become active and operative, so to speak, as long as a higher authority is around. But if for some reason there were only one Elder left, he would have the necessary keys. (I don’t have the book anymore, or at least I can’t find it, but I remember this point because I thought it discredited the idea I’ve often heard that the Apostasy happened because all of the apostles and leaders spread throughout the earth and then were killed or died without being able to reconvene to ordain successors.)

  6. Wondering
    March 21, 2020 at 11:14 am

    SDS, yeah, well most of the talk about priesthood keys seems to be really about authority to do or authorize certain things within the structure of the organized church — basically defining the scope of various levels of ecclesiastical authority, and not anything like the metaphysical magic some want to ascribe to them. So, of course, we get different explanations at different times according to the ideas of the guys in charge or the speculations of those trying to make some eternal metaphysical sense out of it.

  7. March 21, 2020 at 11:50 am

    Fascinating post, Nathaniel. I think your basic point is correct: how we relate to church services and being part of a congregation isn’t the same for us, although it may be a while before we figure out in precisely what ways.

    I had never actually heard that stakes were the minimal autonomous unit, by the way, and I’m not sure it’s even true, but I’d guess it has something to do with a stake being the lowest organization level with a high priests quorum and a patriarch.

  8. Matt Evans
    March 21, 2020 at 9:40 pm

    Nice post, Nathaniel. I love our lay and, in many respects, egalitarian ministry.

  9. larryco_
    March 24, 2020 at 7:46 am

    Christian church buildings didn’t show up until the 3rd century. Prior to that, members would mostly meet in the homes of the wealthiest members, hold their services, and enjoy the Agape (love) feast together. Pretty sweet, actually.

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