Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Social distancing, priesthood keys and worshipping from home

I wasn’t sure about what to make of the initial news reports regarding the Coronavirus and COVID-19. I usually try my best not to be an alarmist but I don’t want to be dismissive either. Like a lot of people, I thought about influenza mortality rates but then a friend shared a very informative article that offered some important perspective. I took the situation more seriously but I still wasn’t that concerned. I’m kind of a homebody anyway.

I’m very grateful that many members of my ward have a pretty good sense of humor.

Including my Bishop

When the leadership of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints announced that their April General Conference “will be distributed throughout the world via technology only,” it seemed like a reasonable precaution. My level of concern was elevated but it wasn’t something that really affected me since I’ve never attended the conference in person and—social anxiety being one of my personal struggles—have never had a desire to do so. I’ll stick with watching it at home, as usual.

Then came the announcement that all Church gatherings—meetings, conferences, even social activities—would be suspended until further notice, all around the world. That’s when my anxiety became significantly more elevated.

My stepmom’s observation made it really sink in.
Phrases like “Social Distancing” soon entered our lexicon. Filmmaking workshops that I was really looking forward to attending were canceled. As was a comedy show headlined by my favorite stand-up comic, Maria Bamford, for which I had already purchased tickets—I did receive a refund.

A friend from Church shared a magazine article on social media about administering the sacrament at home. This sparked a very odd response from someone who commented, “There is no scriptural basis for the church’s policy.”
Please,
forgive me
for falling
down
an internet
comment-
thread
rabbit
hole.

I replied to this individual’s comment with the following:
The scriptural basis for the authority of the Church's leadership to establish policies, change policies and even rescind policies is found in D&C 27:12-13
…“These keys are the right of presidency; they are the power and authority to govern and direct all of the Lord’s affairs on earth. Those who hold them have power to govern and control the manner in which all others may serve in the priesthood. All of us may hold the priesthood, but we can only use it as authorized and directed so to do by those who hold the keys” (Joseph Fielding Smith, Conference Report, Apr. 1972, 98; or Ensign, July 1972, 87).

I ended my comment with a personal idiom that’s given me a great deal of comfort over the years: “Policy is not prophecy; counsel is not commandment; and tradition is not doctrine.”

I really should have known better than to engage with this person. Their statement about there being “no scriptural basis for the church’s policy” seems to indicate that they prefer a literal interpretation of scripture; so much so that every aspect of any directive, policy or statement should have a direct, scriptural reference.

One problem with having such a literalist attitude is that it relies solely on what is written in scripture with little—if any—room for the Spirit, for personal revelation pertaining to one’s stewardship, and imbues in the individual a prejudice (a pre-judgment) of anyone who’s interpretations or practices vis-à-vis worshipping in the Church, differs from their own in the slightest.

Unprompted, they made reference to the Church’s “corporate policy” and an absence of scriptural justification for it. This has nothing to do with partaking of the sacrament at home but it’s obviously something that they take issue with.

I did not respond to that particular remark but upon further reflection, I realized that there is, in fact, a scriptural justification for the Church to be formally and legally organized as a corporation.

The Twelfth Article of Faith states, quite clearly, that “We believe in being subject to kings, presidents, rulers, and magistrates, in obeying, honoring, and sustaining the law.”(emphasis added)

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is organized as a corporation—as are most religious, charitable, and nonprofit organizations—in order to obey, honor, and sustain the law. This status is a prerequisite for the federal government to grant tax-exempt status to the organization, allowing individuals to deduct their contributions to it from their taxes. As “Public Charities,” religious organizations—ostensibly*—provide humanitarian and “safety net”-type services to people alongside those provided by the government, hence the tax deduction. That specific language is not going to be found anywhere in the scriptures, but the nature of it satisfies the scriptural admonition of the Twelfth Article of Faith.

This person then asked a really odd question:
“…do you claim that a local Bishop has the authority to stop my family and loved ones from gathering and participating in the sacrament?”
This makes me wonder if they even bothered to read the article, which said—quoting the Church’s General Handbook, “The bishop holds the priesthood keys for administering the sacrament in the ward. All who participate in preparing, blessing, and passing the sacrament must receive approval from him or someone under his direction.”

My response to the question was simply, “If a family sustains their Bishop in his calling, then their participation in the sacrament will be no different than anyone else's in their ward.”

In all fairness, I did not directly answer the question. Not because I was—as they accused—“insecure with the teachings of Jesus Christ.” I wasn’t being evasive, nor was it because an answer didn’t exist. The problem was a serious flaw in the nature of the question.
“…[does] a bishop [have] the authority to stop a family from participating in the sacrament in their own home?”
The magazine article, and the sources it referenced, say nothing about stopping anyone from doing anything. It does say that “In all cases, authorization is needed from a bishop or presiding authority to administer the sacrament.”(emphasis added)

Was this person asking if their bishop could stop them from administering the sacrament without his approval?

I wasn’t about to engage them further on the matter because I was pretty sure that they had already made up their mind about what sort of response to their question was going to be “correct.” Whatever quasi-theological argument they were fighting for also wasn’t helped when they inferred my unwillingness to continue with the discussion as evidence of a spiritual failing on my part, saying, “Those without the spirit of Christ tremble when confronted with such a simple question…you identify yourself as somebody who fears the teachings of Jesus Christ.”

Actually, I just identify as someone who has better things to do with his time than to engage with hostile people who want to debate and argue instead of having a civil discussion. Obviously, this exchange did give me something to think about.

The very next day, I received an e-mail from our Ward’s Bishop with instructions on how to partake of the Sacrament at home—they were pretty much identical to what was shared in the magazine article. One might suppose that this rendered the commenter’s question moot but outside of the context of current events, I think it might be worth giving it some more thought.

Even without the need for social distancing during a pandemic, there are circumstances where partaking of the Sacrament at home with one’s family is permissible. Members of the Church that live in very isolated areas and are not able to attend regular branch or ward meetings are able to worship at home with their families. However, it still has to be with “authorization from the stake, mission, or district president.”

People who are confined to their homes, live in residential care facilities, or are hospitalized can all still receive the Sacrament from priesthood holders in their ward who are more than happy to bring it to them but if none of those circumstances apply to an individual’s situation—and if distance or ability to travel are not matters of concern—if they want to receive the Sacrament, all they have to do is go to Church on Sunday.

I suppose there is nothing stopping a person from staying home on a Sunday, breaking up some bread, pouring water into a glass, reading aloud the sacramental prayers and then consuming said bread and water. This begs the question of why someone would want to do it that way when there is nothing preventing them from just going to Church like everyone else in their ward.

If there is some other circumstance that hasn’t been considered, there is nothing preventing that person from simply asking for authorization from their Bishop, who specifically “holds the priesthood keys for administering the sacrament in the ward.” But, if they choose instead to disregard their Bishop's authority—e.g. choose to not sustain their Bishop in his calling—and act in defiance, claiming that their Bishop doesn’t have “the authority to stop a family from participating in the sacrament in their own home?” it is no longer a question of where the priesthood authority of a Bishop ends and where that of the presiding priesthood holder of a household begins.

“…the rights of the priesthood are inseparably connected with the powers of heaven, and that the powers of heaven cannot be controlled nor handled only upon the principles of righteousness. That they may be conferred upon us, it is true; but when we undertake… to gratify our pride, our vain ambition, or to exercise control or dominion or compulsion upon the souls of the children of men, in any degree of unrighteousness, behold, the heavens withdraw themselves; the Spirit of the Lord is grieved; and when it is withdrawn, Amen to the priesthood or the authority of that man.” D&C 121:36–37(emphasis added)

One can recite the Sacramental prayers over a piece of bread and a cup of water and consume them all day, every day, and regardless of whether that person has been ordained as a holder of the priesthood, if they are trying to exercise those rites not only without proper authorization but with a self-righteous attitude, and out of blatant defiance, then it all means nothing. They are not truly renewing their covenants. Without the Spirit, without the priesthood authority that they have nullified with their own pride and desire for control, all they’re doing is saying words, eating bread, drinking water, and being jerks about it.

*Charlatans wearing the trappings of religiosity—in particular, so-called “televangelists”—are infamous for exploiting people and the government for their own personal gain. It’s one of the reasons that I am personally not unopposed to revoking tax-exempt status for organized religions. Any organization that is motivated solely by the prospect of acquiring tax-free income would most likely cease operations. Their accounting practices would be subject to more scrutiny and their proceeds would dwindle since “donations” to their “cause” would no longer be tax-deductible, eliminating one possible motive for those making contributions, to begin with.

I also believe that were the federal government to take such a step, religious organizations that are sincere in their efforts to help their members and communities will continue to function and to serve despite their new tax burden while those that were only in it for the money, to begin with, will have to find some other way to make a living.


Certainly, there will be those who might be hesitant to continue making donations that are no longer tax-deductible, but if that’s the only reason they were making donations in the first place, then their motives aren’t that far removed from any organization that prioritizes their tax-exempt status above any other mission they might profess to be undertaking in the name of whichever god they might publicly or privately worship—be it rooted in ancient scripture or the all-mighty-dollar.