The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has announced a two-phased plan for reopening church meetings and activities. I don’t believe the first phase, which is about to begin in some parts of the world, is strict enough to ensure people’s safety right now when we’re still very much in the heat of this pandemic.
Although the document uses words like “careful” and “caution” and emphasizes repeatedly the need to follow government safety protocols wherever members live in the world, the church’s guidelines leave too much to chance. Here’s a sampling:
- Masks are encouraged, but not required, for church members. Even priesthood holders who are preparing and passing the sacrament are being told they “may” wear face masks, not that they must.
- There is no prohibition on congregational singing, even though the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has identified group singing as a potentially dangerous activity based on the 87% infection rate of members of a Washington State chorale in March. Many other denominations are suspending singing for the time being even as they begin to cautiously resume meeting in person. Our document doesn’t mention singing in sacrament meeting at all, and suggests that it’s still permissible to hold singing time as part of Primary classes for young children, at the discretion of local lay bishops and stake presidents.
- There is no provision for the professional sanitation of church buildings, though bishops are told to “ensure that buildings are thoroughly cleaned after each set of meetings, especially areas that are touched, such as doorknobs, light switches, water fountains, microphones, and pulpits.” What this means is that the plan still relies on ordinary members to do a thorough enough job cleaning their church buildings that we are not putting anyone else at risk. I’m not sure we do well with that in the best of times, to be honest.
- There’s no churchwide cancellation of additional Sunday meetings beyond the sacrament. Although in-person meetings for Primary, Young Women and Men, etc., are not given top priority, they’re not forbidden either. It’s not so much that the kids themselves would be at risk by meeting with their peers; it’s that their adult leaders then basically lose the option of just staying home from church that day. Latter-day Saints have a strong culture of “voluntoldism,” which is different from volunteerism. When you have an LDS Church calling, your presence is not just a welcome extra but a requirement to ensure that all of the programs of the church run smoothly. Which means that 68-year-old Sister Smith is still likely to show up to teach her Sunbeam class if Primary is being held ... even if doing so endangers her health.
- The document authorizes up to 99 people to meet in the ward chapel for the sacrament. Unless leaders decide to open up the overflow area (ideally referred to as “the cultural hall,” but more aptly called “the gym”), many ward chapels aren’t going to be large enough to put at least 6 feet of distance between worshippers. There’s also no provision for having sacrament meeting outdoors in good weather, even though that would resolve the issue of dealing with contaminated surfaces in the building.
- There’s no prohibition of ward potlucks, dances, summer Pioneer Day celebrations, and the like. Unspecified ward “activities” are mentioned as possibilities for Phase 1, some of which could be held remotely (on Zoom, Webex, etc.) but apparently with the in-person option as well.
While it ought to go without saying that a potluck during a pandemic is a Very Bad Idea, I would prefer the church’s guidelines to clarify that fact. This is not the time for Latter-day Saint leaders to suddenly decide to adhere to founder Joseph Smith’s easygoing advice that church leaders merely need to give members good principles and let them govern themselves. For many decades, Correlation has given the lie to the founder’s ideal, providing explicit instructions about nearly every aspect of administering The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Recall that it was only last week that the church issued a statement mandating which artworks would be acceptable for use in the foyers of its buildings around the world. There is now a church-approved catalog of permissible images of a Nordic-looking Jesus. If we can micromanage that, can we not also make it clear that this is not the time to be cavalier about a potentially deadly pathogen?
Released within hours of the LDS Church’s guidelines, this CDC report describes what happened at an Arkansas church in March, when the pastor and his wife unwittingly infected several dozen members of their small church. They didn’t realize they were infected yet, which is the trickiest aspect of this virus: It’s never going to be enough just to tell people who are feeling sick to stay home. This pastor held a Bible study when he was pre-symptomatic; the church conducted some activities and singing for the kids; the congregation enjoyed a buffet-style lunch together.
All so normal and wholesome. Then over a third of the attendees got sick with COVID-19 and three of them died.
Editor’s note • The views expressed in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.