LDS meetinghouses come in various shapes and sizes. Some have considerably more classrooms than others. Some contain a set aside chapel, whilst others contain a multipurpose space, intended to be used as both a chapel and a recreational or cultural space. In many buildings the chapel space can be expanded backwards into the recreational space commonly known as the cultural hall. An Ensign article discussing design of meetinghouses can be found here. It should be noted that this article is particularly America-centric. In this post I want to examine the role of the chapel in the LDS meetinghouse, and what happens when the chapel has more than one purpose, whether by design, or because of a shortage of appropriate classroom space. In my experience, the British buildings tend to come up short on appropriately-sized classroom space.
Just recently we were visiting a congregation within our stake. The meetinghouse was very small. This was not a large ward, but still the tiny chapel was expanded backwards for the sacrament meeting. We arrived early, and I observed with pleasure from my seat in the chapel, the care of the ward members greeting each other, sometimes enquiring after well-being of another after difficult events during the week. Members appeared to hold each other with love and respect. Sacrament meeting proceeded with reverence. Certainly, I was unaware of any distractions. Due to limited classroom space both Gospel Doctrine and Relief Society classes were held in the chapel. As might be expected there was significant interaction between members during the change-over periods. I enjoyed being able to catch up with a member I hadn’t seen for some time.
My impressions, having been wholly favourable, I was totally taken aback by the announcement by a member of the RS presidency that the ward had a problem with reverence, appropriate respect shown the chapel, and hence Christ. That we should not be engaging in conversation in the chapel before sacrament meeting, and it was up to the sisters to set that example, and so change the behaviour of the ward. I discussed what is or is not appropriate in the chapel before the start of sacrament meeting in my post here, so I don’t intend to dwell too much on that aspect. Imagine my surprise however, when at the conclusion of Relief Society the same RS presidency member took great exception to sisters talking together, stated we were not showing respect and should conduct our business out in the hall. Suffice it to say that the hallway is a narrow, cramped and gloomy space with very limited seating. No-one is going to want to hang around there, getting in the way of other people, for very long, and they didn’t.
I’ve been feeling somewhat irked by this since, and decided to see what official statements I could find about the use of the chapel. I started with Handbook 2, searching throughout for the word ‘chapel’. The chapel is mentioned very few times, and the only time it is described as a holy space is found here:
“1.4.1 Strengthening the Home
“Followers of Christ are invited to “gather,” “stand in holy places,” and “be not moved” (D&C 45:32; 87:8; 101:22; see also 2 Chronicles 35:5; Matthew 24:15). These holy places include temples, homes, and chapels. The presence of the Spirit and the behavior of those within these physical structures are what make them “holy places.”” 
The description here is ambiguous at best. Does chapel refer specifically to the chapel or to the entire meetinghouse for instance? LDS newsroom explains it can be used for both. And there is a gradation of acceptable behaviours from the home through to the temple. I don’t know anyone who advocates we only whisper in our homes, or who proposes rowdy games be played in a chapel (as opposed to other areas of a meetinghouse).
The second mention of chapels in the handbook is found in the section pertaining to music:
“14.9.1 Other Music in the Chapel
“Some cultural and recreational music may be presented in the chapel on weekdays. However, the cultural hall is usually a more appropriate setting for such music. Local priesthood leaders resolve questions about what music is appropriate in the chapel. Applause is not usually appropriate in the chapel.” 
I found this particularly interesting since my daughter and I recently participated in a concert at our stake centre, for members and non-members alike. The audience filled both the chapel and the cultural hall which was opened up for the event. The cultural hall alone would have been too small. There was much enthusiastic clapping, it was a fantastic concert. The chapel wasn’t a chapel, but part of a larger concert hall on that occasion; an eminently sensible decision. I have attended concerts in a local Anglican churches, and performed in concerts in our local cathedral. During a concert there is clapping. Its what we do.
Other references to chapels cover:
- Viewings of the deceased before a funeral. (CHI2 18.6.3)
- Use of audiovisual materials in a chapel, other than during a sacrament meeting. (CHI2 21.1.5)
- Prohibition against photographing General and Area Authorities in a chapel. (CHI2 21.1.6)
- Interpreters for the deaf should be at the front of the chapel (but not on the stand). (CHI2 21.1.26)
- Artwork permitted in a chapel. (CHI2 21.2.1)
- Flowers are the only permitted decorations in a chapel. (CHI2 21.2.2)
- Prohibition against photography, videoing or broadcasting from a chapel (stake conference broadcasts to other parts of the stake excepted). (CHI2 21.2.10)
Finally, the section covering sacrament meeting, doesn’t so much as mention the word chapel. A chapel is not an absolute requirement for a sacrament meeting. I include the section about what is expected before sacrament meeting begins.
“18.2.2 Sacrament Meeting
“Time before Sacrament Meeting
“Leaders set an example of reverence during the time before sacrament meeting. The bishopric and the speakers should be in their seats at least five minutes before the meeting begins. This is not a time for conversation or transmitting messages. Setting an example of reverence encourages the congregation to be spiritually prepared for a worshipful experience.
“Members should be taught to make the time before sacrament meeting a period of prayerful meditation as they prepare spiritually for the sacrament.
“The bishopric encourages families to arrive on time and to sit together.” 
That’s nothing there then, that specifies members cannot engage in conversation in a chapel, other than what looks to be a minimum of five minutes of prayerful meditation prior to the start of a sacrament meeting.
I tried to find additional information about the use of the chapel as a room other than a chapel, in the very common in Britain situation, where there is a bona fide chapel, but it is necessary to use the chapel as a classroom. I was only able to find this for facilities management:
“In larger meetinghouses the chapel is a separate room designated for worship services. While members should show respect in all areas of the building, they should be especially reverent in the chapel. In smaller meeting-houses where a room used for multiple purposes is also used as the chapel, local Church leaders should emphasize and teach reverence during worship services.
“Recreational activities are not appropriate in the chapel unless it is a multipurpose area. When a multipurpose room is being used for recreational activities, it is not necessary to designate or isolate one part of the room as being more sacred than another part.” 
It doesn’t answer my question, but can we at least say that when the chapel has a multipurpose function, whether by design or otherwise, when frequently used as a classroom, it is then at that time a classroom and to be treated as such, and to leave the heavy emphasis on reverence for the worship services? This strikes me as being the eminently sensible position to take. After all:
“For Latter-day Saints, the buildings they use for their various worship services and other gatherings are important — but not as important as the building that goes on within their walls. It is the building of strong individuals and families, of knowledge, of relationships and of faith in God that matters most to Mormons.” 
- What is your experience?
- Do you have a set aside chapel or a multipurpose room?
- Is your chapel also used as a classroom, and if so how does your congregation interpret the requirement for reverence in a chapel?
 CHI2 1.4.1 Strengthening the Home
 CHI2 14.9.1 Other Music in the Chapel
 CHI2 18.2.2 Sacrament Meeting
 Facilities Management Guidelines for Meetinghouses and Other Church Property p.2
The funny thing with our ward is that the bishopric is usually so late coming out of their meetings before Sacrament Meeting that I think they have no idea whether it is noisy or reverent in the chapel or not. I remember years ago a big focus on shushing us in the chapel. I am hoping that many of the people that are so strict about the chapel are either loosening up or they are dying off. There is so much ridiculous nit-picking. There are some younger people (women) that I see are coming to church in nice slacks now. I do not have a problem with that. I don’t see that as disrespectful. They are showing reverence in their actions during the sacrament. What really irritates me is when the stake will put on a women’s gathering and they will on purposely have at least part of it in the chapel so they can make us all put on a dress for the occasion. That is completely unnecessary, and is exactly why I refuse to go to them! They even word it “chapel attire please”. I think being inclusive and loving towards each other is more important than making such requirements for that specific room. But I would have to say my biggest irritation is the fact that, at least our stake, they will not allow a wedding to take place in the chapel. I don’t know if that is a “punishment” for not marrying in the temple or what. If they are concerned that only sacred things take place in there why wouldn’t a wedding ceremony be considered sacred?
So you’re saying that person playing Doors songs on the organ on a saturday was irreverent?
Here are a few observations.
(1) it is interesting to go to a wedding at the Salt Lake Temple. There is a marriage waiting room that typically gets quite noisy as family members and friends arrive. The temple staff are constantly shushing people, which lasts for a few minutes, then other family members arrive, the noise elevates, more shushing, and it just repeats endlessly. I know there was dancing in the Nauvoo Temple, and it wasn’t such a solemn place as modern LDS temples are.
(2) At the recent “Be One” celebration, Elder Eyring actually told the audience that it was ok to clap (because normally it is not ok) in the Conference Center. I also attended a Donny & Marie concert in the Conference Center a few years ago, and clapping was allowed. I must say, that sometimes it feels odd to clap there, but it was also a welcome relief.
(3) I have a attended a few Genesis Group meetings in SLC. Everyone I have attended has allowed clapping in the chapel, and recently someone had an Apple laptop that was playing Jazzy piano music. They often joke that, “See the roof didn’t cave in.”
The Genesis meetings (with clapping) are truly rejoicing in the Lord. I wish we could rejoice like them.
PJP, I so agree with you on the nit-picking. Your comment about the women’s gatherings reminded me of an occasion over 20 years ago now when a sister on the stake RS Presidency requested Sunday best for a stake RS meeting. Went on at some length about the spirit (including that the spirit can’t dwell in an untidy home!!! Really!!!). Anyway, I was so irritated I attended the meeting in my jeans. I’m of the opinion that for some their ability to feel the spirit comes down to their own attitudes, rather than environment or other people.
Not allowing weddings in the chapel strikes me as particularly punitive. What on earth does it say to guests? We have a chapel, but don’t hold marriage in sufficient esteem? That particular measure isn’t a problem here in Britain, since we are required by law to hold a wedding in a public place, and that’s the chapel, for us.
Well, not me Clark.
Our organist has admitted to hiding all manner of things in the prelude music in the past.
I’ve watched most of the Be One broadcast now MH, and appreciated the clapping and appreciation that went on.
The concert I mentioned one of the pieces was a gospel choir piece, which went down a storm, and the audience really got into the clapping. Prior to the concert I was present for a conversation where it was asked if there would be clapping; permission was given at the start of the concert as it was for Be One event. A non-member also present expressed some bafflement that the question was necessary, and was given the somewhat weary explanation – it’s a Mormon thing, don’t worry about it. Anyway, my sense was that members are in general very happy to be able to clap.
PJP: well it is interesting that your stake does not allow marriages in the chapel. I know in the past that it was done, at least in my stake. But truth be told they are not laid out very well for a wedding ceremony.
A ward is a geographical designation and useful construct of “church” organization. Propinquity is what, at a minimum, it creates/engenders. Hopefully, the longer one attends the meetings and activities of a particular ward, the closer one becomes to a subset of its members. This feeling of closeness within an established, long-standing* group, this sense of community, mutual support, friendship, warmth, and belonging does immensely more for a person’s sense of well-being, happiness, AND righteousness than all the “quiet, reverent respect” we are supposed to give to a “holy” room. During the past 20, or so, years, the trend has been toward more “spiritual” experiences and fewer friendship-building experiences–at the expense of “community” and well-being.
The bishopric should be circulating around the chapel for at least five minutes prior to opening the meeting. In this way they can further their friendships and connections to the ward members they are duty-bound to influence toward good.
*the longer the better, despite unceasing and often incompetent efforts by stake leadership to keep wards “small”
After years in the military and traveling overseas, and attending LDS sacrament services in various rented/borrowed/makeshift/austere spaces, I’ve pretty much gotten rid of any notion of the “chapel” itself being sacred or hallowed. In those humble settings, I’ve had more meaningful spiritual experiences than I ever did in cookie-cutter stateside LDS meetinghouses. It’s about the people, not the building.
A few vignettes of my own:
(1) I once attended a branch with maybe 50 active members that met in a leased building, where the members’ chatter echoed in quite a cacophony ever time sacrament meeting ended. One woman have me quite a lecture one time, saying I should have known better than all those other people, because I grew up where the church was strong, so I should have known to be properly reverent in the chapel, even after the meetings were over, and even while everyone else sat around chatting. I have mixed feelings about the situation. I’m sure the chatter and noise was bothersome to some, but the socializing also brought many of the others to church. I can’t bring myself to think that anyone would have been better if if I had snubbed people who tried to talk to me on the chapel.
(2) When I was in the youth, we once had a combined activity when was an impromptu speech competition held in the chapel. The leaders at first encouraged clapping, but the bishop said it was inappropriate. It was rather awkward to have people give their speeches without showing proper appreciation through applause.
(3) A member of a high school band died in a car accident. The band teacher offered to have the band play an appropriate arrangement of Bach at the funeral. At first, the bishop did not want to allow it, as the manuals and such seemed to indicate brass instruments and saxophones were not appropriate for LDS services. The band teacher prevailed, and the resulting piece (played by the band at the rear of the cultural Hall) was, for some, the highlight of the a very sad funeral.
Thanks Hedgehog – for this non US treatment of this issue. I was branch president over a small branch that used a multi purpose room for everything. I placed no restrictions on what we could do there. I think one day we played soccer in there. It was our space. On Sunday’s we hallowed that space and it was a place of reverence. Other times it was time to win a soccer game.
Here in the big smoke where I live now, our chapel is stand alone. We have many people (women) in the ward that would not walk in the chapel with pants on – even to walk through it or get hymn books from it. Crazy – I tells ya.
On this, I’m with Jack Hughes – and Jesus: it’s about the people, not the buildings or maintaining an arbitrary notion of reverence.
People want their sacred spaces, and they should get them. Pursuant to that, I have two suggestions.
1. Change what they think “sacred” means. Helping someone is sacred. Developing a friendship is sacred. Lifting, loving and healing are sacred. Sitting in silence while listening to prelude music? It can be reverent or devotional and thus sacred, but those other things must be moreso.
2. Using guilt and shame to get a few minutes of prayer, meditation or at least silence out of a congregation is profane, but that’s usually how it’s done. Here’s something that would work much better: read a scripture, and then ask the congregation to meditate on it while listening to a hymn being played. Or just announce that it’s time for two minutes of mediation and prayer.
As recently as last year, reverence before and during sacrament meeting in my local ward was a lost cause. And I’m not knocking the members. It’s a good ward, and happens to have lots of little kids. It’s honestly not conducive to meditation or deep reflection. But what do you do? Clearly it’s satisfying many people. It’s noisy but, as one member told me, still manages to be far enough away from the world. The chapel is a separate room but still routinely gets used for classroom space, and this is a single-ward building. Reminds me of my childhood meeting house in Maryland.
I do remember an investigator on my mission expressing frustration that pre-meeting socializing in the chapel deprived people like him of a chance at quiet reflection. That’s where I am at now in life. If I attend a service at all, it’s usually a Catholic Mass. Different people. Different needs for leaders to balance.