From the point of view of coronavirus risks, attending church is a lot like attending a football game: your concern is with the fifty or so people within ten feet of you. At a game, people stand up and shout “Fire the bum!” At church, people stand up and shout “Praise the Lord!” At a game, fans join a chorus of boos. At church, members join a hymn, sometimes energetic, sometimes lethargic. Given the similar challenges to reopening church services and football games with fans in attendance, the public discussions about how the upcoming 2020 season will work or not work by the NFL Commissioner, team owners and coaches, and sports reporters and commentators is a good guide to what might be the issues discussed privately by LDS leadership. If they can’t figure out how to put fans safely into a stadium for three hours, we won’t be able to figure out how to put members in church for two hours. It’s essentially the same set of issues and risks.
Which brings us to this week’s Football Morning in America (FMIA) column by the renowned sports journalist Peter King, featuring an interview King conducted with Dr. Anthony Fauci, aka America’s Doctor. There was enough interesting commentary from that interview that I bumped my planned post on biblical interpretation in medieval philosophy to next week (I can hear your groans of disappointment) in favor of a rambling discussion about the challenges facing football and church. In no particular order:
Handshakes. In the column, King said, “Tomorrow is the two-month anniversary of when I last shook someone’s hand.” Yup. I think handshakes in church are dead and gone.
“The virus will make the decision for us.” That’s a quote from Dr. Fauci, suggesting any plans for the future like scheduling an NFL season are fairly iffy. Or phasing in the reopening of temples and chapels. King said, “I take it that teams have to be willing to say, If Patrick Mahomes tests positive on a Saturday night, he’s got to disappear for two weeks.” So if the bishop tests positive, do we shut down a ward for two weeks so the bishop and anyone who had contact with him can do a quarantine stint? Is there going to be testing available to the rest of us (not just doctors and football players)? Would a Mormon who tests positive stay away from church, or even let the bishop know he or she tested positive? Well all know that many Mormons come to church even if they are sick. That has to change.
Visitors not so welcome? Legendary coach Don Shula passed away last week. Comments in the column from players who knew him note how kind Shula was to visiting family members, like parents of a player who might attend practice or a game. Shula went out of his way to greet them and have a friendly discussion — which was kind of a surprise to the players, because as a coach Shula was generally gruff and demanding. In the ward I attend, we have a lot of visitors in the summer months, often doubling our attendance and filling the gym. Most locals make an effort to meet and greet these visitors.
I’m thinking maybe the Mormon practice of attending church when off somewhere on vacation might not continue. The visitors might not want to rub shoulders with a couple of hundred strangers. And the locals might be just as happy not to have visitors from out of town mingling either. Note that Hawaii has instituted a 14-day quarantine for any visitors to the islands and officials there are very serious about enforcing it. If tourist-friendly Hawaii can adopt that approach, it might become the norm. Instead of “visitors welcome,” the new slogan might be “If you’re from out of town, don’t come to church.”
Zoom. There’s a section in the FMIA column showing how the Seattle Seahawk tight ends and their coaches are doing virtual meetings on Zoom. I’ll bet you are doing a lot of Zooming yourself lately. There was a virtual Ward Council meeting last month in my ward, on Zoom. We do a study group, previoiusly in someone’s home and now via Zoom. This is becoming the year of Zoom.
Pandemic plus Zoom are unmasking a dirty little secret: most of the church meetings that used to happen on Sunday were not particularly important, or at least did not require an in-person meeting. The previous approach seemed to be “why send an email when we can have a meeting instead?” It turns out those meetings were just busywork to keep members busy. Life seems to be going along just fine without any meetings, even without a Sacrament Meeting. My cynical side thinks all those meetings and the grueling three-hour block were just to make people feel better about writing big tithing checks. It supported the illusion that the Church was really doing something important for you and your family.
Concluding thoughts. I don’t know whether there will be an NFL season or whether fans will be allowed to attend games. I imagine some ticketholders might decline to attend, even if fans are allowed. I don’t know whether LDS chapels will reopen for business in 2020. If they do, I imagine some members will decline to attend. Will people wear masks at church? Will there be singing? Will new procedures be recommended or required? Mandated by the First Presidency or left to the discretion of local leaders? There is nothing but uncertainty right now about the when and the how of restarting LDS Sunday services. There are a lot of tricky decisions to be made about the when and the how. There will be some new policies, I imagine. In the meantime, I’m just fine with Home Church.
What I find so funny and ironic about your post is that as a member of the Church and as a football fan, I have always experienced a fair amount of conflict in my life between football and the Church. This conflict was of course most obvious on Sundays and Monday nights. And the struggle continues: what will my fall 2020 Sundays look like? Will there be church? Will there be football. If there is church, I will go back. But if I’m being honest I have to admit a preference for home church to continue but normal football to return. Just being honest.
My wife and i have decided that we won’t go back to church if masks are required. The thought of a chapel full of masked people just makes us feel creepy. When it’s safe enough to go attend without masks, we’ll go back.
I have no problem with masks. Seeing someone with a mask actually gives me a sense of comfort knowing they care about keeping the virus at bay. But I agree that it’s likely not wise to start attending church again until it’s safe to attend without masks.
“It turns out those meetings were just busywork to keep members busy. ” I agree that we have several meetings that could be accomplished with an email notification (our stake bishopric training is a joke – it typically consists of a stream of visitors making presentations and then some hurried training squeezed in at the end and the Sunday School teacher training is not helpful); however, it’s pretty easy to say we don’t need meetings when virtually all of our activities are on hold for the foreseeable future. Having been part of innumerable virtual and in-person meetings, if you absolutely must meet, I’ve found that the shorter the distances among the participants, the better the meeting goes. Just my experience.