Just recently, and in conjunction with my new calling as Ward Music Chairman, I attended a Stake training meeting. The first topic covered was something described as ‘The Principle of Non-distraction’. Because music in meetings is such a distraction? I was puzzled, and later some quick online research highlighted this T&S post dating back to 2006. It was music that was getting it in the neck, primarily.
More authoritative statements on the subject appear to be limited to Aaronic Priesthood practice, in particular with regard to the passing of the sacrament:
“The principle I suggest to govern those officiating in the sacrament—whether preparing, administering, or passing—is that they should not do anything that would distract any member from his or her worship and renewal of covenants. This principle of non-distraction suggests some companion principles.
Deacons, teachers, and priests should always be clean in appearance and reverent in the manner in which they perform their solemn and sacred responsibilities. Teachers’ special assignments in preparing the sacrament are the least visible but should still be done with dignity, quietly and reverently. Teachers should always remember that the emblems they are preparing represent the body and blood of our Lord.
To avoid distracting from the sacred occasion, priests should speak the sacrament prayers clearly and distinctly. Prayers that are rattled off swiftly or mumbled inaudibly will not do. All present should be helped to understand an ordinance and covenants so important that the Lord prescribed the exact words to be uttered. All should be helped to focus on those sacred words as they renew their covenants by partaking…
… All who officiate in the sacrament—in preparing, administering, or passing—should be well groomed and modestly dressed, with nothing about their personal appearance that calls special attention to themselves. In appearance as well as actions, they should avoid distracting anyone present from full attention to the worship and covenant making that is the purpose of this sacred ordinance.
This principle of non-distraction applies to things unseen as well as seen. If someone officiating in this sacred ordinance is unworthy to participate, and this is known to anyone present, their participation is a serious distraction to that person. Young men, if any of you is unworthy, talk to your bishop without delay. Obtain his direction on what you should do to qualify yourself to participate in your priesthood duties worthily and appropriately.
I have a final suggestion. With the single exception of those priests occupied breaking the bread, all who hold the Aaronic Priesthood should join in singing the sacrament hymn by which we worship and prepare to partake. No one needs that spiritual preparation more than the priesthood holders who will officiate in it. My young brethren, it is important that you sing the sacrament hymn. Please do so.” (Dallin H Oaks, 1998)
“Every deacon is expected to be appropriately attired as he performs his duty. When passing the sacrament he should be dressed conservatively with a dress shirt and tie. Loud or gaudy patterns of dress attract the attention of the Saints and take their minds off the sacred sacramental service. No young man would deliberately violate his priesthood ordination by causing this distraction. His hair length should be such that it does not give a feminine appearance or distract members’ concentration…
… A deacon must conduct himself properly in all things. This is, however, especially true in his conduct at the sacrament table. We have all seen immature deacons who play, make faces, laugh, push other deacons, and in general are very light-minded about this sacred ordinance. Such a young man should be taught that he is violating the sacred trust that the Lord has given him to assist in the ordinance. A deacon should conduct himself following a single standard.” (Vaughan J Featherstone, 1974)
Now, I can totally get on board with appropriate behaviour required of the Aaronic Priesthood youth as they administer the sacrament. Not quite so sure that I’d be as rigid in dress requirements, though I’d certainly put a shout out for hygiene, since they’re going to be handling items I need to put in my mouth. Dress doesn’t really distract me. The most distracting episode I have encountered during the sacrament in my years of attendance has been the week the taps hadn’t been run before using the water. It had been sitting in the pipes all week, and looked distinctly yellow in the white plastic cups as it came round. The only mention of music in these statements is the instruction to the Aaronic Priesthood to participate in the singing of the sacrament hymn.
Somehow, somewhere, this principle of non-distraction has taken on a life of its own, and more often than not appears to be have been expanded in its breadth and application. Applied primarily to the music side of things in a sacrament meeting, perhaps music is the point at which there is more likely to be disagreement. Nowhere in Handbook 2, in either the music section or the section pertaining to sacrament meeting, have I found anything about a principle of non-distraction, not even the word distraction, though there are plenty of injunctions about there being a dignified, harmonious and worshipful atmosphere.
Generally, I fear that as a church community we set ourselves up to be distracted. When we have such rigid expectations with regard to dress codes, the expectation that men will wear a white shirt and tie, for instance, means that someone wearing a shirt of a different colour is far more likely to stand out, than they otherwise would. And really, how does the colour of a shirt harm anyone? Do we really need this expectation? Furthermore, distraction is very subjective. What distracts one person, may well not distract another. It is so subjective, I sometimes get the impression a leader can simply decide to label a personal dislike as a distraction, or use the principle as an after-the-fact excuse for why they don’t want things to happen. I have experienced leaders so focused on avoiding distractions in meetings, they lose sight of the humanity of those in their care. When we even begin to talk about things in terms of distraction, we then have to decide whose distractions do we privilege: those who find it distracting to stand to sing, or those for whom the discomfort of sitting so long becomes a distraction, for instance. We can always find distractions when we are intent on looking for them. It puts our focus in the wrong place.
Nevertheless, when told my arranged musical items couldn’t happen as planned, intended and (I believed) agreed, because of possible distraction*, being aware of this ‘principle’ (in combination with knowledge of the handbook) has meant that I have been able to use it in arguing my case, for the privileging of ‘my identified distractions’, for the placement and other details regarding musical items in our sacrament meetings. I’m not sure that was what the training intended.
- What do you think of non-distraction as a principle? Should it be a principle?
- Is it something you have ever had to grapple with in carrying out your callings?
- Have you seen the principle of non-distraction become a distraction?
*This had nothing to do with the choice of music. When called, I was asked to stick to the hymns and primary songs, and concurred.