The Ethics of Having Young Men Repeat Misread Sacrament Prayers
A few times a year in sacrament meeting, I experience what I suspect many of us experience. That tense, stressful moment when the young man saying the sacrament prayer makes a mistake and then at the sign from the bishopric, has to repeat. And then repeat again. And then if we’re very unlucky, repeat again. I don’t know about you, but I find those moments anxiety inducing. All I can think of is that young man – who is probably embarrassed to be alive, let alone publically reading something incorrectly – and how nervous and ashamed he must be to be told to do it over and over again. When this happens, my whole body tenses and I will the young man to get through it. I also will the bishopric to overlook whatever tiny mistake he is making.
My ethical approach to this situation is one of care ethics. When presented with a moral quandary – such as whether or not to have the young man repeat a sacrament prayer when he has inserted a tiny pronoun like “it” after “eat” or some such mistake – I ask the question, “What does this young man need right now?” “What decision will lead to the best outcome for him?” The answer to that question in my mind is to let a tiny mistake slide so that he will have a positive experience as he puts himself out there to serve his congregation. I want that kid to feel good about what he is doing. I want him to not feel ashamed. I want him to not go home and say that he never wants to do that prayer again. I want him to feel that his sincere efforts were acceptable to God and the church community.
I have no doubt that some bishoprics employ this ethical approach on occasion as they overlook a tiny mistake. I also know that sometimes they don’t. I suspect that the ones who don’t are employing a deontological ethical approach. With this approach, the question is not, “What does this child need?” The question instead is, “What is the rule?” And the rule, according to the Church Handbook of Instructions, is that every word of the prayer must be said with no insertions. Now, I acknowledge that there are reasons for that rule. I imagine that the writers of the CHI wrote that because they wanted to convey to members just how sacred and important this prayer is.
Nevertheless, I’ll admit that I’m uncomfortable with that rule. Yes, we want our young men to make sincere efforts to pay attention and do the prayers as instructed. But sometimes, for whatever reasons, that’s just not going to happen. And especially when a mistake is so minor that the meaning of the prayer is not changed, and so minor that most people in the congregation don’t even notice, I suggest we employ an ethics of care approach, rather than have that young man go into the repeat cycle, stressing him and the listeners out in the process. Not only will that make the boy and the congregation have a better experience, but I also can’t help but believe that God finds that sincere effort acceptable. After all, isn’t this what our religion is all about? Flawed humans sincerely doing their best and trusting God and Jesus to make up the rest?
What is your ethical approach to the repeated sacrament prayers quandary?
 Another possible ethical approach here is utilitarianism, in which case the question is, “What is best for the greatest number of people?” A bishop might decide to have the boy repeat thinking that it was best for the congregation at large to have that perfect prayer said. On the other hand, a bishop might employ utilitarian thinking and end up with the opposite answer: the best thing for the congregation at large, the thing most likely to keep the spirit present and avoid discomfort of members, is to let a mistake slide.