It was one of those solemn moments in a funeral service when the minister had opened his book, glanced at his notes, and begun to recall the well-lived life of a longtime parishioner. That is, until the stillness was pierced by a high-pitched electronic ring.
A young woman reached into her purse, silenced the intrusive noise, and hurried out of the room. While the minister continued, her voice could be heard by those assembled as she attended to some life matter that, for the moment at least, took precedence over the deceased person she had come to honor.
Thanks to the wonders of ever more wonderful technology, the cell phone is now a presence in society's most private, personal, and sacred moments, a factor to be reckoned with whenever and wherever two or more are gathered for worship.
Some religious congregations are dealing with the technological intruders by asking members in spoken or written announcements to silence or turn off their devices before the service.
Congregation Etz Chayim, for example, includes in the synagogue newsletter a simple reminder to turn off all cell phones while in services. Hope Lutheran Church and Westgate Chapel do the same in their bulletins.
Still other places of worship, such as the Islamic Center of Greater Toledo, Corpus Christi University Parish, and Braden United Methodist and Warren AME churches, say no reminder is necessary because it is understood that worshipers are expected to do the right thing.
“People are sensitive that we have people in our community who provide emergency services,” said Dr. Zaheer Hasan, a physician who is president of the Islamic Center of Greater Toledo in Perrysburg, “but it is common etiquette to observe the privacy and prayer of other people and that's expected.”
In the quest to silence cell phones during worship, local religious congregations have yet to go as far as a Catholic priest in Spain who installed an electronic jammer to block mobile calls during services. Such devices are illegal in the United States.
The Rev. Francisco Llopis, pastor of the Church of the Defenseless in Moraira, told the Associated Press that by flipping a switch on the jamming system, “I ensure that the celebration of the religious service will unfold within the parameters of prayer.”
Even if their methods for coping with technology differ, Toledo area religious leaders agree that a ringing cell phone has no place in a setting where people are praying.
“Something should be sacred, a time to be with God, and it's good to turn off the phone so you won't be disturbed,” said Dr. Charles L. Scott, senior pastor of Warren AME Church.
“I would just hope that when people come in to pray that they would keep in mind that their prayers are to God and very holy and at that time their communication should be with the creator of the universe,” added Rabbi Edward Garsek of Congregation Etz Chayim. “That's the most important communication, and you don't even need a cell phone for that.”
The Rev. C. Rodney Hudgen, interim rector of Trinity Episcopal Church, said he has noticed more of a problem with cell phones during events like concerts and weddings than in regular worship services when those gathered are more likely to be parishioners.
“Our own community is very good about it. It is rarely, if ever, a problem. But if there is ever a chance that people will be here from outside the community, we do put a reminder in to please put everything to silent mode or turn it off.”
Telling visitors to turn off their cell phones, however, can pose a challenge to congregations that are trying to create a welcoming atmosphere.
The Rev. Glenn Teal, lead pastor of Crossroads Community Church in Temperance, where the Sunday services are designed for “seekers” or newcomers, said his church had to figure out a way to ask people to silence their phones after a visitor started carrying on phone conversations during the service.
“We have had them ring and beep and stuff, but to actually have someone carry on a conversation and answer the phone kind of crossed the line for us. You would think people would know not to do that, but they don't. We tried to do it in a tactful way, but with enough force that it worked.”
Crossroads now puts a PowerPoint slide on a video screen that says, “Please turn all pagers and cell phones to vibrate,” and punctuates it with a similar message in the bulletin. The screen also is used to project song lyrics and other announcements.
Although Westgate Chapel also asks that cell phones be silenced during worship, that doesn't prevent some of the younger members from using the phones to “text-message” each other during services.
The Rev. Greg Haueter, senior high pastor, said he observed two teens exchanging electronic messages recently during a Wednesday night service while he was seated in the balcony. “I told our tech guys this is a whole new level. They're no longer writing on envelopes and passing notes.”
Despite its potential for interrupting worship, Mr. Haueter said the cell phone has had a positive impact on the church's youth ministry by enabling parents to keep in touch with their children during mission trips and other outings.
“It's a great asset for students who have their own personal phones to call parents and let them know what time they're coming in.” In addition, he said, every member of the church's youth staff has a cell phone so that parents can call for information on their children's whereabouts.
“I've never been in a situation where it's been a detriment or a negative. I hope that's because we've been pro-active,” Mr. Haueter said. “For me, it's always been 99.9 percent positive.”
The Rev. Roland Moore, pastor of Braden United Methodist Church, agreed that technology can be a good thing, as long as people use it and are not used by it.
“It serves us. We don't serve it. When we start serving it, it becomes our God, we worship it, give it all our time and energy. Then it becomes an idol and we become idolaters when it controls us.”