Magazines 2023 Jan - Feb Handling a disturbance during public worship

Handling a disturbance during public worship

23 January 2023 By Sue Careless

Churches want to be welcoming, safe places, but what happens when someone enters who disturbs worship, or could prove violent?

Churches want to be welcoming, safe places, but what happens when someone enters who disturbs worship, or could prove violent? How should the clergy and congregation respond? 

This September a young man who lives on the streets of a Canadian maritime city entered an Anglican church just as the service was about to begin. He was smoking. One of the wardens asked him to put his cigarette out.  

“God will forgive me,” he replied. The warden explained that the city wouldn’t. The man put it out in the empty but felt-lined collection plate, then lit another. The warden said he could go outside and smoke and then re-enter. Otherwise, the warden would have to call the police. This time the man obliged. 

When the organist began to play the introit for Holy Communion, however, the man followed the crucifer up the stairs into the chancel. The man faced the congregation and defiantly held a small New Testament high over his head.  

When the priest entered the chancel, he approached the man and told him the service was starting and he would have to sit down. The man was insistent that he would not and asked why couldn’t everyone be up at the front on this higher level — why just the clergy? Why were they so special? 

The introit ended and the priest announced the first hymn: “Holy, Holy, Holy.” The priest tried to reason with the man, but he wouldn’t budge. As one of the wardens approached, the priest asked him to call 911.  

The priest announced a second hymn. An awkward moment ensued as the priest and the man stared at each other. The priest firmly told the young man he could still leave on his own; if not, the police would be arriving soon.  

The priest announced a third hymn, and the congregation and organist obliged. With nothing to lose, the priest held out his hymnal and pointed to the verse and line. To his surprise, the man began to sing! 

During a fourth hymn, the two continued singing together. During a fifth hymn, the police arrived. Without a fuss, the man descended the chancel stairs and left quietly with the officers. The priest followed them out and invited the man to breakfast in the church hall the next morning. 

The service continued. Only at the end, before the recessional hymn, did the priest tell the congregation that he had met the young man at an earlier service and had a good conversation with him. He knew the man wasn’t drunk or high on drugs. He also sensed the man had no weapon. 

Four men in the congregation later told the priest that they were watching closely and were ready to step in if things turned physical. No one left the service, but the hymn-singing allowed those with children or the elderly to slip quietly away if they wanted to. 

The church did not press charges, but the police suggested a workshop on de-escalating incidents for the clergy, wardens, and the volunteers helping at the church’s breakfast program for people living on the street. 

Later in the week, the same young man returned to the breakfast program in the church basement but became aggressive with other diners. Church leaders decided he will not be served inside the building again but will be served outside. He will not go hungry, but he cannot pose a threat to those inside. 

Many of the homeless people who attend the church breakfasts carry some sort of weapon for self-defence on the streets. If the weapon is visible, they are asked to hand it over until after the meal. The church has received not only knives but lead pipes, hammers, chains, and baseball bats. There have never been any guns. Many of the weapons are forgotten and left behind. 

What can we learn from this? 

Wardens and ushers need to be alert at all times to what is happening during worship. The clergy cannot be expected to see or hear all that is going on. Wardens or ushers need to have their cell phones ready so they can respond quickly and call 911 when necessary. 

The congregation needs to be kept calm. Singing hymns kept things normal and no one left their pews. 

Speaking to an intruder by first name — “Hi, I’m Paul. What’s your name?” — is a friendly approach and is likely to elicit a similar response. 

Speaking firmly but calmly is important so that things don’t escalate. Volume and tone of voice are critical. 

Be aware of the intruder’s personal bubble or space. Don’t come too close. If the person is seated, don’t stand right over them. 

Never touch them. 

No exit should be blocked, so the intruder can leave unhindered. Keep a way open. 

A trained negotiator at the later workshop said that if someone is having an emotional outburst, a rational response is not effective. Rather than ask “Why are you acting like this?” try “What are you feeling?” “What is making you feel this way?” Empathizing helps more than a logical argument. 

If you have certain rules, post them in a public place so they can be cited. 

Have a backup plan if things get out of hand. Someone showing physical aggression requires a different approach. 

Consider having only one door unlocked once a service begins, but be sure people inside can still leave from all doors (a fire safety regulation). 

Consider installing a silent alarm that wardens or clergy can activate remotely to notify police. 

Consider having your local police station offer a training workshop to all your staff and volunteers. 

Seminaries need to give at least one day’s training on de-escalation techniques. 

Some places of worship may need to hire professional security staff but hopefully most congregations can worship peacefully if their wardens and ushers stay vigilant.  

Certainly, a medical emergency such as a heart attack or epileptic seizure can also disturb worship, but it is not a threat to other people. There is likely a doctor or nurse present in the congregation and an ambulance can be called. Still, some first-aid training for church staff would not go amiss. 

With training and careful attention, churches can offer gospel hospitality amid order and safety for all who have gathered. 

Toronto-based journalist Sue Careless is senior editor at The Anglican Planet where this article first appeared. Reprinted with permission.