Jan 13, 2012

Of Cell Phones and Sanctus Bells

Unless you've been living in a hole (ie. you're not on Facebook), you've likely heard about the Music Director of the New York Philharmonic stopping Mahler's Ninth Symphony when a cell phone went off in the middle of the piece. Maestro Alan Gilbert waved the orchestra to stop playing as a marimba ring tone rang out from the front row (why is the volume always jacked up on the most obnoxious ring tones?!). Naturally it was during a quiet, dramatic, most inopportune moment. You can read the story here.

Most clergy (and lay people) can relate both to the experience and the frustration of cell phones going off in the middle of public "performances" (we happen to call them liturgies).  Look, if you're a high churchman you're used to things ringing during the eucharist -- sanctus bells rung at the elevation of the bread and wine are an integral part of the mass. But things rung by anyone other than an acolyte (ie. that cell phone) interrupt the flow, the majesty, and the passion of the sacred space created through intentional, devoted worship.

We certainly all have stories of cell phones going off at the worst possible times. A cell phone went off while I was preaching just this past Sunday. If it has to happen, I'd obviously prefer it to go off during a particularly boisterous hymn. But at least when I'm in the pulpit I can just stop and wait it out (trying my utmost not to glare).

I particularly remember two instances of cell phones ringing in church. Last year a cell phone went off in the middle of the Good Friday silent veneration of the cross. I remember thinking "This is outrageous!" but there's nothing you can do about it. The other was at my church in New York during a baptism. A teenage friend of the baptismal family was standing around the font as we were baptizing a little girl. Her cell phone went off...and she answered it! "I'm at a baptism; I guess I'll have to call you back." I wanted to dump the holy water all over HER (and her flip phone).

I'd be interested to hear other cell phone stories if you have them. Maybe we can compile the best ones. What are your strategies for dealing with this annoyance? Have you ever stopped the proceedings like Maestro Gilbert or do you just barrel through? Has YOUR cell phone ever gone off during a service?

I'm not sure what Jesus would have done if a cell phone went off during the Sermon on the Mount. Something tells me he would have grabbed it and tossed it into the Sea of Galilee.


Patricia Conley said...


I was particularly thankful for a cell phone - one evening when the Altar party (all clergy included) was vesting and the door from the vesting area would not open. We were trapped - with a full house already in the nave, waiting for a funeral to begin. Thank God, someone in the Altar party had a cell phone on them, and Thank God, someone else, in the back of the nave still had their phone "on." We were "sprung" from the vesting area and able to move into the liturgy. In fact, it was pretty funny . . . you had to be there.

Thanks for your article and this blog. : )

Father Tim said...

You don't keep an axe in the sacristy? That'll teach you!

Adam Trambley said...

I'm not overly bothered by cell phones, although they occasionally go off. They're part of people's lives and I'm glad they bring their whole life to church.

Best cell story though was a 70+ year old doctor in the back row whose cell phone went off during the prayers of the people. He had no idea what to do with it. After looking at intently for 30 seconds, he bent over to be more or less below pew level and answered the call. I also had a cell phone go off as I was processing in to our said 8:00 service. I announced our opening hymn as "ringtone#3".

Fr Brad said...

I guess I'm lukewarm--I agree with Adam Trambley about they're a fact of life, but I don't like the interruption! A story, though, since you asked: when I was seminarian, I took an Old Testament course at a Roman Catholic seminary (being a Canadian I was at one of our federated schools of theology). One class, a woman from my seminary, who sat in the centre file, front row, had her purse on the floor under her seat. When her cell rang, she actually bent down, fished it out, flipped it open, and then (in what I am sure she thought was a discreet voice, but which was more like a stage whisper) answered it and commenced a conversation. The prof just stopped, aghast. He really had no idea what to do, he was so bewildered. I leaned over and told her to hang up or go outside. After she shot me a dirty look, she shrugged, got up, brushed past the prof, and left the class. She walked about 4 feet out the door, not shutting it, and then proceeded at full volume to talk. The prof looked at her, said, "Are you serious?", walked over to the door, slammed it quite hard, and then resumed the lecture. The best part was when she had to knock to be let back in--I'm still not sure she understood her transgression!

david said...

best cell phone story in church: a couple of years back, at the 9am - a woman's cell phone went off just as we began the liturgy- and she answered it.. said something and hung up.. we got on through the gloria and just as I said "the lord be wtih you.." it went off again. And then, after she left- I went on with the collect for Epiphany III "Give us grace O Lord, to answer readily the call of our Lord Jesus Christ..." honest- it happened. And I didn't completely crack up.. sometimes it's past laughing.

Father Tim said...

Great stories! I'm much more forgiving with crying children. Given the alternative, it's a great sound to have in church. Much better than crickets. And I do feel for people whose cell phones go off -- we're all human. In the end it's the attitude. Whether it's screaming children or ringing cell phones, is there a sensitivity to those around you or is there an overriding arrogance than says, in effect, "I'm the most important person in the world and nothing is going to shake my own hubris."

David, it's worth memorizing that line for when the next cell phone goes off while in the pulpit!

Jay Croft said...

At least twice, my cell phone went off while I was celebrating the Eucharist in Birmingham, Alabama. I ignored it, but it rattled me. When I looked at the text message, it was a law firm in Utah.

On a Sunday morning? I have never been to Utah and have no dealings with any person or business there. It took several phone calls to the Utah law firm to get me off their robo-call list, or whatever it was.

More than half a century ago, I had a very part time job while I was in high school. I did some cleaning for the church but also did some sexton duties for weddings and funerals.

The church is next to the firehouse. During a wedding the fire alarm went off, and the bride nearly jumped out of her skin!

Meredith Gould said...

How times have changed. Back in the late-1970s, the conductor of Royal Concertebegouw stopped mid-symphony during a concert I was attending at Avery Fisher Hall and glared at someone who was whispering in a box. Glared AND pointed his baton. Gorgeous and clearly unforgettable moment of public humiliation and no, I was NOT the person whispering.

moshaughnessy63 said...

I have made this announcement at the beginning of services: "Welcome to St. Swithun's in the Swamp. You may hear God speak to you through our worship today--but God will not call you on this [holding up cellphone.] Please turn it off now."

It's worked well.

Mary Thorpe said...

A big memorial service last week, for our dear 105 year old lifelong parishioner...I approached the casket for the commendation, and before I began to speak, someone's cellphone began to rang. It had one of those custom ringtones with a bell AND a voice saying "You've got a call from xxxx." No kidding. Since it was buried deep in the person's handbag, she couldn't find it and it rang for a full 30 seconds. Suffice to say I didn't begin the prayer until the ringing ended. Sigh.