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Perspective: Why you shouldn’t walk out of church if you’re angry

Supreme Court decisions have people on edge, even in faith communities. But please stay in your seat

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Zoë Petersen, Deseret News

In the wake of the Supreme Court decision that overturned Roe v. Wade, abortion-rights supporters protested on social media and public spaces, as expected. Some also voiced their displeasure by walking out in the middle of church services when pastors spoke in favor of the ruling.

These single-person protests were evident not only in my own church, a Catholic parish in the suburbs of Boston, but also on social media. On Twitter, some people said that they had walked out during a service; some encouraged others to do so.

People who commented on the posts of those who walked out often shared their own stories, like the woman who told Jacqueline Westman that every time her priest mentions Roe, “I genuflect, get up and walk out. No envelope for my parish that week.”

In fact, some people who encourage church members to walk out recommend doing it right when the collection is taken for maximum impact.

For those who walk out, refusing to sit passively when a pastor says something they see as offensive is a noble, even necessary, gesture. And it’s a practice not confined to statements about abortion. People also walk out when speakers talk about gay marriage, go on too long, teach false doctrine and, apparently, if they disagree with liturgical practices.

On one hand, standing up and walking out quietly can seem an appropriate and dignified form of dissent — much better than, say, disrupting services while dressed like characters from “The Handmaid’s Tale.” I thought as much when I walked out of a service when I was in college decades ago, but it was a knee-jerk reaction that I grew to regret.

I regretted it, not because I had a change of heart about what the pastor said that made me angry, but because the behavior was impulsive and ineffectual, not so different from a child flouncing out of the room if a sibling or playmate won’t do what she wants.

No minds were changed by my behavior, no conversation advanced — if people even took notice of my departure or considered the reason for it, and most likely did not. People leave the most riveting church services for all sorts of reasons — a nagging cough, a crying child, the call of nature.

My walkout, however, was a small act of hubris, a tantrum that would not have occurred in another setting. (I’d never walked out on a college professor or boss.)

More importantly, it’s rarely the target of our ire — the pastor or the larger church — who is affected, but the people around us who are there to worship God, not bear witness to political statements or personal theatrics.

The Rev. Joe McKeever, a Baptist pastor, teacher and cartoonist for Baptist Press, wrote about this subject a few years ago, confessing that his wife had once walked out of a sermon he was delivering because she thought he wasn’t living up to the things he was preaching about. McKeever also told the story of a woman who’d walked out on a sermon early in his career and later called him about the incident. (He hadn’t noticed she’d left.)

The woman told him: “We get enough of the bad news all week. When we come to church, we expect some peace and quiet.”

McKeever wrote, “Peace and quiet? Not in my church. Not in any self-respecting church that finds itself in the middle of a cultural revolution.”

Ay, there’s the rub, one that Princeton scholar Robert P. George addressed recently when he wrote about the tension inherent in professing a faith if you don’t subscribe to what it teaches.

When Jacqueline Westman tweeted about walking out of church because of celebratory remarks about the overturning of Roe v. Wade, some people pointed out that this position was consistent with teachings of her church, therefore she was in the wrong, not her priest. Even so, there are other ways to make a point; for example, nailing 95 theses to a church door. Or talking with the speaker later.

That’s what one pastor I consulted recommended. He believes that people who leave mid-service in protest owe the church leader feedback about why they left. “It’s just common courtesy, what should be expected of Christians,” he said.

One of the most famous people to ever walk out of a church service would have to be Winston Churchill’s wife.

In his book “Darkest Hour,” Anthony McCarten wrote that Clementine Churchill left a church service while the pastor gave a pacifist sermon during World War II.

Hearing about this, her husband told her, “You ought to have cried, ‘Shame!’ desecrating the house of God with lies!’”

Walk if you must, but please don’t try this at your church; the political atmosphere is charged enough as it is.