I realize this is an old subject; see for instance this prior discussion. For those who have been living in a cave, starting I believe in 1967, women were not allowed to give the opening prayer in sacrament meetings, apparently on the theory that such meetings were “priesthood” meetings and had to be opened by priesthood authority. I think there may have been a letter rescinding this position within about six months or so, but it was definitely done away with by 1978:
“The First Presidency and Council of the Twelve have determined that
there is no scriptural prohibition against sisters offering prayers in sacrament
meetings. It was therefore decided that it is permissible for sisters to offer
prayers in any meetings they attend, including sacrament meetings, Sunday School
meetings, and stake conferences. Relief Society visiting teachers may offer
prayers in homes that they enter in fulfilling visiting teaching assignments.”
(Marvin K. Gardner, “News of the Church,” Ensign, Nov. 1978, 100)
A friend recently shared with me the following quote explaining the origins of this practice:
On November 14, 1999, Elder Brough said that a few weeks before his death, President Ezra Taft Benson made a comment about prayers that was misinterpreted by a few to mean that only men could open meetings. Unfortunately, some of those disseminated this information. Although this was officially retracted “within weeks” it had spread far enough to become “policy” to some who had heard various versions of it. Elder Brough was “adamant” that it was not policy, was not ever given as policy from the first presidency, and simply wasn’t true. He said that the church policy is that it doesn’t matter who gives prayers…just as it is written in the handbook. He then asked that the message be disseminated by the high counci throughout the stake so that no further misunderstandings would occur—which is how I came to hear the information.
Notwithstanding various official discontinuations of the practice, it has continued in various pockets of the Church (areas of California and Utah that I know of, although thankfully not here in Chicago). I had been thinking that perhaps this was a case of various leaders “not getting the memo” and the loss of institutional memory in our transitory local leadership. (Another friend confirmed that this was the case in his local area, and when he raised questions about it the practice was discontinued.) But I was skeptical that that would be enough to sustain the continuation of the practice in so many areas for such a long period of time.
Well, I just recently heard from another friend that in leadership meetings this past weekend they were specifically instructed not to let women give the opening prayer in sacrament meeting. So this idea floated by President Benson lives on today as part of the “unwritten order of things” under the sponsorship of President Packer. I had suspected as much, but it has now been confirmed to my satisfaction.
The irony is that, for all the rhetorical concern with order, this practice of trying to inculcate the practice in certain areas only by area authority seventy training, in direct contradiction of the handbook and prior GA statements, is not conducive to order in the Church at all, but rather breeds chaos and disunity.
There is a good reason why this practice is a part of the “unwritten order of things”–it is indefensible. If the Church wants to do this, they need to articulate it publicly and take the heat for promulgating such a stupid position. But this is not a “Church” position at all. If an area authority ever tries to start this practice in my local area, I pledge to raise a holy stink in the nostrils of heaven until it is stopped.