Those who bless and pass the sacrament should dress modestly and be well groomed and clean. Clothing or jewelry should not call attention to itself or distract members during the sacrament. Ties and white shirts are recommended because they add to the dignity of the ordinance. However, they should not be required as a mandatory prerequisite for a priesthood holder to participate. Nor should it be required that all be alike in dress and appearance. Bishops should use discretion when giving such guidance to young men, taking into account their financial circumstances and maturity in the Church…
…The passing of the sacrament should be natural and unobtrusive, not rigid or overly formal. Those who pass the sacrament should not be required to assume any special posture or action, such as holding the left hand behind the back. The process of passing the sacrament should not call attention to itself or detract from the purpose of the ordinance. 2010 Church Handbook of Instructions, Handbook 2, Section 20.4.1(emphasis added).
The paragraphs above from the CHI address some of the commonly seen/held-yet-false beliefs/practices concerning the administration of the Sacrament: dress codes, hand positions, stances. The topic of white shirts for passing the sacrament is not new in the Bloggernacle (see here, here, or here, for example). I am certainly not the first person to sense some degree of frustration with the counsel regarding white shirts in the CHI, as it takes the form of:
- It is better to do something this way.
- If you can’t do it this way, then you are still allowed to do it that way.
The presence of such rankings all but ensures that, in the unfortunate event that someone attempts to pass the Sacrament in that way, there will be frowns and furrowed brows and muffled suggestions that someone “get that boy a white shirt.” An interesting question is how these sorts of practices come into existence, and how they endure the test of time so well.
The economist in me insists that such practices cannot be born from random chance; rather, these practices must come into existence and endure the test of time because there is some sort of efficiency that arises from them. If such efficiencies didn’t exist, the practices would have naturally died out ages ago and have been replaced by more sensible ones. So, the question remains: Why are Mormons so oddly determined to needlessly and non-doctrinally micro-manage the administration of the Sacrament?
One answer that I find compelling is found by comparing the Sacrament to the other ordinances in the LDS Church, though the comparison is surprisingly difficult to make. From a doctrinal or theological perspective, there is clearly a difference in the salvific importance between, say, baby blessings or father’s blessings, and the Sacrament. However, the Sacrament is not typically included in the list of “saving” ordinances: baptism, confirmation/gift of the Holy Ghost, and temple ordinances, including sealings. Indeed, it seems apparent that ordinance of the Lord’s Supper does not belong in either group. But it goes further.
Consider the “saving” ordinances in the Church: in each case, the ordinance is highly regulated in virtually every aspect. Everything—who is allowed to receive the ordinance, clothing we wear, the exact words we use, the bodily movements we make, and even the locations where they are performed–is governed by revealed precision.
In contrast, the non-saving ordinances–baby blessings, blessings for healing or comfort, grave dedication–are entirely different. While there are certain required elements, such as invoking priesthood authority, these ordinances are quite free-wheeling compared their saving counterparts: no dress codes, no restrictions on who can receive them, only minor geographic restrictions (for baby blessings), and an admonition to ad lib according to the dictates of the Spirit.
This dichotomy places the Sacrament in an awkward position, because it doesn’t cleanly fit into either category of ordinances. The situation becomes even more complicated when we consider the teachings and rhetoric used to describe the Sacrament in the modern Church: “It’s the single most important thing we do at Church”; “It’s the most sacred part of our week”; “It’s a holy ordinance”; and so on. Thus, the language we use in speaking about the Sacrament suggests that we (want to) think of it as being a closer relative to the saving ordinances than the non-saving ordinances.
In this context—trying to treat the Sacrament as something sacred and holy and like unto the other saving ordinances—it’s easy to see how folk practices like white shirts, wheat bread, holding the tray with our right hands might develop: an attempt to harmonize the Sacrament with the other saving ordinances by making it “more like them” in terms of regulated behaviors, dress codes, and so forth. In short, these folk practices allow us to create a clear mental partition between the non-saving ordinances and “the rest.”
Specifically regarding the use of a uniform, it is worth considering the pros and cons of the current system and alternatives to it.
As noted above, the current guidelines seem like a clear way of guaranteeing a culture of subtle judgment and disapproval for anyone who doesn’t wear a white shirt, even though such is not required. It seems obvious that one way of eliminating judgmental looks is to simply change the requirement, and make wearing a white shirt a requirement. Any concerns about the financial strain on Aaronic priesthood holders are really not an enormous problem—although I am willing to be convinced otherwise, I’m fairly certain that ward leaders could find room in the budget to purchase a white shirt for any Deacon, Teacher, or Priest who can’t afford one.
Given that all of the saving ordinances (as discussed earlier) already have uniform requirements, this position is very easy to explain and justify–it actually even makes sense in the broader view of Mormonism!
Another seemingly practical alternative would be to have no guidelines for what to wear when passing the sacrament—just allow people to wear whatever they like, and not say a word about it in any instructions. Clearly, this works in the opposite direction regarding the ordinancification of the Sacrament that comes from instituting a set uniform, but there is a different benefit to be captured: With no policy regarding dress, all Aaronic priesthood holders in the meeting are always “acceptable” in terms of appearance, and there is no basis for any sort of judgment. It would also reduce the financial cost to wards and families of “church clothes” and likely make teenage youth feel more comfortable during church meetings.
With these two obvious solutions on the table, and the ability to decrease pointless and harmful judgment while simultaneously increasing clarity about the nature of the ordinance, the question is why neither option has been adopted. We still adhere to a policy of “We do not really have a policy, but we still actually have a policy. Sort of.” A possible reason is that both of these alternatives to the current loopholed policy destroy potentially valuable signals which arise from the ability of young men to self-select into different groups.
Before Sacrament meeting begins, the individual tasked with marshalling Aaronic priesthood holders to help pass the bread and water will almost always sort the candidates based partially (but not entirely) on attire. Whether this is righteous or not is irrelevant—it still happens. The reason for this is simple: Each Sunday morning, every young man chooses between wearing a white shirt and wearing a non-white shirt to church meetings. Because of the current guidelines, his choice in shirt will send a signal to his quorum leaders, to his friends, his parents, and to his ward leaders, including the Bishop. If the young man chooses a white shirt, he sends the signal that he is willing to help, willing to participate, willing to conform, and so forth. Moreover, because of the emphasis we place in the Church on being worthy to administer the Sacrament through our teachings on the Word of Wisdom, the Law of Chastity, and other commandments, there is a reasonably-assumed positive correlation between “willingness” and “worthiness.” Thus, by allowing young men to self-select—to choose which signal they send—they may help ward leaders, parents, and friends identify needs, concerns, and problems in the lives of the youth.
Now, it is vital to emphasize that signaling is a two-party game: It requires both an agent (the young man) and a principal (the Bishop, a parent, etc…), but it also requires the ability of agents to efficiently convey the signal (either consciously or not), and the ability of principals to efficiently receive and properly interpret the signal. These are very strong assumptions–certainly, not every red shirt in Sacrament meeting represents a weekend of debauchery, nor does every white shirt reflect a weekend of repentance and devout worship. Given the range of possible reasons for choosing a shirt—everything from worthiness to spilled breakfast to a broken washing machine to parental force—principals must be extremely careful about interpreting such signals.
If a uniform of white shirts is enforced, or if no guideline is offered, these signals are effectively muted, even though the attitudes and behaviors associated with the signals remain. If we maintain the current policy, we gain potentially beneficial insights into helping the youth of the Church progress toward other desirable outcomes, while simultaneously risking misinterpreting signals in a way that potentially distracts or harms the very individuals who need help. Which policy we prefer likely reflects our own views on the ability of parents and priesthood leaders to effectively and appropriately interpret signals.
It is easy to write off folk practices as non-doctrinal nonsense and foolishness. However, there may be reasons to be cautious about tossing bathwater out the window: There is value in separating the sacred from the worldly, and practices which help us, or our neighbors, increase the clarity or purity of an ordinance through such a separation may increase the power of the ordinance and worship service itself. Because we worship in a community setting, it is important for us to consider the effects that our individual actions during worship may have on ability of others around us to experience the sacred or divine. Breaking down harmful traditions is valuable and important; breaking down harmless traditions may not necessarily qualify for either descriptor. Of course, whether or not a folk practice is harmless or harmful may be in the eye of the beholder.
 I’d like to point out that the paragraph cited from the CHI recommends “modest” clothing for boys. Also, it seems to allow jewelry.
 Note that, for convenience in writing, I’m using “Sacrament” as a synonym for the ordinance associated with the Lord’s supper, communion, the Eucharist, etc…