From the archives: Not Letting Women Open Sacrament Meeting Redux

This post from 2012 has become topical again due to All Enlisted’s new campaign on the issue. Reading the original comments thread here is a must, as several key data points are clarified or corrected in the discussion (see especially J. Stapley’s comments). This is the third in a series of archive posts on the topic [#1, #2].

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.

Comments

  1. In our stake and in surrounding stakes in Salt Lake county, women routinely offer the opening prayer in Sacrament Meeting.

  2. Katie, we probably should have explicitly clarified in the heading to this archives re-post, but since the time this post was written, the church has come out with a new Handbook of Instructions that explicitly states that men and women give both opening and closing prayers. So that has almost entirely squashed the practice of excluding women from one or the other (we’ve heard scattered reports of rogue wards out there, but much fewer than before the new Handbook).

  3. I remember when the Elder Packer address was given or maybe one that expresses similar thoughts during conference. Has Elder Packer expressed counsel about women and sacrament meeting prayers? Was he involved in the area training you reference? I read the talk you linked to. I was upset by the instructions about funerals. I’m a big sentimental baby and I was enormously comforted by the structure of my father’s funeral more than a decade later, it provided a huge starting place for healing. The bishop presided and had known my father in high school. He offered guidance but left the program largely to our family to plan. My grandmother oversaw planning, the speaking assignments, hymns, musical numbers and prayers. The bishop spoke last and his words were enormously comforting. I know it is off your focus bit that was the thing that really did not sit well with me in the unwritten order.

  4. we have women give opening and closing prayers all the time in our sacrament mtgs. I think it depends on who shows up on time.

  5. One of the “unwritten order” I’ve noticed recently is no organ music after the sacrament hymn if the priests are still preparing the sacrament. It’s been started recently in both my singles ward and home ward so coincidence? or instructions from an area authority? Another funny one I saw on the mission was that deacons were not- under any conditions-to touch the cloth of the sacrament table. In all three stakes I served in it was a clear rule, I’ve never heard of it anywhere else. I don’t think there was any great harm in it (besides one or two deacons getting chewed out afterwards), but it shows that, just because one person is convinced that it Must be one way doesn’t mean it can’t be done an entirely different way without losing any of the truth.

  6. I can’t get too worked up over women praying in meetings. I love the energy at All Enlisted, and I agree that where and when women pray is an important marker in our culture. But like many families, we have a hierarchy in our family, and whenever we have an event that involves a church-type meeting with speakers, the prayers are the bones that are thrown to the marginalized ones and the speaking calls go to the ones who can be trusted to perpetuate the status quo. It’s a pretty small thing to have women pray in Conference or to open Sacrament meeting. Perhaps its smallness is what makes it a bigger Thing than it really might be.

    The real problem here is how we use marginalization in Mormon culture (and in the human condition): how acceptable, invisible, pervasive, and subtle or blatant it is. The post over at fMh chronicling the ingrown priesthood practice surrounding men being called (or not) from EQ to HP has been eye-opening for me, an illustrates another facet of this problem. Also, SteveP and RGary are energetically trying to marginalize each other in another thread on this blog as I write this.

    Just imagine if we took the energy we put into, say — correlation, and used it instead to examine our phariseeism and develop ways to combat it. The amazing thing is, we have a good template demonstrating how to do this, which we have installed at the center of our doctrine, where we can give it the appropriate lip service.

    I apologize for my cynicism, but I can’t help it. I’m withering out here in the fringe.

  7. Andre7th, if that’s not just a quirk of the individual organists, it could be a misunderstanding of the latest sacrament meeting guidelines which state that there should be no music after the sacrament while the deacons are returning to their seats. (The handbook calls it the “postlude after the sacrament is passed” but I called it the “recessional,” and was glad to see banned.)

    https://www.lds.org/handbook/handbook-2-administering-the-church/music?lang=eng#14.4.4

  8. MDearest, thanks for your comment and no need to apologize for your cynicism. I agree that there are bigger issues but sometimes those bigger issues, such as marginalization, can be resisted through highlighting practical expressions of that impulse. Whether this is the right way to do it or whether it is the right time are difficult questions but I sense that this effort is intended to make visible some of that marginalization and phariseeism that stress.

    In defence of SteveP, I think he is trying to push back against a prolonged and personal campaign from a particular individual who has repeatedly questioned his standing in the church and his academic position. SteveP is not trying to marginalize RGary rather he is resisting his own marginalization.

  9. This is the same kind of thing as requiring deacons to wear a white shirt and tie to pass the sacrament (not trying to hijack the thread, just giving an example). We become too engrained into anything that a GA or President of the Church might say and before long it becomes doctrine.

  10. This is unfortunate, but natural. We are conditioned in the Church to give deference to anyone in the hierarchy “above” us. This may be a bishop changing an enrichment night activity presentation, not for any doctrinal reason, but for his personal preference. This may be a stake president deciding that sacrament meeting is only to be last in his stake, even if a bishop feels otherwise for his ward. It is ingrained to NOT question anything from “above”, even if it is non-doctrinal nor policy, which is generally the case.

    So, when someone somewhere in the hierarchy expresses their opinion, whether it’s about women praying in sacrament, touching the sacrament cloth, wearing white shirts, eating white bread, numbers of earrings someone should have, or even whether blacks should have the priesthood, the people below that level of the hierarchy “run with it”. And sometimes, it takes major work to correct these opinions that have been promulgated as “doctrine”. It is unfortunate, but a perfectly logically result of “not questioning your leaders”.

  11. I appreciate your more realistically nuanced restatement, AaronR. I do tend to shoot from the hip and mull it over later at my leisure, and sometimes even repent! I do look upon the institutionalized marginalization of women (and particularly non-traditional women) in the church with greater pushback, naturally, since I experience it most. It’s always startling to be able to see when other groups, especially priesthood holding men (as in the case with the fMh post about EQ/HP) experience institutional marginalization.

    Also, for the record, SteveP has thoroughly converted me to freely delight in the joys of the natural world in all the ways Science makes it delightful, without any worry that I am demeaning the gospel in which I believe, and sweet Gary has unmade his case worse than ever.

  12. MDearest, but that marginalization is not as deeply nor as immediately felt by me as it will be for you and so I expect I could very well be wrong.

  13. Kevin Barney says:

    Andre7th No. 5, the deacons are under no circumstances to touch the sacrament cloth was a funny one to me, because when I was a boy we were instructed exactly the opposite. If the priests need a hand to get the far edge of the cloth, then you hand it to him. (That was part of a meme of instruction kicking against the pricks of too many formalistic rules to no purpose.)

  14. Now if we could just get one woman to say a prayer at general conference, any session, that would be progress.

  15. RE: My number 14: Sorry, Cynthia, just saw your post about general conference AFTER I posted the comment above. See what happens when I don’t read BCC every day? My whole life gets messed up.

  16. Verily, kevinf, life that includes going more than 5 minutes without reading BCC is barely worth living!! (Public Service Announcement: if you actually agree with the above statement, please talk to someone who can help you. 12 steps works, friends.)

  17. Maybe if you posted the 12 steps on BCC, that would, uh, help…..

  18. Geoff - A says:

    We allow/encourage women to pray in our ward. There is nothing in the handbook about standing for intermediate hymn. I persuaded the Bishop to do it and it was stopped the next week because a high councilor said it was not allowed. Do any of you stand for the middle hymn? They do in conference.

  19. Geoff – A, Handbook 2: 14.4.3: “As appropriate, a priesthood leader may ask a congregation to stand for an intermediate hymn or a national anthem…”

  20. I say we start small. Like if we could just have a woman give a prayer at the General Priesthood Session….

  21. Someone told me that a woman gave the opening prayer at The First Presidency Christmas Devotional. We started watching a few minutes in and so I missed the OP. Does anyone know if this is true? If so, do you think this was the bone thrown hoping it would suffice? That way they could stick with the GAs for Gen Conf?

  22. Interesting. As I read through the comments in this thread as well as the ones in the previous, every time I read “unwritten order” my brain makes an instant association with “secret combination.” I know that is kind of extreme, but that is just what happens in my mind unintentionally. So, the terms begs the question, why unwritten? Because it would look bad if it was written? Because it was never officially received or implemented? Then, when it is implemented it seems to be through an unorthodox process that needs to keep the issue hush hush/under the table and passed on orally through priesthood meetings or “meetings among priesthood holders” more likely. I am a convert, and I never cease to be amazed with all this minutia. Thankfully, I have not been in a ward where this is practiced (or I haven’t noticed because unfortunately, I don’t have the calibrated radar one needs to detect all these little passive, seemingly innocuous but somehow questionable practices). And I am also grateful it seems to be happening less and less.

  23. @manuel 22. I”ve never associated the “unwritten order of things” with secret combinations. I prefer to associate it with the “False traditions of their fathers.”
    That being said can somebody please tell me that the “uniform of the Priesthood” falls in to that category?

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