Blessing the Sacrament Remotely: Contagion, Technology, and Liturgical Adaptation.

14765375605_99e9f0f1a9_bWith the covid-19 pandemic already in force in some parts of the world, many stakes have cancelled traditional church meetings and have gone to videoconference sacrament meetings. I (I strongly recommend Sam Brown’s recent post on the theological responsibility we have to take precautions not for our own selves, but for the most vulnerable among us.) And as the pandemic continues to spread, I suspect that in the coming weeks we will see more and more of this.

Broadcast church meetings are not especially new. General conference and regional broadcasts are familiar, and even for weekly sacrament meetings, the church has sometimes used broadcasts in very remote areas where travel is difficult during certain seasons. But as online streaming technology has become more and more available, and as the covid-19 pandemic continues to spread, I suspect we are going to see videoconference sacrament meetings on a larger scale and perhaps for a more extended period than most of us have ever seen before. That makes me wonder about whether and how the sacrament could be administered remotely. Where members remain physically in their own homes and gather online to participate in a sacrament meeting, could a priest bless sacramental emblems prepared by members in their own homes over a streamed video?

Current Practice

Now, I already know that that’s not the current practice. As far as I know, the church has never authorized it. The normal practice during a streamed sacrament meeting, as reported to me by members living in quarantined areas now, is to have a pause in the streamed broadcast during which priesthood holders in each home individually administer the sacramental emblems.

That practice probably works just fine for most members who have a priest, elder, or high priest in their home. But it does not include single women, widows, single mothers and their children, or men who are not ordained to the office of a priests or to an office in the Melchizedek priesthood. In the past, such members unable to attend a sacrament meeting have normally received the sacrament from priesthood holders who come to their home. But in a pandemic situation, it may be unwise to have one or two priesthood holders going from home to home to administer the sacrament, because they could become a vector for the pathogen. This is especially true if they are disproportionately visiting older folks who are more vulnerable.

And even aside from that, it’s undeniable that while homebound folks can receive the sacramental emblems in this way, they are to some extent missing out on the communion that the ward experiences when we eat and drink the sacramental emblems together as a group. Partaking of the sacrament together as a congregation is an important element of the sacrament (see Moroni 6:6). It’s not insignificant that when Paul tells the church “now ye are the body of Christ” (1 Corinthians 12:27), he does so after discussing the Lord’s Supper in the previous chapter.

Physical Presence vs. Virtual Presence

The fact that meeting together as a church is an important element of the sacrament might actually be an argument against blessing it over a live stream. Meeting together, the argument goes, means being in each other’s presence. But there are other kinds of presence than physical presence. And there are other ways of meeting together than being in the same physical location.

With streaming and videoconferencing technology we can be present with each other in real ways without being physically in the same location. The church already recognizes this through, for example, the way we can gather and not only passively participate in listening to General Conference sermons, but also actively participate in prayers, singing congregational hymns, and the sustaining of Church Officers via broadcast. The church also encourages the use of videoconferencing to decrease the burden on families of leadership meetings and councils. Our high council, for example, usually meets twice per month. Once in person, and once in a videoconference.

Textually, the words of the sacrament prayers don’t seem to foreclose the possibility of blessing the sacrament remotely. The text of the prayers requires the priest administering the sacrament to ask God to “bless and sanctify this bread” (Moroni 4:3; D&C 20:77) and “this wine [or water]” (Moroni 5:4; D&C 20:79). “This” could be read narrowly to mean only that which is physically present in front of the priest, but I think it is broad enough that it could also reasonably mean the bread or water that is prepared for that particular streamed sacrament meeting in the homes of “all those who partake of it” as part of that streamed meeting. Surely the power of God to bless the sacramental emblems is not more limited than the power of technology.

While it is true that physical touch is an essential element of certain ordinances, like baptism and the laying on of hands, the priests do not lay hands on the sacramental elements while saying the prayer. The sacrament is also different from these other ordinances that require touch because unlike with these other ordinances, where the priesthood holder is directly addressing the person being blessed, the priesthood holder in the sacrament is addressing God and is acting as voice for the entire congregation in a prayer for God to bless and sanctify the sacramental emblems.

[Update: As J. Stapely points out in the comments below, there is even historical precedent for blessings to be given long-distance, by letter, without the physical laying on of hands.]

What About Breaking the Bread?

Probably the strongest argument against the blessing the sacrament remotely is founded in 3 Nephi 18. In that chapter, Jesus says that after the church ordains a priest to administer the sacrament, Jesus will give him “power that he shall break bread and bless it, and give it unto the people of my church” (v. 5). This verse suggests that breaking the bread is part of administering the sacrament. More than one sacrament sermon has noted the symbolic resonance of the broken bread with Jesus’ broken body.

But there are also good reasons to think that while the symbolism of broken bread is important, breaking the bread is not an essential element of administering the sacrament in our sacrament liturgy. For one thing, Jesus’s statement in 3 Nephi 18:5 that someone would be ordained to break bread and bless it goes on to also say “and give it unto the people of my church,” but the church’s current practice is to have to have deacons give the sacramental emblems to the church, not the priest who blesses it, even though deacons explicitly do not have authority to administer the sacrament (D&C 20:58; see also Sam’s post on this). The authority to administer the sacrament, as the church thinks of it today, therefore, clearly does not mean the authority, to do all three of the things listed in Jesus’s statement.

Jesus’s statement was not to the modern church, but to the early Nephite church, and it is not clear that it was meant to be prescriptive to the modern church. The modern church’s sacrament liturgy is based directly on Moroni’s liturgy (compare Moroni 4 & 5 with D&C 20:76-79), not on 3 Nephi 18 (see my old series on this). The Nephite sacrament liturgy appears to have changed or developed over the three centuries between 3 Nephi 18 and Moroni, and though Moroni’s liturgy is clearly based on 3 Nephi 18, it is not identical to the liturgy Jesus used when he first introduced the sacrament. (I am not, by the way, suggesting that Moroni’s liturgy was a corruption of Jesus’ liturgy or the product of apostasy. I am suggesting that church leaders, exercising their legitimate authority, developed and adapted the liturgy to meet the changing needs of the church). And although Moroni’s liturgy does describe details such as the priest “kneel[ing]” (Moroni 4:2), and “tak[ing] the cup” (Moroni 5:1), Moroni’s liturgy does not explicitly require the priest to break the bread.

And even if Moroni’s liturgy arguably implicitly requires the priest to break the bread, that is not dispositive, because though our current practice is directly based on Moroni’s liturgy, we do not follow Moroni’s liturgy to the letter. Indeed, as J. Stapely has noted, the church generally did not use the prayers from Moroni’s liturgy until well into the Utah period. And even now, though we emphasize the use of the prayers from Moroni’s liturgy (with the exception of saying “water” where Moroni’s prayer says “wine”) we do not generally follow the non-prayer elements of Moroni’s liturgy. Moroni’s liturgy says that the priest is to kneel “with the church” while saying the blessing on the bread (Moroni 4:2; D&C 20:76) , but our modern practice is for the priest to kneel alone, and to have the church remain seated. Similarly, while Moroni’s liturgy says that the priest is to “take the cup” in his hands while saying the blessing on the wine (Moroni 5:1; D&C 20:78), our practice today is to leave the sacrament cups in the trays sitting on the table. (Again, I’m not suggesting that our modern practice is apostate or corrupt, I’m suggesting that church leaders have exercised their legitimate authority to adapt the liturgy, and that therefore the original forms, though they are important for historical understanding, are not prescriptively dispositive.)

Scriptural Basis and Precedent For Adaptation

And though the symbolism of broken bread may be theologically significant, there is precedent for adapting the sacrament liturgy, in response to concerns about contamination or contagion, in ways that remove symbolic elements that are theologically significant. Just as broken bread may be a symbol of Jesus’s broken body, wine, made from crushing grapes to spill the juice within, can be seen as an important symbol of Jesus’s spilt blood. And it may be seen as an important parallel with olive oil, used in healing and anointing ordinances in the church, which is similarly made by crushing olives, and may thus be seen as an important symbol of the healing power of Jesus’s blood. And likewise, the common cup, which the church used until the early 20th century, is a theologically powerful symbol of the unity of the church.

Nevertheless, despite these powerful theological symbols, very early in the church’s history–only months after the church was organized, in fact–fear of poisoned or contaminated wine led to a revelation that permitted the use of any food or drink for the sacramental emblems: “it mattereth not what ye shall eat or what ye shall drink when ye partake of the sacrament, if it so be that ye do it with an eye single to my glory—remembering unto the Father my body which was laid down for you, and my blood which was shed for the remission of your sins” (D&C 27:2).

It is this principle of authorized adaptation of the sacramental emblems–so long as they are eaten with an eye single to Christ’s glory–that the church relies on today to explain its decision in the early 20th century to discontinue the use of wine altogether in favor of water. And that’s not the only adaptation, either. Around that same time, in response to fears of contagion during the 1917 Influenza epidemic, the church abandoned the use of the common cup and moved to the individual sacrament cups that are familiar today. In recent years, the church in some places has further adapted the sacrament for members with severe gluten intolerance, allergies, or sensitivities in several ways, including by allowing such members to prepare their own gluten-free substitute to be placed alongside the bread on the tray in a plastic bag to avoid cross-contamination, rather than requiring the priests to break it along with the bread.

I was interested and a little surprised (though perhaps I should not have bee surprised, given the scriptural authorization for adaptation) to learn that one other church in the restoration movement has expressly authorized the blessing of the sacrament remotely over video streaming, as long as it is in real-time.

Conclusion

Whether the church will or should authorize priests to bless the sacrament remotely over a live video stream is obviously above my pay grade, but it does not appear to be scripturally or doctrinally impossible. It may make sense for church leaders to consider, at least in extenuating circumstances where meeting by videoconference becomes widespread for an extended period of time, and personal visits become inadvisable, whether to authorize members to prepare sacramental emblems in their own home, to be blessed by an authorized priesthood holder via a live-streamed sacrament meeting.

Comments

  1. J. Stapley says:

    As for potential historical antecedents, I have a few nineteenth-century examples of long distance blessings by letter in my files.

  2. J. Stapley says:

    Also, I should note that this is a really thoughtful analysis of the liturgical dynamics at play. I really appreciate it.

  3. Oh, fascinating. By letter? Telegraph?

  4. nobody, really says:

    I’ve seen the televangelist Robert Tilton tell people to put their bread and grape juice in front of the TV screen so he could bless them. But, the ordinance was only valid if you sent in your $1000 “vow of faith”

    Outside the world of fraud and theft, we’ve participated in priesthood ordinances via broadcast in this day and age. Temple dedications have been broadcast to chapels, and the Hallelujah Shout is done from all over the world.

  5. That’s a good point, nobody, really.

  6. I imagine that if the church ever authorized this, though, it would be limited to members previously authorized by the bishop to prepare the emblems in their own home, not open-ended for anybody that happened to tune in, like the Televangelist example.

  7. J. Stapley says:

    Yeah, by letter.

  8. One practical solution I have seen in recent years for members with celiac disease is not only that they bring their own gluten-free bread, but that they keep with them in their pew, set it out for the blessing, and then go ahead and take it after the blessing. Fully limits cross contamination risks, no breaking involved. I don’t know what it took to authorize this approach (maybe just a pragmatic bishop), but it seems like the rationale behind this could apply to sacrament services either in person or remotely.

  9. That’s really interesting James. I haven’t seen that before.

    I’ve seen the following adaptations for gluten issues:
    – Bishop substitutes gluten free bread for the entire ordinance
    – Member gives a gluten free cracker to the priests that they break and set out with the bread in a separate cup
    – Member gives a gluten free cracker to the priests in a closed plastic bag that they set out with the bread

    And now I can add yours to the list.

  10. James, my wife is gluten-free, and that’s exactly the method she uses. When we can get there early enough, we actually give the bread (in tupper-ware) to a Deacon, and they bless it with the other bread, but then bring the container straight to us. That probably wouldn’t work if the ward was larger, but it works; and when we can’t make it early enough, she just opens it and takes it.

  11. Jared, this is good work. Worthy of a save file. However or in addition:

    1. I suspect your concerns are a bit overstated. The LDS Church has demonstrated a great deal of pragmatism about such things over the years, and D&C 27:2 should be enough for most people’s judgment about liturgical elements, in many fewer words.

    2. I balk a little at the “what the church will” formulation. If I were a bishop, and in fact when I was a bishop, I would and did think this kind of question within the purview of the bishop for his own Ward. I wouldn’t have hesitated or asked for instruction.

    3. Breaking bread and serving can of course be referenced in the New Testament as well as 3d Nephi. See for example Luke 22:19. Christian traditions of all sorts have thought about the importance and have a variety of responses. If we adopted some of those variations in an LDS service we would hear complaints, and I’m not suggesting we adopt other church patterns, but noting that there are a number of approaches to breaking and presenting.

  12. Christian,

    You are of course right about the New Testament references to the broken bread. The reason I didn’t focus on that here is simply that the LDS sacrament is explicitly patterned on the prayers in Moroni, which are clearly based on 3 Nephi 18. Also, because the 3 Nephi reference is a stronger argument against remote blessing because it not only describes what Jesus did, but also appears to specifically say that it will be part of the sacrament.

    I agree with you 100% that it would be useful to look to the varying approaches to this issue that other churches have taken. Not, like you say, as a pattern to follow, but as a way to educate ourselves about possible approaches to avoid reinventing the wheel.

    I’m not disagreeing with you about this being within a bishop’s purview for his own ward, but I also wonder whether most bishops would see it that way. I have heard anecdotally (though I haven’t confirmed such stories) of area authorities giving stakes the instruction that it must be in person and that the bread must be broken by the priest. The handbook is silent on it, but I suspect that there are many bishops that wouldn’t even consider it without it being authorized by the stake or area.

  13. Kevin Barney says:

    This is great, Jared. Historically the Church has been very pragmatic with sacrament observance, so I think something like this is very doable. I think for instance of Saints who have used potato peelings, because that is all they had. Or I think of the Brethren in their special meetings breaking the bread into quarters, not tiny pieces, because there is so few of them in that setting and they can.

  14. Remotely managed sacrament meetings are not unprecedented in Church annals.
    I attended a joint branch sacrament meeting in a remote Alaska town a number of years ago that was conducted via speakerphone by the Branch President from another branch located about 80 miles away in Valdez.
    We had about 12 people in attendance in the local branch building (including 6 in my group visiting) and had the sacrament administered by a couple of the local members during a pause after the sacramental prayer.
    Seemed to work fine to me with no video image required (although you really had to focus on a poorly transmitted audio feed with no visuals). 🙂
    jb

  15. jbarm, thank you for sharing your experience! Very interesting!

  16. Aussie Mormon says:
  17. Kevin Barney says:

    This just became non-theoretical. The Chirch’s call was announced on the NBC Chicago News. Good call, Salt Lake.

  18. Whoa. Just saw that. Local leaders are to counsel together to make sure members get the sacrament at least once a month. I’d love to see us blessing the sacrament remotely, but either way it will be interesting to see how leaders meet this challenge.

  19. Our bishopric has contacted the ward already re sundays with no church. Priesthood holders are authorized to serve their families and those on their ministering list. The goal is for everyone to take the sacrament every sunday until church resumes.

  20. I’m frankly disappointed in the line “Bishops should counsel with their stake president to determine how to make the sacrament available to members at least once a month.” For two reasons:
    1. My own sense of importance around the Sacrament is stronger than “once a month” implies.
    2. I don’t understand why the counsel with the stake president, unless that’s a matter of coordinating especially in difficult geographies. This seems like a quintessential bishop job.

    I expected to read a simpler “Bishops should determine how to make the sacrament available to members.”

  21. nobody, really says:

    Christian:
    Sadly, I know a few Bishops/Branch Presidents who would claim “The Lord will protect us if we meet together oft. Therefore, we’re going to meet for church as usual, or just Sacrament meeting, or it will look like we don’t have any faith.” I would hope that the line about “counsel with the Stake President” will help prevent this sort of non-compliant action.

    Here, I got the notice that all meetings were cancelled by the First Presidency. It was followed up less than an hour later with a message from the Stake Presidency telling us “Don’t cancel any meetings just yet.”

    Our unit is around 5,000 square miles. Monthly availability of the sacrament is ambitious, but probably achievable.

  22. Our stake presidency sent an email to all members with a registered email address including:
    “Priests and Melchizedek Priesthood holders have been authorized by the Bishops in the stake to bless the sacrament and lead its administration in their homes/ ward boundaries.
    [and]
    If you do not have a priesthood holder in your home, please arrange with your ministering brothers or contact the Elders Quorum President to coordinate this with the Bishop and Aaronic Priesthood.”
    Perhaps the line of the general instruction that disappointed Chris was simply meant to encourage a unified approach in each stake and to establish a minimum goal (there are units so widespread and with so few priesthood holders that it could be very difficult to get to some homes weekly). I hope it is not taken to limit the Bishops’ long-standing authority to approve administering the sacrament outside sacrament meetings. Our stake’s approach supports that authority, makes a concise, uniform communication and does not limit administering authority within ward boundaries to those on one’s ministering list.

  23. On the other hand (to my comment of 10:28), I think we might see a subtle but meaningful cultural shift from “everybody come to church” to “everybody have an opportunity to receive.” That would be a positive move on my individual scale. At the very least, worthy of note.

  24. Owen Witesman says:

    I immediately think of the story of the centurion in Matthew 8.

  25. Serious question: If the only priesthood holder in the home is inactive “not worthy,” can they still administer the sacrament for the believer? First reaction would be, “of course not!” However, I have practical knowledge of guys who were administering/blessing the sacrament for the whole ward or branch who were also “not worthy” and it didn’t seem to make a difference. In a case like this, does the partaker’s faith override the priest’s faith?

  26. meems, this is the Donatism question. (Donatism — The view that only a pure and righteous priesthood holder can perform ordinances that are efficacious.) I am not aware of a well worked LDS or Mormon tradition answer and you may hear different opinions. But the approach I know about elsewhere, especially from Catholic tradition, is that the efficacy of the ordinance is between the recipient and God, and the question of worthiness is between the officiant and God, and the two do not interface or one affect the other. I am comfortable with that formulation. That’s just me.

  27. Thanks, Christian. That makes sense.

  28. My thought on the dispersed sacramental ordinance as it stands it that this would be a good opportunity to let those single women/part member families, etc. use a delegated priesthood power to bless their own sacrament. We already perform priesthood ordinances in this way in the temple, so it doesn’t seem like that much of a stretch. Although I do like the remote idea!

  29. Stake presidents need to help or get out of the way. No word from our leaders yet.

  30. Rene Altagracia says:

    Have the apostles said anything on whether or not this is appropriate to do?

    Thanks

    Rene

  31. We have a letter from our Stake Presidency promising guidance from bishops, and a letter from our Bishop. No mention of remote blessings per the OP. Rather, “worthy” priests and Melchizedek Priesthood holders to arrange for the sacrament in their own home, and the ministering program to work out at least once a month in homes where there is a need.

    I’ve heard essentially the same thing from friends in several other stakes. In fact, the letters we received look like they’re from a template. They are not in the voice of our Stake President or our Bishop, whom I know well enough to think I can judge. I wonder if there is a template?

  32. Kevin Barney says:

    Meems, our SP letter explicitly specified that lack of attendance does not equal lack of worthiness.

    I was sorry to see that Jared’s idea got zero traction with the Church. Let me try to illustrate why that is a potential problem. I minister to four families. One is not interested and two have active fathers in the home. The fourth is an older, retired single sister. She is very devout, and she will def want the sacrament. So my companion and I will probably have to do it.

    My daughter has symptoms of the virus, but of course she can’t get a test to confirm because there aren’t enough tests yet. Further, last night I learned that a man on the same floor of the building where I work tested positive. The building is going to do a deep clean of that floor including bathrooms and common areas, and we are going to close our office until Wednesday.

    Now, have I been exposed to the virus? I don’t know. I feel perfectly fine, but that’s irrelevant given the long incubation period. I doubt I have it, but there’s no good way to know. And that sister isn’t going to be interested in that intel as an excuse, she’s gonna want her sacrament. So I may very well end up putting this woman at needless risk, when instead I could have blessed the emblems remotely at zero risk. The current plan still involves close interactions that will put sisters at unnecessary risk.

  33. Kevin, isn’t there still time? Especially for the case you describe, the letters I’ve seen or heard of refer to “working it out” for the ministering situations with a goal of within the month, and the ministering program itself is open to lots of individual customization. There’s still the issue of the bishop (with the “keys”) approving. And the practical problem that the cases I can think of that are closest to what you describe would require some help with the technology. Unless you go all the way to prayers over a phone line.

  34. Kevin, why can’t someone else go in your place? Surely there are other men in your ward who would be able to go if you do not feel comfortable doing so (and I think you are right not to feel comfortable doing so). She won’t insist on having you, her ministering brother, and no one else, will she? Especially if you tell her you are concerned about possible exposure?

  35. Rene, As far as I’m aware, the twelve haven’t said anything one way or the other about it.

  36. Kevin Barney says:

    My point isn’t meant to be specific to me. Rather, whether we realize it or not, in this kind of pandemic situation every unnecessary physical contact is a potential risk. Yes, we’re reducing contact with 130 people down to two, but in a pandemic those two are still a potential risk. Jared’s idea reduces that number to zero.

  37. Thanks for that Kevin. However, I’m thinking more of lack of faith. :-/

  38. We were told we could NOT administer sacrament in our own homes because the counsel suggests some sort of reporting which has not been worked out. They hope to have in place by next Sunday. Numbers taking priority here?

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