Managing the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper in a religious vacuum

In 1937 young Gordon Hinckley, who had been charged with reforming and centralizing the mission programs as part of his job with the Radio, Publicity and Missionary Literature Committee, helped publish the Missionary’s Hand Book. Missionaries were getting younger and younger, and this was the first handbook used by all missionaries in the church (others were produced regionally for specific missions). It holds counsel, advice, regulations, and instructions on administering the liturgies of the church—the first document published by the church that did so. In just a few years, Hinckley had the additional challenge of making a small volume to be carried by a different set of young Latter-day Saints far from home. He needed to produce a handbook for living the Gospel during military service.

Throughout the nineteenth century, the Lord’s Supper had generally been administered in the large meetings of the church. In Salt Lake City, this was the worship services at the Tabernacle, where ward bishops took turns administering at the Lord’s table. In 1894 the First Presidency decided to move the Lord’s Supper entirely to the wards (except for things like Stake Conferences). In the early twentieth century, we had the Priesthood Reform Movement and with it the creation of Sacramental jobs for the freshly minted corps of progressing deacons, teachers, and priests.

As the US entered World War II, the wards nearly emptied of draft-age men, but they still managed with older and younger priesthood officers. A big question was what to do about the soldiers themselves. There was some pragmatism among church leaders. For example, the First Presidency suggested that endowed men in the military should perhaps lay their garments aside until they could be worn without exposing them to the gaze of outsiders (this council shifted during the Korean War). For regular worship the First Presidency announced that servicemen were “requested to organize Mutual Improvement groups in your camps.” They were to do this wherever possible and that they should “be set up after counseling together and by mutual consent.” In these groups those who had been properly ordained could administer the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, bless the sick, teach, and exhort. [n1] They could figure it out themselves.

Gordon Hinckley included this announcement in a small pocketbook with Principles of the Gospel written on the front and published in 1943. This book, largely drawn from the Compendium written by Franklin D. Richards and James A. Little, included explanations of gospel related topics, chronologies of church history and scripture, and directions on liturgy, including music for multiple hymns. Its instructions on the Lord’s Supper explain that while the sacrament is administered as part of regular services, where such meetings are not held, “it is not improper for members of the Church to get together and administer and partake of the Sacrament as circumstances permit” (p. 314). Some servicemen like Thomas Monson took the Missionary’s Hand Book with them, but it seems that the smaller sized Principles would have been more commonly carried.

With friends and family members, conversation has frequently turned to this last year’s experiences with the church and the Lord’s Supper specifically. In a conversation with fellow BCC writers, JKC noted that “other than a few top-down decisions (close temples, temporarily discontinue meetings, permit meetings again under very broad guidelines, disallow remote sacrament blessing)” general church leaders have “placed a lot in the hands of area leaders, rather than those at the ward or stake level.” But, as the message for decades has been “for local leaders to toe the line and not get too creative” there has been some floundering. He noted that while real “leaders understand that good leadership is innovative and they get creative” despite such constraints, in many (most?) cases leaders have not innovated and that a sort of lived religious vacuum has persisted. Kristine noted that it seems (as often is the case) “wards with the most resources are the ones that have been able to innovate and function well, while the wards and branches that are most dependent on help from SLC or the Stake level are the ones that have floundered the most.”

In many cases local leaders have grasped at whatever bits of instruction were given even if the result were counterintuitive. Some leaders interpreted the cancelling of meetings to mean that even families should not have their own worship services at home, and that they should not celebrate the Lord’s Supper, even if a priesthood officer were available. Other leaders resisted moves to have meetings online until they were explicitly told that they could. It took months to get regular services up in most locations, perhaps because many leaders hoped that we would be able to meet in person sooner rather than later, and perhaps because they wanted explicit permission.

In my area we now have in person services once a month that we broadcast, and most members watch the broadcast from home. I suspect it will stay this way for some time. While we have the Lord’s Supper in our home nearly every Sunday, I know of people who have not received the flesh and blood of our Lord for nearly a year. As Matt B. noted if we were to meet local needs in new ways, we probably needed to allow local leaders some autonomy to adapt local worship before “throwing them into the deep end of the pool like this.”

Though I could be mistaken, 2020 could be the year with the most instances of the sacrament to be performed outside a ward service since World War II. There are certainly more church members now, and many administered in their own homes weekly. We have seen some similar pragmatic impulses to that period, but my sense is that there is still some work to do in order to make sure that everyone feels that they remain constituents of the body of Christ.

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  1. First Presidency Message, Conference Report (October 1942), 15.

Comments

  1. J. Thank you for this historical background.

    My experience as a single woman in the heart of SLC and a member of a strong ward with ample priesthood members:
    When in-person meetings were first suspended members were encouraged to study and worship at home, those with priesthood were generally allowed to have sacrament with their families, those without priesthood could have brothers bring the sacrament to their homes. I assumed this was SOP. I, personally, considered the sacrament of the Lord’s supper to be a celebration in company with others in the body of Christ, so I declined to have brothers come to serve me alone.

    When in-person meetings restarted, with distancing, masks and only 1/3 of the ward at a time, I was glad to return to celebrate the Lord’s supper in community, although I took my own bread and water. Covid cases soared so I decided to watch broadcast services from home. There were a number of articles about historic sacrament practices like yours above that I read and considered. Finally, recognizing my lack, I looked even deeper. As I read the sacrament prayers, I saw that I could edit them to be personal prayers, not priesthood blessings for the benefit of others. By reading these personal prayers, I could covenant directly with God. And partaking of the emblems was a deeply serious one-to-one promise, with no social compulsion, distraction, nor time constraint. Each week I have to think carefully before worship service if I truly have a pure heart and real intent to uphold each of the prayer promises before preparing my private sacrament.

    I know this is far outside recommended or condoned practice. However, I do not assume a priesthood authority or blessing, only a witness between me and God of what I will diligently try to do. My own personal worship.

  2. J. Stapley says:

    Thanks for sharing your experience Charlene. What you describe is not too different than what the church suggested starting in April: “In unusual circumstances when the sacrament is not available, members can be comforted by studying the sacrament prayers and recommitting to live the covenants members have made and praying for the day they will receive it in person, properly administered by a priesthood bearer.”

  3. In my Utah ward, this last year has been very uneven. When church was first cancelled, we received authorization to perform the sacrament in our homes, though I know that many members of the ward expanded that to perform the sacrament wherever they were (on vacation, camping, at grandma’s house, etc.). We were reminded that Teachers could prepare and Deacons could pass the sacrament in our homes. At the same time, we were specifically counseled against recreating a sacrament meeting at our homes. After a free-wheeling summer, when we got back to meetings that would allow about half of our typical pre-pandemic attendance each week, we swung the pendulum back the other way as the bishop tried to enforce an explicit authorization for administering the sacrament in our home every single week. Those who were planning to avoid all in-person church meetings could make one blanket request which he would then authorize one week at a time. Others were apparently supposed to email him each week that they were not coming to church (because the meeting was full – we have an online RSVP system to sign up for church) for permission. I’m not sure how many people are bothering to do this. My guess is that members who consider themselves worthy to administer the sacrament are doing so in their homes whenever they want.

    All of the events over the last year have thrown a revealing and every-changing light on how the sacrament is authorized that has been very interesting. What does it mean for a Teacher to prepare the sacrament in my own home? At what point in the process of getting a plate from the cupboard to removing the twist-tie on a loaf of bread to putting a slice of bread on the plate to putting the plate on the piano bench has my daughter crossed the line to “preparing the sacrament”? What does “passing the sacrament” mean when my family has fewer people in it that the row at church where my wife and daughters have always passed down the sacrament trays? Why was our stake presidency so concerned about people having “sacrament meeting” in their own homes? Surely I can sing a hymn in my own home, or share a spiritual message with my family, right? Do I just need to avoid saying “welcome to sacrament meeting” at the beginning?

  4. Single woman here – I haven’t had the sacrament for a year.

  5. Jack Hughes says:

    This seems to be an issue of control more than about facilitating the renewal of sacred covenants. For many local leaders, the idea of making the Lord’s Supper available to all who wish to receive it is less important than maintaining their grip on the regulation of said ordinance. I personally think that approach is cowardly and insecure, but leaders are fearful that many members, once given permission to administer the sacrament at home, will continue to do so even after our meetinghouses reopen. As much as the senior leaders of the Church have been preaching about shifting to “home-centered church-supported” worship (and long before COVID), there seems to be a renewed urgency to keep members dependent on the institutional Church and its programs.

  6. I am a single woman. I have been given plenty of opportunities to partake of the Sacrament. I go to church every other week when it is an option. On the week I am to stay home, I meet with a neighbor. If I don’t want to take the risk of going to a neighbor, they will come to me. With all the chaos from COVID, I have been pleased with the Brethren in my ward. Bless them for their efforts.

  7. The variation has been really interesting. I have heard, anecdotally, of some bishops, like Tom mentions above, telling members not to recreate everything they see in sacrament meeting, and others who specifically told families that they should make their home worship services as much like a sacrament meeting as possible, including creating a printed program.

    I am curious to know more about variations in administering the sacrament itself. Obviously the prayers and the basic outline is going to be pretty standard, but I wonder how many families are using a common cup vs. individual cups, for example. Or how many are using a white cloth to cover the emblems until they are blessed vs. leaving them uncovered, Or how many are kneeling together as a family for the prayer vs. only the officiant kneeling.

  8. A Turtle Named Mack says:

    I have been called upon to administer the sacrament to a few single-mother families in my Ward. While in-person attendance is allowed where I am, there are strict limitations (and real risk) and these families have decided to not attend. Each sister has insisted on a contact-less sacrament, out of an abundance of caution (which is a perfectly reasonable decision). My son accompanies me, and we each say one of the sacrament prayers, standing on the porch behind a closed screen door. In each case, these women (with the help of their daughters) has bread and water ready to be blessed. This means that the sacrament is being prepared and passed exclusively by women, and my son and I are merely offering the blessing as priesthood holders. It has been profoundly meaningful, and a tremendous honor.

  9. J. Stapley says:

    I’m sorry, Lily.

    Jared, like you I’m really interested in the diversity in practice here. I know that Christine Blythe with the BYU folklore collection has done some work trying to collect experiences. I hope that has been successful.

  10. nobody, really says:

    The area authorities have been rather uneven in their authority. My current unit falls right on the border of an “area”. Our stake started with YouTube “devotionals” – talks from stake leaders, pre-recorded music performances, and lessons. The AA cracked down on this within three weeks – claiming that The Brethren (1P+Q12) had mandated that nothing, no nothing, could interfere with “home-based worship”, and that our entire stake was rushing headlong towards apostasy. The ward directly bordering ours is in a stake that was having great success with on-line meetings. Same thing with an old ward farther away that handed out their meeting code so all sorts of people could join in with “church” run from the Bishop’s dining room table, along with other participants from eight or ten other locations.

    I’ve administered the Sacrament on a pickup tailgate plenty of times in the past year, for anyone who asked. Otherwise, there’s been blanket permission for anyone within our boundaries to have the Sacrament themselves.

  11. In my opinion, leadership failed. The fact that so many people went for months without the sacrament, help, or guidance from leaders will be something we have to grapple with for a while. I will be interested to see what effect this will have on sacrament attendance when things go back to normal. I think many in leadership will assume that the rate activity will be the same as before. I am not so sure. What I think you’ve correctly described as a leadership/administrative void is true, but I think many members will ascribe it to a lack of concern for their well being. I hope I am wrong.

  12. So much variation in actual practice, J. In our stake, just north of yours, we are holding in person sacrament meetings weekly, with two hours between wards. Our ward is small and aging, and about 35 members are attending each week, while another 60 to 70 are watching via Zoom (including my wife and I). We were banned from administering the sacrament in our homes for the first two or three months, and then allowed to do so, which was perplexing to me.

    We have offered up the sacrament to single sisters in their homes, but to my knowledge, only one or two have been taking advantage of that. Most have chosen not to.

    Other issues have ping-ponged back and forth. For our EQ meetings (held once a month online only), we were first advised to use recent conference talks for lesson topics, then a month later, told to use the Come Follow Me lessons, then the next month told we could have EQ “Devotionals” that were open to discussion on a topic that we as the EQ presidency chose. Now, we have been told to go back to recent conference talks again. This is all in a four month period.

  13. I should note that in the comment above, approximately 100 members attending sacrament meetings either in person or online is pretty close to what our normal attendance was pre-pandemic. People have moved in and out of our ward already that we have never seen. It’s a strange time. We seem to have suffered from the long history of top-down hierarchical leadership, and a natural reluctance to do things that are not specifically allowed. Local innovation has not been viewed as something to promote.

  14. J. Stapley says:

    Strange times, indeed, Kevin. We are definitely more slow going down here. I think gathering all of these experiences would make an important case study for future governance.

  15. keepapitchinin says:

    On the question of local innovation —

    When meetings were cancelled, there was an instant curtain of silence from my ward. The RS pres walked around the ward the week of Mother’s Day delivering booklets, and we got a handful of emails from the ward political involvement specialist, whatever the title is, about how and where to register to vote. Other than that, however, there was total complete absolutely impenetrable radio silence from the ward. Not a peep, not a note, not a word. It was like the local Church had simply evaporated. It wasn’t until much, much later in the year, when Zoom meetings started, that I realized that the Ward Council had continued to meet, I suppose virtually, and the bishopric, and the RS presidency. Maybe some other councils. But those meetings were solely for the members of those councils. I suppose the participants still felt fully involved, still felt they were carrying out the business of the ward, still felt like there was an active ward organization. But somehow they forgot that not all of us are members of such councils. Those of us on the outside certainly didn’t feel like the local Church was continuing in any way, shape or form — especially, I’m guessing, those of us to whom the local wad has never bothered to assign ministering brothers or sisters.

    If we’d known then what we know now, I would hope that ward leaders would have tried to stay in touch with all of us, not just their councils, through regular email bulletins if nothing else — just some cheerful paragraphs about how the Lord loves-you-and-we-do-too, and if you are sick or hungry or otherwise suffering from isolation, hit reply and we’ll have someone check on you. But nobody had the imagination last year to remember that there are ordinary rank-and-file ward members who were not members of councils, who had no way of knowing whether the Church even existed any more n a local level.

    That’s something to remember “for future governance.”

  16. Ardis, It sounds like you lost “bishop roulette” on the 2020 round. Perhaps your luck will change.

    Upon cancellation of meetings, our ward immediately began weekly email messages (motivational and announcements) from the bishopric to all ward members with usable email addresses in the on-line ward directory, weekly email messages from the RS presidency to the sisters, and, a little later, weekly email messages from the EQ presidency to the brethren. The RS and EQ presidencies were also very active in calling members they knew to be isolated or otherwise needing ministering and in regularly encouraging all ministering brothers and sisters to call all their people regularly, and see to it that those who could not do the sacrament in their own homes had priesthood holders finding a safe way to enable their partaking. Much of that got done.
    It took some time to get permission to do Zoom sacrament meetings and later Zoom Gospel Doctrine/Come Follow Me discussions. But those have now been happening regularly for some time.
    But we still have had a good number feeling isolated and that no one cares about them. In some of those cases, it is the people who do not respond or reply to text messages, email, or voice mail. Our bishop has encouraged ministering brothers and sisters to go visit them, without appointments or agreement and contrary to CDC advice and to our governor’s public health regulations. Some do; some don’t, thinking the bishop a bit too free to make his decisions about what physical contact people want during the pandemic.

  17. Anon this time says:

    Wow, Ardis! If I didn’t know better, I would think we were in the same Ward. That has been our exact experience. The only difference is that the bulk of the people meeting in those councils were actually no longer living in the Ward. So many members fled the state and moved closer to family in Utah to ride out the pandemic (our Ward has many married graduate students and young families where parents were able to work remotely). This included members of the Bishopric, EQ Presidency, Primary, Young Women’s. Many have still not returned, but continue to participate online in the making of decisions that impact those who stayed. The silence was deafening, and disappointing, and disorienting. The rest of us have had to band together, informally, to check on each other and those we suspect may be struggling, and meet temporal and spiritual, and social needs. We have had wonderful experiences doing that, but have also experienced a fracturing of the faith and trust we once placed in local leadership.

  18. kevinf: “We seem to have suffered from the long history of top-down hierarchical leadership, and a natural reluctance to do things that are not specifically allowed. Local innovation has not been viewed as something to promote.”

    This. So much this. I have seen a shocking amount of hesitancy in my ward to do something that might be even a little bit innovative. Why did the primary in my ward seem to think that for the first 4 or 5 months of the pandemic the primary organization was prohibited from reaching out to primary kids on an individual basis? Why does most of my ward feel that you need permission from the bishop before posting something on the ward facebook page? Why has my Elders Quorum (that hasn’t met in-person for 48 weeks now) not provided any engagement for men in my ward beyond the 8 quorum meetings we’ve had over zoom in that time period? More than once in the past year, my wife and I have wondered where the “church-supported” part of everything has gone. The YM/YW programs are forging ahead with weekly activities and treats dropped off at the door like usual, while no one from the ward has made an attempt to interact with my 10-year-old in the last 11 months.

    I know the last year has been rough on a lot of people in a lot of ways, and I’ll fully admit to being an introvert and a poor ministering-brother myself. But in a world where we’ve all had our calendars opened up by the canceling of vacations, music recitals, sports, primary lessons, birthday parties, I had hopes of . . . more I guess.