Latter-day Saints can resume weekly services, if conditions permit, and virtual sacrament meetings are now OK

(Photo courtesy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) For demonstration purposes, a Utah congregation shows how family members could receive the sacrament tray while holding their face masks. The priesthood holder would follow COVID-19-recommended public guidelines by wearing a face mask and distributing the sacrament tray to each church member.

More than 30,000 congregations across the globe in the 16.5 million-member Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints got the go-ahead Friday to resume weekly services in a variety of formats — “depending on local conditions.”

A letter from the governing First Presidency said area presidencies can greenlight meetings and activities in their areas, while noting that "local circumstances and regulations regarding COVID-19 vary, sometimes within the same church area.”

With that approval, the faith’s bishops, who are lay administrators of each congregation, can hold weekly sacrament meetings either virtually, “safely in person” or as a hybrid of the two.

Being able to view sacrament meetings — the faith’s principal weekly worship service — from home via Zoom or YouTube is new. Previously, virtual sacrament meetings, at least in Utah, had been discouraged, even forbidden.

Online sacrament meetings are not to be recorded, the top leaders said.

If in-person meetings are broadcast to those who can’t attend, the sacrament, or communion, itself cannot be shown, so the video could either start after the ritual is complete, according to the guidelines, or the ordinance could be moved to the end of the service after the camera is turned off.

In a supplement to the First Presidency letter posted Friday, the Utah Area Presidency wrote that in-person Sunday worship services should be held every week and each gathering could include up to 150 people. The meeting should be “less than one hour so congregations can safely leave the building and allow sufficient time for cleaning before the next ward arrives,” the Utah directive said, " … and should be simultaneously broadcast to ward members who choose to participate from their homes."

The specific Utah instructions direct that the administration of the sacrament take place after the meeting — and the end of the broadcast — for those at the meetinghouse or at home.

During the coronavirus pandemic, taking the sacrament has posed some challenges, especially for single women or for women without a male priesthood holder in the home.

The Latter-day Saint bread-and-water sacrament can be done only in person by those having the male-only priesthood authority, the First Presidency has said. Fellow ward members who have that authority could enter households — unless that violates social distancing rules — and perform the ordinance.

Religion News Service columnistJana Riess, a Latter-day Saint convert, wondered months ago why the Utah-based faith prohibited online sacrament meetings.

“If we are a people who can administer vicarious ordinances to the dead so that the deceased can have what’s necessary for eternal exaltation,” she wrote in a May column, “we can surely administer a virtual ordinance that is intended as a remembrance of Jesus' death but does not impart anything necessary for our eternal life.”

Under the latest guidelines, virtual sacrament partaking — unlike the remainder of the meeting — still would be unavailable.

Friday’s letter signed by church President Russell M. Nelson and his two counselors, Dallin H. Oaks and Henry B. Eyring, also authorized the resumption of stake [regional] conferences, either virtually or with social distancing, beginning in November and “as circumstances and technology allow.”

Local leaders were urged to hold presidency and council meetings, including for Aaronic Priesthood quorums and Young Women classes, as well as youth meetings, activities and service projects, either virtually or with social distancing.

“Using technology and safe in-person practices, many opportunities exist for presidencies and councils to meet, for youth to be encouraged and supported, and for meaningful worship, ministering, and service to occur,” according to the First Presidency.

Friday’s general guidance contained no instruction about restarting the various auxiliary meetings — Primary for children, Young Men and Young Women for adolescents, and Relief Society and Priesthood for adult women and men, respectively — that made up the second of the church’s two-hour Sabbath services block.

Except in Utah.

Beehive State area leaders invited “all wards and branches to begin holding second-hour meetings on Sunday afternoons over the internet,” the supplement said. “The virtual meeting should be live and not recorded or posted to the internet.”

Second-hour meetings should follow the same pattern as in-person gatherings, the Utah leaders said, with Sunday school on the first and third Sundays, with Relief Society, Priesthood and youth meetings on the second and fourth.

No virtual Primary meetings, though.

All public gatherings of congregations in the Beehive State were suspended in March due to the coronavirus pandemic. Utah’s predominant faith did the same for its services across the globe.

But near the end of May, some Latter-day Saint wards began to meet again, with caveats and conditions, spelled out in earlier guidelines, which encouraged mask wearing and required social distancing.

And, for only the second time in its 190-year history, the church’s twice-yearly General Conference next month will be all virtual — as it was in April.