With the church’s blessing, Mormon girls are passing the sacrament — and not just to the members sitting next to them

(Courtesy photo of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) A young Latter-day Saint boy passes the sacrament.

It was practicality, not activism, that gave Mormon girls a chance to carry a sacrament tray, a task universally handed to the church’s all-male priesthood.

In July, Liesl Shurtliff told her husband, Scott Shurtliff, a lay bishop for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, that she was missing the sacrament — the weekly Communion ritual with bread and water representing the body and blood of Christ — to nurse her baby in the mother’s lounge, typically inside a women’s restroom.

“We should do something about that,” Bishop Shurtliff concluded, especially since his Hyde Park congregation near the University of Chicago is teeming with young couples and infants.

So he did.

Shurtliff instructed the young deacons (12- and 13-year-old boys) to take their trays to the women’s room, where girls were stationed to carry the consecrated elements inside and pass them to the mothers there.

It was, he said this week, no different than deacons handing trays to members in the pews, who then hand them from person to person, regardless of gender.

There have been reports of a similar practice in Mormon wards in various locales, including Utah County.

Indeed, church spokesman Eric Hawkins said the Utah-based faith has no problem with these efforts.

“It is appropriate for a sister to assist by carrying the sacrament tray into the mother’s lounge,” Hawkins said in a statement, “just as it is common for members to pass the sacrament tray to one another in the chapel.”

In recent years, some Mormon feminists have been pushing for greater gender equity in Latter-day Saint programs and practices. The group Ordain Women has been seeking female entrance into the all-male priesthood.

Even without full-on ordination, letting teenage girls pass the sacrament seems to many like a relatively easy but significant symbolic move.

“We have the opportunity as leaders and members to look closely at our ordinances and practices and determine where priesthood keys are necessary to perform ordinances, and where they are not,” said Neylan McBaine, author of “Women at Church: Magnifying LDS Women's Local Impact.”

“In the sacrament, the prayer said over the bread or water is scripturally mandated. Who then holds the tray and passes it around the congregation is not,” she said. “This seems like an appropriate area to examine whether or not we have needlessly overextended the necessity of the priesthood.”

April Young Bennett, a writer with the Mormon feminist magazine Exponent II, cheered this sacrament development.

The church’s teenage girls “are so underutilized,” Bennett said. “When boys turn 12, they have this sacred opportunity to pass the sacrament. Girls have nothing comparable.”

The Hyde Park solution, she noted, is a “great way to involve the young women as well as a great way to help nursing mothers.”

Of course, not all breastfeeding moms want to be sequestered in the mother’s lounge, Bennett said, but this meets the needs of those who do desire that privacy.

She and other Latter-day Saint feminists long have pointed out that there is no scriptural mandate for using only young men to pass the bread and water.

“It would make such a big difference in the lives of young women,” Bennett said, “to participate in sacred ordinances.”

Janie George, a member of the Young Women’s presidency in the Hyde Park congregation, has seen that happen up close.

Girls there have responded enthusiastically, George said. “They’ve been excited about participating.”

This should be done in every ward that needs it, she wrote in an email, “especially when nursing mothers are often not permitted to nurse in the chapel [something I don’t agree with].”

After Shurtliff announced this practice to the Young Women leaders, George said, “I wondered why I didn’t do this as a young woman.”