These coronavirus days, Latter-day Saints are Zooming up and down the country as well as across the globe.
From the San Francisco Bay Area to Virginia and Copenhagen, some congregations have held full sacrament meetings (without Communion), via videoconferencing, that included prayers, talks and songs. A ward in Oxford, England, had a lively Sunday school lesson. Missionary homecoming sermons abounded as well as online question-and-answer sessions with the returning proselytizers. Sunday devotionals included two or three speakers. Tabernacle Choir singalongs brought congregants together.
Like many other faith groups, virtual worship is the only way for members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to maintain even a semblance of the services that once set the rhythm of their weeks. A Sabbath without any kind of service or sanctification makes every day alike.
Unlike many other Christians, though, the Utah-based faith has no liturgy or scripted services that can be easily replicated online by priests or ministers. To date, the top leadership in Salt Lake City has not dictated exactly what congregations worldwide should do about services during the pandemic.
The Latter-day Saint bread-and-water sacrament can be done only in person by those having the male-only priesthood authority in the home, the governing First Presidency said in a letter last week. Fellow ward members who have that authority can enter the household — unless that violates social distancing rules — and administer the sacrament.
Other than that, a church news release stated, “bishops and ward leaders may use technology for messages to supplement a member’s home-centered worship.”
That has led to a hodgepodge of do-it-yourself services, each trying to meet the worship needs of a ward family. Some are calling their efforts “messages,” “devotionals” or “firesides,” but they happen on Sunday online for members to tune in.
Except, of late, in Utah.
Why Utah differs
When the LDS Church suspended all its “public worship services” worldwide March 12, several Utah wards and stakes (a regional collection of congregations) tried to re-create a Sabbath experience online.
By all accounts, members seemed to love it. One Sunday school teacher excitedly reported that more than 100 adults in his congregation joined a videoconference discussion of the faith’s signature scripture, the Book of Mormon.
That all ended recently when Utah Area President Craig C. Christensen sent a letter to the state’s lay leaders saying, “We have noted that some local leaders or members are attempting to hold sacrament meetings, Sunday school classes, and elders quorum and Relief Society meetings via technology.”
Such online gatherings “should not be held until the First Presidency lifts the directive to suspend those meetings,” Christensen wrote. “Accordingly, please counsel leaders and members against holding online Sunday meetings.”
Why, then, was it OK for these alternative worship services to be happening in many Latter-day Saint congregations outside the state?
“This is a constantly changing situation, and adaptations are made around the world based on local conditions,” church spokeswoman Irene Caso says. “Direction is provided by area presidencies, in consultation with church leadership in Salt Lake City.”
Neylan McBaine, author of “Women at Church: Magnifying LDS Women's Local Impact,” is surprised by the lack of consistency from ward to ward.
McBaine, her husband and three daughters, hold their own sacrament meeting in their home each week, but she knows she might be in the minority.
“I’m in an ideal family, where my children are old enough to be interesting thinkers,” McBaine says on The Salt Lake Tribune’s “Mormon Land” podcast this week, “and I’ve got an intact family unit.”
For Latter-day Saints “who do not have others to worship with and to visit with on Sundays, for people with smaller children who are missing that structure who could use some help bringing the spirit into their home for their children, and for older people who miss the camaraderie of the ward family,” she says, “some sort of scheduled ritual makes a lot of sense to me.”
Leaving out women
Possibly the most striking problem with the halting of services and the prohibition against virtual sacrament means that women who are single or members without a male priesthood holder in the household may have been unable to partake of the holy ritual — an ordinance that typically takes place every Sunday and which the First Presidency hoped would be “available at least once a month” during the pandemic.
And there’s no telling when services will resume.
McBaine, founder of the Mormon Women Project, understands why the sacrament cannot be done virtually.
A physical ordinance “is a ritual of touching,” she says, and “does need to be done in the physical world.”
If you have “bread in front of you and water in front of you and a digestive system,” she says, “you have all the physical elements to perform the sacrament ritual.”
So it comes down to the authority of the person saying the words that would transform those elements “into sacred objects.”
Currently, only worthy men and boys have that authority, but what if women just read the prayers over the bread and water themselves?
Whether they would trigger the covenants or not, McBaine says, it still would be “really powerful for women to be able to feel like they are simply part of a ritualistic pattern that they’ve participated in their whole lives.”
To give them the “opportunity to do that in the privacy of their own homes” during this self-isolating time, she says, “would be such a gift.”
Church leaders instead say members without access to the sacrament for now “can be comforted by studying the sacrament prayers and recommitting to live the covenants [they] have made and praying for the day they will receive it in person.”
Latter-day Saints who live in far-flung regions were already relying on technology to get their spiritual nourishment before the pandemic, says Lewis Hassell, the first Latter-day Saint mission president in Vietnam.
“The Vietnamese branches have been doing sacrament services by Zoom — based on the long-term experiences of the mission branch of scattered members who met first by conference call and now by Zoom — for almost four years,” says Hassell, who lives in Oklahoma. “Now they often have peek-ins by overseas members and former missionaries, too.”
The whole point of religion, says religious historian Patrick Mason, is “to bind people together.”
By definition, it is communal, says Mason, head of Mormon history and culture at Utah State University, and fundamentally different from a family.
If you are simply studying scriptures with your family, he says, “it isn’t church.”
For Latter-day Saints, the central purpose of “sacrament meeting” is to “take the sacrament,” he says. That is “the beating heart” of the meeting and without it, any anti-Zoom directive seems to imply there’s no point in gathering.
But that, he adds, “neglects all the other positive goods that are happening in sacrament meetings and in the other Sunday meetings.”
For more than a century, weekly church attendance has been the “measure of being a good Mormon,” Mason says, which implicitly understands that “religion is a communal activity.”
Sydney Wait in Huntington, W. Va., is fully aware of that.
“When your church family is the only family you have,” Wait says, “it’s really difficult to do [church] by yourself.”
In her region, members already were “utilizing the technology for stake meetings due to the very large geographical area of our stake,” Wait says. “Many members have to travel long distances to attend sacrament meetings on a normal Sunday.”
With the services on hold, they have held women’s Relief Society and elders quorum meetings via Zoom, and they have been enriching.
“We dress in our Sunday best and treat it just like we would in-person meetings,” she says. “The lessons have all stayed on topic, and we’ve felt an abundance of the spirit.”
They’ve “grown closer as a ward family,” Wait says, which is saying something because “I already felt like we were a tightknit group.”