LDS Church unveils plan to phase in worship services; other Utah clergy vow to wait

(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.

Latter-day Saints in various parts of the world may be worshipping together again as soon as this Sunday, depending on what their local and government leaders dictate based on COVID-19 in their region.

All public gatherings of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints were suspended March 12, but now some will start up again, according to a letter Tuesday from the governing First Presidency to the faith’s general and local lay leaders.

“We now authorize some meetings and activities to be resumed on a limited basis using a careful, phased approach,” wrote President Russell M. Nelson and his two counselors, Dallin H. Oaks and Henry B. Eyring. “Area Presidencies will work with the members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and the Presidency of the Seventy who supervise them in deciding when and where meetings can begin in their area.”

In Phase 1 of the reopening plan, Sabbath services held at Latter-day Saint chapels would be shortened to less than an hour (they are typically two hours) and could include up to 99 members, sitting in family or household groups at least 6 feet apart. Meetings could also be held remotely using technology, church guidelines say.

In Phase 2, meetings would be open to more than 100 members but still would follow the guidelines suggested by local government leaders.

The latest instructions for the global church’s nearly 31,000 congregations also noted the following:

• Members may be encouraged to wear face masks.

• Choirs will continue to be suspended.

• When more members desire to attend than the guidelines allow, leaders may hold multiple services during the day or invite members to attend on alternate weeks.

• Wards, or congregations, with large attendance at meetings may need to wait to begin holding meetings at the Phase 2 level. These wards may also need to alternate weeks of attendance to accommodate all members.

• When more than one ward attends in one meetinghouse (as is common in Utah), stake presidents, who are regional leaders, should space out meeting times to avoid overlapping schedules.

• Buildings must be thoroughly cleaned after each set of meetings, especially areas that are touched, such as doorknobs, light switches, water fountains, microphones and pulpits.

• Where available, hand sanitizer should be provided in meetinghouse foyers.

• Male priesthood holders may wear face masks — where available — while preparing, blessing and passing the sacrament, or communion.

• Before administering the sacrament, priesthood holders should thoroughly wash their hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds — or use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.

• Bishops might ask members to sit in every other bench or have chairs spaced so that priesthood holders can offer the trays to all members, rather than having individuals pass trays down a row.

(Photo courtesy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) For demonstration purposes, a Utah congregation shows how church attendees could practice appropriate social distancing during a Sunday worship service.

Specific plans for Utah — which includes many large Latter-day Saint congregations — were not released with the guidelines. Much of the state is operating under low-risk “yellow” level coronavirus conditions, allowing gatherings of up to 50 people. Salt Lake City, West Valley City and Magna, along with Grand, Summit and Wasatch counties, remain at the moderate-risk “orange” level, limiting gatherings to 20 or fewer.

The top Latter-day Saint leaders urged caution in resuming worship services.

“Please return to regular practices slowly, continuing to function remotely using technology while beginning in-person meetings in a phased approach,” the guidelines advised. “Priority for in-person gatherings should be given to meetings during which ordinances are performed, such as baptisms and sacrament meetings.”

‘Wishful thinking'

Other Utah clergy are willing to wait longer to ensure it is safe to come together with their congregations.

“While the emotional appeal to reunite with friends and to reconvene worshipping in community are compelling, lifting restrictions at this point in time may pose a serious health risk,” eight clergy members wrote in a joint statement. “The number of COVID infections across Utah is still increasing, making a return to ‘normal’ an act of wishful thinking.”

These religious leaders have “signed a covenant with specific criteria” as to when they believe it will be “optimal” to reopen.

They will seek the “best scientific information ... and an honest evaluation of the condition and status of the virus,” and make decisions based on “what is best for the health of our members and the health of all people in Salt Lake City.”

They agreed to work at being “creative in fostering community gathered around faith,” the statement said, and “to seek to be a unifying force in our communities, our city and society as a whole.”

They promised to “pray, seek wisdom and talk with each other as we evaluate the timing of resuming our services,” the statement said, and to “pray for the day when this pandemic is over and we can examine the lessons learned through the experience.”

The pledge was signed by: the Rev. Curtis Price, First Baptist Church of Salt Lake City; the Rev. David Nichols, Mount Tabor Lutheran Church (ELCA); the Rev. Russell Butler, Christ United Methodist Church; Rabbi Samuel Spector, Congregation Kol Ami; the Rev. Scott Dalgarno, Wasatch Presbyterian Church; the Rev. Steve Leiser, Shepherd of the Mountains Lutheran Church (ELCA); the Rev. Tom Goldsmith, First Unitarian Church of Salt Lake City; and the Rev. Vinnetta Golphin-Wilkerson, Granger Community Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).

In early May, the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City, which oversees Utah’s 300,000-plus Catholics, established strict guidelines, including social distancing, for when parishes could celebrate Mass, and those standards haven’t changed.

Monsignor Colin Bircumshaw, the diocese’s vicar general, has instructed each parish to decide what works best for its congregants.

At St. Thomas More Catholic Church in Cottonwood Heights, for example, parishioners are required to register online at the parish website to attend Mass, according to the Intermountain Catholic. The Rev. John Evans told the paper that, due to social distancing, only about “40 people” would be able to go.

At the landmark Cathedral of the Madeleine in downtown Salt Lake City, all Masses have resumed, but attendance is limited. And, because many of those who do attend are visitors, the Rev. Martin Diaz, the cathedral rector, told the paper that it was impossible to do advance registration.

‘Moving forward’

The Episcopal Diocese will continue virtual services until at least the end of May, Bishop Scott Hayashi wrote in an April 29 pastoral letter to parishioners.

“We answer to the virus,” Hayashi wrote. “... Reopening while the virus is still spreading only gives it the opportunity to continue its upward trajectory.”

Salt Lake City cases went up 15% from last week, the bishop said Tuesday, “so no [Episcopal] church can begin reopening.”

Some faith groups, however, are eager to get back to regular services.

The Rev. Gregory Johnson of Standing Together, a consortium of Utah evangelical churches, reports that many evangelical congregations in the state “are moving forward with their plans to reopen.”

A growing number, Johnson wrote in a text message, will start holding services “in a phased way,” starting the last Sunday of May or the first Sunday in June.

As for Muslims, this weekend marks the end of Ramadan, the Islamic holy month when believers forgo food and water from dawn to dusk for 30 days.

It is traditionally celebrated with a communitywide feast known as Eid al-Fitr, which often attracts as many as 2,000 participants, said Shuaib Din, imam at the Utah Islamic Center in Sandy.

Given the pandemic this year, Din said, with sadness, “we have no plans to gather.”