Some Latter-day Saints scattered across Utah will gather with fellow believers for worship this Sunday for the first time since church services were suspended in March due to the coronavirus pandemic — and what they experience will be dramatically different than what they had known their whole religious lives.
It may also vary from how other members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — even some in the same stake, or region — conduct their services.
That’s because the church’s governing First Presidency gave general instructions about phased-in reconvening but left it up to local lay leaders exactly how to implement protections for their specific congregations.
In the first phase, the top leaders said, masks could be worn by congregants and by the male “priesthood holders” who administer the sacrament, or communion. Chapels must be thoroughly cleaned after every meeting, which should be shorter than one hour. Members might be asked to sit 6 feet apart as individuals or in family groups. Choirs are temporarily discontinued.
Leaders for the church’s Utah Area then gave the green light for members in the Beehive State to begin meeting again, emphasizing that no members should feel compelled or required to attend in-person services, especially if they are at a higher risk of developing complications from COVID-19 or they don’t feel safe for any reason.
Given those guidelines and the go-ahead from government leaders, a number of Latter-day Saint wards, or congregations, are choosing to press forward with restricted services.
In bigger congregations, larger than 99 members, bishops are dividing their ranks into two or more groups, based on the first letter of members’ last names. These smaller cohorts may meet weekly at different times or on alternate weeks.
All are requiring, not just recommending, adequate social distancing. Some wards will use ushers to escort attendees to the appropriate seats on alternate pews. Sacrament meetings that had been an hour will now be 30 to 45 minutes.
There remain, though, variations regarding face masks, the sacrament, and hymn singing.
Such diversity may indicate a new, more regional direction for the church, which has about 31,000 congregations worldwide and more than 5,200 in Utah.
“You’d have to go back before the correlation movement of the mid-20th century to find this much diversity in decision-making,” says historian Patrick Mason, head of Mormon history and culture at Utah State University. “Up until then, every mission had its own tracts and teaching methods, for example, which were far more localized than today.”
In the past few years, leaders have allowed for subtle differences “around the edges” with Sunday services, Mason says, like specialized hymns to be sung in congregations in disparate areas.
The pandemic could be “a pivot point,” the scholar says, to show senior leaders they “don’t have to be scared of local innovations within the parameters they set.”
To mask or not to mask
In its instructions, one Millcreek area bishopric wrote that all attendees 8 or older will have to wear a face covering the entire time, except when speaking from the pulpit.
In the 27th East Ward in the Avenues, members “should wear face coverings when meeting together,” the bishop said in his email to congregants. “Wearing of face masks is as much about protecting others as it is about protecting ourselves, and as we do so we demonstrate our love and respect for fellow ward members.”
In the Avenues’ Hilltop Ward, face masks “are expected," although a member said late Saturday that services for this Sunday were canceled after a downtown protest against police use of deadly force turned violent. (Salt Lake City enacted a curfew but attending religious services is allowed.)
In two separate West Jordan wards, bishops “encouraged” but did not require face masks, inviting members to bring their own.
Such vocabulary distinctions (have to, should, expected, and encouraged) could bring conflict into meetinghouses, Mason says, and make political differences more visible.
Latter-day Saints who attend church together have often been divided about politics, but such divisions typically are much less apparent in Mormon wards than in other congregations.
Not all those who go maskless are doing it for political reasons, of course, but the coverings have become “politicized” during this crisis, Mason says. “Some people might try to make a statement about it at church by choosing not to wear one.”
Latter-day Saint leaders could have solved that problem, he says, by requiring masks of all churchgoers, rather than leaving it up to local authorities.
Then those who eschew masks would become “anti-prophet, not “anti-government,” Mason says, “and nobody wants to be anti-prophet.”
No more passing, singing
All the wards stipulated — as the faith’s top leaders insisted — that the boys and men preparing, blessing and passing the emblems of the sacrament must wash their hands thoroughly as well as use hand sanitizer.
That same Millcreek ward will require them to wear masks as well. Small pieces of bread will be placed in individual cups; separate trays will be used to offer the bread and water, and to gather the cups for discarding.
In other wards, masks are encouraged but not demanded. The bread will be placed separately on the trays, not touching one another, but not in cups.
Priesthood holders will give the bread and water to individuals or household groups sitting on the edge of rows, rather than have congregants pass the trays from person to person along a row.
All the wards say they will clean and disinfect the trays after each use.
“There are many elements that could play out like a comedy, such as the deacons with their public hand sanitizing,” says Ann Larsen of the Hilltop Ward. “What if you accidentally touch one of the other pieces of bread during the sacrament?”
Larsen, who is 70 and has a son with a poor immune system living at home, is not ready to return.
“How are they going to restrain the socializing that is sure to follow the meeting?” she wonders. “There could be such a sweet awkwardness to what has been, for many members, a lifelong pattern — the familiarity of a typical sacrament meeting.”
The Hilltop Ward will have no congregational singing.
Larsen says her bishop told members they can “hum along” to the music played on the organ.
Nicole Bullock, who is in one of the West Jordan wards meeting Sunday, has survived acute respiratory distress syndrome.
Bullock understands “the excitement of meeting together again at church,” she says. “But I feel like it is too soon. I plan to give it more time before I step foot inside a church.”
She is most concerned about the possibility of congregational hymns.
“Singing causes superspreading of respiratory molecules, and I don’t think it is worth the risk,” she says. “There are other ways to worship with music.”
It may be “more prudent to listen to musical recordings.” Bullock says, “while a pandemic continues to ravage the world.”