Suspended worship meetings and the sacrament: What we can learn from the First Presidency letter and the General Handbook

With global health concerns leading the Church to temporarily suspend worship services worldwide, the direction to bishops and stake presidents in overseeing availability of the sacrament to local Latter-day Saints serves as a reminder of the sacred ordinance’s principles, processes and procedures.

The October 2018 move to “home-centered, Church-supported” gospel learning coupled with the recent temporary suspension of public worship meetings does not mean a household takes over on its own conducting a sacrament service, nor does it lessen the bishop’s role in overseeing and authorizing certain priesthood ordinances.

In fact, a closer look at the March 12, 2020, letter to Latter-day Saint leaders and members from the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles along with the Church’s General Handbook: Serving in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — the combined, updated new instructional manual made available online to the public last month — helps give directions and assurances on how the sacrament ordinance can and should be administered in a home setting.

The recent letter states: “Beginning immediately, all public gatherings of Church members are being temporarily suspended worldwide until further notice. This includes: … All public worship services, including sacrament meetings.”

The sacrament offers a chance for reflection, repentance and remembering the Savior

The communication includes the direction that “bishops should counsel with their stake presidents to determine how to make the sacrament available to members at least once a month.”

“Once a month” doesn’t create an expected regularity of the sacrament, but allows for challenges created by extreme distances and extreme circumstances.

Bishops and stake presidents — as well as branch and district presidents — are in discussion as how to provide the sacrament to local members and fulfill other instructions in this and similar correspondence from Church leaders. Many have already given direction on how to handle the sacrament ordinance in homes this weekend and in coming weeks.

The General Handbook’s Chapter 29, “Meetings in the Church,” section 29.2.2.10 bears the title “Sacrament Services in Unusual Situations.”

“Every member needs the spiritual blessings that come from partaking of the sacrament,” the handbook says. “If members are unable to attend sacrament meeting because they are confined to a home, nursing home, or hospital, the bishop may assign priesthood holders to prepare, bless, and pass the sacrament to these members.”

The next paragraph says that “unusual circumstances” may result in the bishop occasionally giving authorization for a sacrament service to be held away from the meetinghouse.

“He may authorize such a service only within his ward boundaries. The person whom the bishop authorizes to conduct the service must hold the Melchizedek Priesthood or be a priest in the Aaronic Priesthood. He also must be worthy to bless and pass the sacrament. The priesthood holder who directs the service reports to the bishop when the service has been held.”

The bread and water of the sacrament.

The section also counsels against a practice that some members have sought approval for in the past — holding a special sacrament meeting in conjunction with family reunions, family campouts or other outings.

Performing or receiving some ordinances and blessings — including sacrament — requires approval from a presiding leader who holds the necessary priesthood keys, as identified in Chapter 3, “Priesthood Principles.”

That chapter outlines the restoration and blessings of the priesthood as well as priesthood authority, including priesthood authority, priesthood power and the priesthood in the home. It identifies partaking of the sacrament as one of the great blessings that God makes available to all His children through covenants and priesthood ordinances.

Early in Chapter 6, “Ward Leadership,” the handbook teaches that Latter-day Saints look to their bishop as the primary spiritual leader in the ward and one who “sets the spiritual tone for the ward by doing the Lord’s work ‘with holiness of heart’ (Mosiah 18:12).”

Under the heading “Ordinances and Blessings” in the same chapter, section 6.1.4 lists the ordinances and blessings which requires authorization and direction from the bishop — the sacrament, naming and blessing of children, baptism and confirmation of 8-year-old children of record, and conferral of the Aaron Priesthood and ordination to the offices of deacon, teacher and priest.

It then refers the reader to chapter 18, “Priesthood Ordinances and Blessings,” with the sacrament ordinance listed in section 18.2 as among those that “make it possible for God’s children to receive His power, healing, comfort, and guidance.”

Young men administer the sacrament of bread and water to the congregation.

Section 18.3 — “Participation in an Ordinance or Blessing” — reminds the reader of priesthood authorization and worthiness.  The section reiterates in text and with charts that performing some ordinances and blessings — including the sacrament — require approval from a presiding leader who holds the necessary priesthood keys, with approval also able to come from someone he has authorized, such as a bishop’s counselor.

The handbook’s section 18.9 — “The Sacrament” — focuses solely on the ordinance and provides numerous scriptural references as to its purpose, procedure and participation.

Under “Approval to Administer the Sacrament” in 18.9.1, the necessary bishop’s authorization is again underscored.

The March 12, 2020, letter from the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles concludes with a testimony and promised blessings: “We bear our witness of the Lord’s love during this time of uncertainty. He will bless you to find joy as you do your best to live the gospel of Jesus Christ in every circumstance.”