Zelophehad’s Daughters

Can Women Pass the Sacrament?

Posted by Kiskilili

The issue of what exactly the priesthood is is notoriously thorny. Often appearing to be caught between pronounced sacramentalist tendencies (ordinances effect real change that goes beyond their symbolic import) and an underdeveloped theology regarding the significance of our so-called “non-essential” ordinances (no transubstantiation for us!), we seem at a loss to explain clearly the difference between a non-priesthood holder reciting the blessing over the bread and water of which people then contemplatively partake, and the same situation when a priesthood holder pronounces it.

But that, fascinating in itself, is not what this post is about. Accepting for the sake of argument that the priesthood somehow makes a difference to the efficacy of the blessing of the sacrament, how do we explain why the priesthood would be necessary for the distribution of those emblems? In other words, obviously women, lacking the priesthood, are unable to effectively bless the sacrament. But doctrinally, what prevents them from passing it?

33 Responses to “Can Women Pass the Sacrament?”

  1. 1.

    This is interesting considering that women do pass the sacrament…down the pews. I think it goes back to the authroity to mediate covenants. The priest baptiizes and blesses the sacrament because he has express authority to pronounce such covenant making formulations. As to the Deacon who passes the sacrament, this is an extension of the administration of that covenant. It goes from priesthood holder (administrator) to church member (recipient).

    I’m not sure when the sacrament trifecta was officially organized: teachers prepare, priests bless, deacons administer. If I had to guess it would date back to the early priesthood reformation at the turn of the 20th century. I’ll have to do some digging on that.

  2. 2.

    I seem to remember a comment awhile back about a situation where a deacon would bring a sacrament tray to the door of the mother’s lounge and one woman would take it at the and pass it around to the other mothers in the lounge. Later the bishop instructed the deacons to stop taking it to the door of the mother’s lounge because the woman passing it around was deemed innappropriate. I’ll see if I can find the thread.

  3. 3.

    This is just something that I came up with, not official in any way:

    the blessing of the Sacrament as done by Priesthood holders is representative of Christ’s atonement and those that pass represent Christ’s disciples who take the gospel to the people of the world willing to accept (those in the congregation).

    Of course Christ had female disciples, so maybe some would describe those passing as representative of apostles or leadership.

    That said, we all take upon us the name of Christ at baptism and represent him, or try to. Sister missionaries do it with tags.

    I would not have a problem with women passing the Sacrament, it would not diminish the Sacrament for me, but I don’t see it happening. In my stake, women can’t even say the opening prayer in Sacrament meeting (to which I wish we would collectively respond by not giving talks, bearing testimony, directing or playing music, or saying closing prayers either until SP changes his mind).

  4. 4.

    I have enough to do. Let the deacons do it.

  5. 5.

    I wonder if this isn’t a specific instance of the Church’s more general policy toward women: When in doubt, keep ‘em out. Women are barred from doing all kinds of things that have no obvious link to the priesthood. We don’t have women serve as ward clerks, Sunday School presidents, or in missionary leadership positions (like zone leader or district leader) even though there doesn’t seem to be a compelling need for people in any of these positions to hold the priesthood.

  6. 6.

    I kind of agree with what J. said. I think the priesthood is God’s call to administration.

    This may be stereotyping, but what the heck:

    It seems that when women aren’t called on to administrate, they find other ways to help, think of the little things they can do, etc…

    When Men aren’t prodded to administrate, they watch TV.

  7. 7.

    My husband and other priesthood holders have told me that the decon directly represents the Savior in this act of service.

  8. 8.

    As the administration of the sacrament is an aaronic priesthood duty, the specific division of responsibilities is determined by the presiding bishopric. They are responsible for determining who can pass, prepare, and bless.

    Even when someone other than a priesthood holder is “Passing” the sacrament to a person beside them, the deacon, or other priesthood holder is still vital for two reasons. First, they oversee the distribution of the sacrament to that row, ensuring everyone had an opportuinity to partake. Second, a non-priesthood holder is not authorized to approach the sacrament table and transport the sacrament to the masses.

    I find it strange that a discussion like this is always presented as “Women can’t do this” or “Women can’t do that”. In reality, it is not just women who cannot pass the sacrament, but any non-priesthood holder and even any priesthood holder not authorized by the bishop to participate.

  9. 9.

    JM- A man can change and become worthy to hold the Priesthood. His exclusion from performing these ordinances is within his control. I can never stop being a woman, therefore my exclusion is beyond my control.

  10. 10.

    Then your issue is not with the ability to pass the sacrament. It is with holding the priesthood.

  11. 11.

    The thing is, though, that this post isn’t just another “why can’t women do x?” post. It is asking what is it about passing (just passing, not blessing) the sacrament that requires a priesthood holder. Or how would the ordinance be invalidated by a non-priesthood holder taking the trays from pew to pew?
    The best answer I’ve seen is that the deacons are acting in proxy for the apostles or Christ Himself. In which case it actually *isn’t* the fact that women don’t hold the priesthood that is barring them from passing the sacrament, it is the fact that only men can perform proxy work for other men.

  12. 12.

    Wow, Starfoxy–that’s so interesting about the mother’s lounge! Out of curiosity, does anyone happen to know of other churches in which the Eucharist/communion/sacrament is distributed among the pews? When playing hooky from our own church, I tend to favor high churches, and I’ve only attended services in which everyone filed up to the front to receive the wafer and wine. It interests me that even among the Catholics, for example, where women cannot be ordained, women are certainly not forbidden to approach the priest to receive the Eucharist. I’m not sure I see the doctrine behind a policy prohibiting a non-priesthood holder from approaching the sacrament table.

    As “a spectator” noted, in some stakes women can’t say opening prayers (it was only a few decades ago, after all, that women couldn’t pray in sacrament meeting at all). And as Ziff said, many of the church’s restrictions excluding women have nothing directly to do with the priesthood itself as it’s commonly understood.

    Annegb, would it bother you terribly if the 12-year-old girls did it? ;)

    Regarding symbols, I find it curious that Christ would be represented both by the bread and water itself and by the individual distributing the bread and water. For this reason it makes more sense to me to understand the deacons as Christ’s disciples (if it’s even necessary to understand them as representing anything other than the convenience of allowing everyone else to remain seated). However, as some have already noted, Christ had female disciples.

    I also wonder what characteristics are important in representing Christ, if that is what the deacons do; are they to emulate him entirely spiritually along with one single physical characteristic: biological maleness? There’s good reason to believe Christ wore a beard, yet no one who is asked to emulate Christ is required to wear a beard. In fact, none of the other ways in which we’re asked to emulate Christ are physical at all.

    To me the policy seems somewhat arbitrary; why, for example, must the person distributing the sacrament be male but not the person partaking of it? In the Middle Ages it was common for the priest to partake of the Eucharist on behalf of the entire congregation. I’m not advocating such a policy; I’m just observing that there’s often no solid reason for certain of our male-only restrictions. We commonly invoke “priesthood” to explain anything limited to men, whether it obviously pertains to the priesthood or not. I imagine if only men could partake of the sacrament, post hoc explanations along the lines of those offered here would develop.

  13. 13.

    Ziff,
    I find it interesting that you mention a few offices in which women don’t officiate. What about men never serving as Primary President? Do we subconsciously lump the women and children together? I know that in my church building (a stake center, actually), there is only a changing table in the Mothers’ Lounge, and none in the mens’ bathroom. Does this bother any of the men? Do they feel left out or somehow “unworthy” of parenting duties? Just curious since that is how being left out of some of the Priesthood duties makes me feel. I don’t mean this question to sound sarcastic; I’m honestly interested.

  14. 14.

    I know that many, if not most, Baptist churches pass the sacrament through the pews. Interestingly, at a Presbyterian church where some of my friends attend, people come forward (like the Catholics), but those passing out the “elements” are neither ordained nor necessarily men; they can be just anyone who regularly attends. I like how this represents the democratization of ministry.

    However, Baptists and Presbyterians (and probably others) tend to make a big deal about ordained ministers’ being the folks who consecrate the sacrament. Those distributing it, then, could be seen to have derivative authority, so it’s not necessarily a big deal.

  15. 15.

    I know that in my church building (a stake center, actually), there is only a changing table in the Mothers’ Lounge, and none in the mens’ bathroom. Does this bother any of the men? Do they feel left out or somehow “unworthy” of parenting duties?

    It’s the same in our church building (also a stake center). It frustrates my husband, and at least one other man that I know about, but not for making them feel unworthy, just because it’d be nice to be able to change the diaper without having to find me. How old is your building? Ours was built in the 60′s. I’ve been under the impression that this is restricted to older buildings, and that newer buildings have changing tables in the men’s rooms.

    Kiskilili, I wish I could find the thread that the comment was on. I hate just leaving it at “I heard from a guy who’s brother’s friend is dating a girl who saw Ferris pass out at 31 Flavors last night.” I’m almost certain it was on FMH, and I’ve been digging through the archives with no success.

  16. 16.

    To further the threadjack, if you want changing tables in the men’s room, just ask. It worked for me! (Actually, I asked with research in hand on where to order them and how much they cost, just to make it easier on everyone. They were the ones that attach to the wall.)

    On topic: regarding the end of Kiskilli’s quote in #12: I recently had this experience in RS. Somehow the topic had wondered on to the Priesthood (don’t ask!) and someone offered a sweet story about our SP when he was their family’s HT and how he had been such a good example to her kids, come to school functions etc.- she was a single parent. However, none of it had to do with his holding the priesthood, although she kept saying how great it was to have the priesthood in their home. How about, Male Influence?

  17. 17.

    I think JM hit on it.

    The deacon is the representative, not of Christ, but of the Bishop to each of the congregants. As the presiding High Priest of the congregation, it is the bishop’s responsibility to to judge the worthiness of those partaking the sacrament. Deacons, as representatives of the bishop, thens oversee each pew as members partake. In the days of 50 year old deacons, this made more sense. With 12 year olds, it is kind of odd for them to “judge” my worthiness for the bishop.

  18. 18.

    Regarding the question of changing tables in bathrooms, when my wife and I first moved to our current ward, the building only had a changing table in the women’s bathroom. I remember because I remember complaining to her about it for the same reason your husband complained to you, Starfoxy. It’s just plain inconvenient to only give one parent access to a changing table. To answer your question, Riklerunning, it didn’t make me feel unworthy of parenting responsibilities. I think it was just the clear assumption that I wouldn’t be doing any parenting that irritated me. Fortunately, there was one installed in the men’s room shortly after we arrived. I’ve made much use of it.

    Rilkerunning, to answer another of your questions, yes, I do think women and children get lumped together. Wasn’t this idea–that men are the real people and women are more like children than they are like men–common at the time the Church was founded? (I speculate; my knowledge of history is thin.) We’ve just been slow to give it up.

  19. 19.

    The deacons of our sparsely-attended ward kept expecting me to pass the sacrament over a big empty space in the pew, to the couple on the other end. Though I was there with three preliterate kids and no other adult. I was cursing the day they upholstered the benches as I tried to slide my butt fifteen feet with tray and baby cargo in tow.

    One day I just stood up and walked the tray down the pew over to the other people. The deacons were willing to reorganize their passing game after that.

  20. 20.

    [...] Kiskilili poses the following very interesting question: Often appearing to be caught between pronounced sacramentalist tendencies (ordinances effect real change that goes beyond their symbolic import) and an underdeveloped theology regarding the significance of our so-called “non-essential” ordinances (no transubstantiation for us!), we seem at a loss to explain clearly the difference between a non-priesthood holder reciting the blessing over the bread and water of which people then contemplatively partake, and the same situation when a priesthood holder pronounces it. Implicit in Kiskilili’s question, it seems to me, that the presence or the absence of the priesthood must make sense in some way other than symbolic import because symbols are inherently conventional and there is no reason that we couldn’t simply rearrange the symbols differently and have the same meaning. Hence, the reference to transubstantiation, which presumably provides a powerful way of understanding the sacrament in other than symbolic terms. [...]

  21. 21.

    Actually, any person performing Christ-like service under his direction, in his name, and according to his Spirit is a representative of Jesus Christ and not any other mortal person.

    That means, especially, both righteous fathers and mothers, including many who do not yet know that they are acting in such a high and holy calling. It also includes all callings and assignments in the Church, as well as inspired service everywhere. Mosiah 18 is clear enough.

  22. 22.

    In my view, there is no inherent doctrinal reason why women (or young girls) could not pass the sacrament. This was simply something that was incorporated into the duties of a deacon when deacons became young boys rather than mature men. The Church needed to find simple, physical things for the 12 and 13 year olds to do, and this was one of them. I realize this has since become traditional and in the minds of most sacralized. But in principle there is no reason why the Beehives class couldn’t pass the sacrament.

    See the excellent article by William G. Hartley, “From Men to Boys: LDS Aaronic Priesthood Offices, 1829-1996,” Journal of Mormon History 22/1 (Spring 1996): 80.

    Re: J.’s initial comment, see also Steve Kropp’s Lighter Minds cartoon in Sunstone Issue No. 78, August 1990, entitled “Secrets of Mormonism,” which as I recall has about six different vignettes. One shows a woman passing the sacrament down the pew, with the caption “women *can* pass the sacrament.”

  23. 23.

    Changing tables are for wusses. Completely unnecessary. If you can change a squirming baby on a moving New York subway train, you can change him anywhere.

  24. 24.

    re: high church sacrament distribution
    Catholics have what they call “extraordinary eucharistic ministers” which are lay people (men and women) trained to distribute the sacrament. they stand up at the front. They’re passively around the alter during consecration. Then they partake first. then they stand up there like the preist as the congregation comes forth, holding the bread/wine and when you aporach they hold it up to you, say “this is the body/blood of Christ”, wait for you to say “amen” and place it in your hand/mouth, or hold the cup for you as you drink it.
    So, there you go. women do that, it is totally unrelated to preisthood for both genders, and it’s pretty significant and ritualized.

    Some purists don’t like it- the preist is suposed to be the only one doing that except for “Extraordinary” cases, yet every church has several of these helpers every Sunday.

  25. 25.

    Kaimi, trust a man to turn diaper-changing into a competition ;).

  26. 26.

    Eve,

    You realize that if women would realize this, it could turn into a major boon for women everywhere. “Honey, I changed the last diaper in 20 seconds flat. Do you think you can beat that time?” Very Tom Sawyer. And from there the wife turns to a life of leisure. Men are easy, after all. You just wear a low-cut top to melt our minds, and give us som kind of competition relating to something you want done. :P

    (And by the way, this is why the men’s room doesn’t _need_ a changing table. We men are far too busy swapping ever-more-elaborate stories about our prowess.

    “Oh yeah? Well last week I changed my daughter one-handed, with both eyes closed, standing on one foot, and with only a single diaper wipe. Beat _that_, brother Jensen!”)

  27. 27.

    I know I’m late to this thread, but I’ve posted on a similar topic, here.
    I’ve asked my bishop if women could pass the sacrament, and he said no. I think what Kevin Barney said is right– at the time of organizing the YM to administer the sacrament, it was really to give the boys something to do, and from my understanding, to keep them out of trouble.

    We have recently moved, and I asked my husband to bless the house. After looking in the priesthood manual, he asked me to do it. The manual did not indicate that it was a priesthood function. So, I did it. It was great and I felt apart of the head of the house for doing so.

    My point: I think women can do more that we think in the church and it may be just a matter of time that traditions are let go, and women are given more responsibility. (specifically the YW.)

  28. 28.

    There’s a job in the Catholic church that for the longest time was limited to young men — generally speaking, it was supposed to be boys who were preparing to take on priesthood vows later in life (like alter boys.) One of my friends lives in a SoCal parish, and two of the three youths who do this job are girls (one of them is my friend’s eldest daughter) — and they get paid to do it. It’s a bit of a combination of the duties that deacons and teachers actually do in my ward, though I don’t know for sure whether those are “officially” deacon/teacher duties. In this particular parish, the kids are showing up at 5am, setting up the altar and candles and generally getting ready for Mass. They also prep their chapel for weddings. The whole thing is under the direction of their parish priest.

    Of course, the reason that I was given, as to why this job was now open to girls, was quite straightforward: there weren’t enough boys around to do it, particularly given the 5am part and giving up both Saturday and Sunday mornings indefinitely, and some Friday mornings as well. I think one of the girls also preps for the Masses during the week.

    Anyway, if in 1500 years new member growth and birthrates are tanking, and current trends of higher church activity rates amongst teenage girls versus boys persist, we might just see all kinds of jobs ordinarily given to the YM, handed over to the YW.

  29. 29.

    Thanks for all the fantastic comments, both the information on other churches and the personal experiences involving the priesthood (or the lack of explicit necessity for the priesthood!). I’ve read them with interest.

    Perhaps it would make sense to redefine priesthood in such a way to indicate privileged male status in ecclesial participation.

  30. 30.

    It wouldn’t bother me who did it, just so it’s not me.

  31. 31.

    I think it would be amusing to set up the seating/pews in a circle (say, in a smaller branch). The sacrament table would be at the top of the circle, the presiding authority would sit in the first spot. The deacon could stand in place, turn around, pass the sacrament to the first person, wait for the sacrament to work it’s way around, then do another 180 degree turn back to the table and… voila. This assumes you can’t find a priest with sufficiently long arms to just act as the deacon at the same time. The members may do more actual passing than the deacon.

    This topic may be an issue we can consider from the perspective of intention and behavior. I’ve often noticed that many discussions within the church have a greater tendency to focus on whether someone behaved correctly (e.g. “when he did X, was it a sin?”, “she sinned because she did x. From this we learn…”). And well, behavior does matter.

    From what I can tell though, we’re ultimately judged on intent being followed by an action we deemed appropriate to that intent, without rationalization, not whether an action ultimately turns out to be correct. In this light, setting up sacrament in the round for my own amusement changes whether it’s appropriate or not.

    Hypothetically you can have an individual who cluelessly does everything wrong, but with perfect intent, leaving a swath of carnage, or an individual who does all the right things, but with evil intent their entire lives. The one would probably end up in outer darkness, the other would be blessed for their actions (presumably in the form of kind souls attempting to inform them of the damage they’re doing), and would receive eternal life.

    And this is why some believe George Bush is so dangerous.

    Oh sorry I had a different point there. Basically I think yes, women can pass the sacrament if it can be done with pure intent not only for the act itself but for and within the current structure of the church. Otherwise the structure would need to be changed in the same way. And if we later discover we were mistaken, it will matter less than if we genuinely felt we were doing the right things. These things can be corrected. They’re either redone in a manner later deemed appropriate, or ratified by a presiding authority. Hey, members have been baptized before 8 and had that ratified years later. I think we’d be ok on the sacrament. The question is, do our leaders feel this is the correct course of action in their hearts. I don’t think that’s the case yet.

  32. 32.

    Oh, incidentally, if a branch ever did set up seating in the round like this it probably wouldn’t work out.

    Oh sure, it would start out innocently enough. The branch president in the first spot (for convenience), the counselors in the second and third, and everyone else as they felt like it. But then they might put the executive secretary in the 4th spot. Some time later the Elder’s quorum president or High Priest’s group leader would sit in the 5th spot, and pretty soon everyone would be sitting in order of their authority.

    Eventually this would devolve into order of righteousness, with people not partaking of the sacrament sitting toward the end. I think I had something to say about the Zoramites here, but I’m a little tired.

    Anyway, the whole system would eventually collapse.

    The end.

  33. 33.

    The exercise of priesthood power is clearly not limited to men. We know that by watching the officiants in the temple when washing and annointings occur.

    That being said, and to answer the precise question, there is no question that the women of the church could do pretty much anything the men could do. I personally think that this is simply training for the young men who need to be given a role and especially one that requires the rendition of service.

    Moreover, as the Proclamation points out, males and females have separate roles. Although the women could pass and do everything else, the men, I believe need the responsibility to keep them involved and to keep them doing something. Otherwise, the men would do little if anything. Sorry for the stereotype, but I think it’s true.

    Incidentally, I serve as a counselor in the bishopric in a YSA ward. Oftentimes our wives are asked to attend bishopric meetings and to participate fully. They are a critical part of the ministering we do in the YSA ward. Are they exercising priesthood authority? Additionally, although my wife doesn’t conduct the interviews, she acts as my executive secretary just as any executive secretary would do. Is that exercising priesthood authority? Or is she just making sure that I’m getting my job done??

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