If the Book of Moroni is an instruction manual to “build a church,” as Michael Austin suggests, with the “nuts-and-bolts how-to-run-a-church stuff that anybody trying to reassemble what the Nephites built will need to know,” then Doctrine and Covenants Section 20 represents an effort to take that manual, adapt it and expand on it for the restored Church of Christ. Known as the Articles and Covenants, the section is something like a charter for the Church in the early 1830s, capturing how to function as a church and the basic information about the Church (with occasional updates up to the time of publishing the Doctrine and Covenants in 1835). Want to know the Church’s history? Read verses 1-12. Core doctrines and beliefs? Read verses 13-36. Requirements for baptism? Go to verse 37. Basic ecclesiastical offices, their functions and how to be ordained? See verses 38-67. Expectations for church members after joining? Verses 68-71. How to perform core ordinances? Read verses 72-79. How to handle inter-congregational gatherings and Church discipline? See verses 80-84. Several key sections in Section 20 are drawn from Moroni’s writings, including, notably, the sacrament prayers.
The sacrament of the Lord’s Supper and the way we approach those sacrament prayers in Section 20 (and Moroni) has been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. When gatherings of church members were suspended worldwide on 12 March 2020, instructions were given that “bishops should counsel with their stake presidents to determine how to make the sacrament available to members at least once a month.” The way this played out varied, but generally resulted in homes with priesthood holders being allowed to perform the sacrament and then those in homes without someone ordained to the priesthood not having access to the sacrament unless they were willing to risk exposure to the disease through inviting men ordained to the priesthood to come into their homes. For example, my bishop issued the following guidance on 14 March 2020:
If there is a worthy priesthood holder in the home, you are authorized at this time to perform sacrament in your home. This authorization only exists until we are allowed to hold sacrament meeting again in the Church. It should be done in a reverent manner. My biggest concern is for widows, single adults and part member families. As I have pondered on this, let us manage it this direction. Ministers and neighbors will be asked to assist in this ordinance. This will assure that each person will have the opportunity to partake of the sacrament.
Thus, while my bishop indicated that he wanted to extend the opportunity to everyone to have the sacrament, doing so relied on either having an ordained priest, elder, or high priest in the home or having a neighbor or ministering brother who was ordained come into your home.
In late May, meetings were allowed to resume in my area. On the 28th of May, we were informed that sacrament meetings would be held on a monthly basis in my stake, with limitations on number of people allowed, cleaning protocols, etc. Outside of that monthly sacrament meeting, our stake presidency stated that: “You are also encouraged to continue with your Sunday worship practices at home. Administration of the sacrament at home continues to be authorized for the other Sundays of the month where you will not be attending a sacrament meeting in-person.” On the same day, President Russell M. Nelson shared a Facebook post about how his wife appreciated the opportunity she had of “hearing my husband bless the sacrament,” and celebrating the decision to begin gradually resuming sacrament meetings. He noted, however, that: “I am especially concerned for those who desire to partake of the sacrament but do not have a worthy priesthood bearer in their home. They should let their bishop know that they would like to have his delegated representatives come to their home to administer the sacrament.” Both of these messages—local and general—offered encouragement to receive or perform the sacrament in the home and at Church (when possible), but offered little in the way of what to do if you did not have a worthy priesthood holder in your home and felt strongly about reducing risk of exposure by avoiding having people in your immediate family enter your home.
There was, however, one general Church statement that gave indications about what to do if you were unable to receive the sacrament. Guidance issued by the Church on 16 April noted that: “In unusual circumstances when the sacrament is not available, members can be comforted by studying the sacrament prayers and recommitting to live the covenants members have made and praying for the day they will receive it in person, properly administered by a priesthood bearer.” Jana Riess pointed out, however, that the situation is not actually unusual—according to her estimate, only about 39% of adult women who are active Church members in the United States are married to an active priesthood-holding man. And, she noted, “I have had a couple of well-intentioned men in my area offer to bring the sacrament to my house, which I appreciate. But there’s no way in heck I am going to endanger anyone’s health over this by having them come inside.” That would indicate that there is a significant portion of the Church who experienced these “unusual circumstances where the sacrament is not available,” especially among those who were concerned enough about a deadly pandemic to limit visits from individuals outside of their household.
In a comment on a post over at Wheat and Tares, Dave B. bluntly captured the issue at hand here:
The whole story about how oh so important the sacrament is that we take it every week and with home church we should do it in our homes rings false when the big exception is “except for single moms and women living alone, then it’s no big deal, just read the prayer and think of Jesus for five minutes, same thing.” What if we only “renew our covenants” once a year? Do they expire after three weeks or something?
The situation raises some important questions about the sacrament, such as: Why do we do it? How frequently is it necessary to perform it? How closely is our salvation tied to the ordinance?
In a way, Dave’s comment brought some of my own flawed assumptions about the sacrament to the fore. Previously, I’ve thought about salvation and the sacrament in terms not that different from a Netflix subscription. In the analogy, baptism and confirmation is the process of subscribing to salvation in the afterlife and times spent participating in the sacrament are weekly payments that are required to renew that subscription (with the exceptions of stake conferences and general conferences). The thought in the back of my mind was that if you didn’t keep up on the weekly payments, your subscription would expire until you repented and resumed those weekly renewals by returning to Church. In light of the Church’s guidance through the pandemic, however, the reality seems to be different than what my analogy indicates.
I’ve written previously on the subject of why we participate in the sacrament of the Lord’s supper and how frequently we can partake of the sacrament. Both discussions are relevant here. To boil the first down, there are a few specific reasons given in the scriptures for why we participate in the sacrament:
- Doctrine and Covenants 20 states that we need to “meet together often to partake of bread and wine in the remembrance of the Lord Jesus.” Paul similarly stated that “as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” We participate in the sacrament to remember the Lord’s death, with an eye looking forward to his Second Coming.
- The sacrament is a chance to develop bonds of love as a community united in our devotion to Christ. As St. Paul put it: “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a sharing in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.” We become one community—one body of Christ—through sharing “the emblems of the flesh and blood of Christ.”
- The sacrament is an opportunity publicly testify of our commitment to the Christ through making promises to God to “take upon them the name of thy Son, and always remember him and keep his commandments which he has given them” in return for the promise that we “may always have his Spirit to be with them.” We make those covenants each time we partake of the bread and water.
Thus, the three main reasons given in the scriptures are to remember the Last Supper and the Atonement of Jesus Christ, to become united as a community of believers, and to witness that we will follow the Lord and take his name upon us.
The language of “renewing” baptismal covenants that played into Dave B.’s comment and my Netflix analogy is not actually found in the scriptures but seems to come from Elder Joseph Fielding Smith and Elder Bruce R. McConkie in the mid-20th century. One of the earlier references was in the October 1950 general conference, where Elder McConkie stated that: “So important is this [baptismal] covenant in the eyes of the Lord that he has provided for us a means and a way to renew it often. The ordinance whereby we renew this covenant is the ordinance of the sacrament.” It’s an observation that we make covenants similar to the ones we make at baptism each time we partake of the sacrament, thus making them new again (re-newing) and it has become common to discuss the sacrament in these terms. More recently, however, Elder Neil L. Anderson noted that despite common use of the phrase when discussing the sacrament, “the title ‘renewing our baptismal covenants’ is not found in the scriptures … and it can’t be the keynote of what we say about the sacrament.”  Elder David A. Bednar added further differentiation between baptism and the sacrament by teaching that while baptism provides an “initial cleansing of our soul from sin,” the sacrament does not. Both ordinances do, however, offer us the promise of having the Spirit of the Lord with us if we keep our covenants, which is the actual sanctifying force that cleanses us from sin. Thus, language of renewing covenants should probably be understood in terms of recommitting ourselves to the same covenants anew again each time we participate in the sacrament rather than in terms of renewing a subscription.
So, how do we make sense of the insistence that we take the sacrament frequently on the one hand and the Church’s guidance that “members can be comforted by studying the sacrament prayers and recommitting to live the covenants members have made” when they can’t participate in the ordinance on the other? Historically, the frequency of participating in the Lord’s Supper has varied between different Christian faiths and at different times in history. Generally, however, Protestant churches observe Communion monthly or quarterly while it is common in Catholic or Orthodox churches for lay members to participate only a few times each year (even though they are offered the opportunity more frequently). Early converts to the Church of Christ carried these (primarily Protestant) approaches with them from their previous faiths and participated in the sacrament less frequently than we do today. President Brigham Young began to encourage Latter-day Saints to partake of the sacrament each Sabbath day as early as 1845, but it wasn’t common for them to actually do so until the end of the 19th century. This indicates to me that it isn’t strictly necessary to participate on a weekly basis, even if that has been common practice.
Given the core reasons I listed above, however, that is not to say that there aren’t reasons to partake of the sacrament when possible. President Joseph Fielding Smith taught that:
We have been called upon to commemorate this great event [the Atonement of Jesus Christ] and to keep it in mind constantly. For this purpose we are called together once each week to partake of these emblems, witnessing that we do remember our Lord, that we are willing to take upon us his name and that we will keep his commandments. This covenant we are called upon to renew each week, and we cannot retain the Spirit of the Lord if we do not consistently comply with this commandment. If we love the Lord we will be present at these meetings in the spirit of worship and prayer, remembering the Lord and the covenant we are to renew each week through this sacrament as he has required it of us. 
This is one of the strongest statements I can find on why we partake of the sacrament frequently.
Still, I think there are ways to reason out ways to understand our current situation from President Smith’s statement. In his understanding, we need to partake of the sacrament because we: 1) Are commanded to commemorate and remember the Atonement of Jesus Christ, 2) Need to follow a commandment to repeatedly make the covenants of the sacrament in order to have the constant companionship of the Holy Spirit, and 3) Show our love for the Lord through worship and prayer while attending sacrament meetings. As for the first point, studying the sacrament prayers and recommitting to live the covenants members have made does fulfil the commandment to remember the Atonement of Jesus Christ, regardless of whether we partake of bread and water. For the third point, I believe that doing what we can to worship and remember the Lord at home when we’re not in a position to attend sacrament meetings in person still demonstrates our love for and commitment to Him.
As for the second point, as members of the Church, we have already undergone baptism and confirmation and received the sacrament in the past, making the covenants that the constant companionship of the Holy Spirit are contingent upon. Certainly, meeting together to strengthen each other and recommit as a community to follow and obey Jesus Christ through the ordinance of the sacrament helps us to live in a way that maintains our connection with the Holy Spirit, and it fulfils the scriptural guidance that: “It is expedient that the church meet together often to partake of bread and wine in the remembrance of the Lord Jesus,” but it doesn’t seem like it is strictly necessary to do so in order to live a life that is in communion with the Spirit. I suspect how one approaches this point relies, however, a great deal on whether the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper is viewed as a channel of grace that allows access to the Holy Spirit through the ritual itself or whether we gain access to the Holy Spirit through observing the covenants we make during the ritual. If it is the ritual itself that is the channel of grace, then we really do need to partake of the bread and water on a regular basis to have the Spirit in our lives. If it is observing the covenant that we make during the ritual, then as long as we are still following the agreements we make, we can still always have his Spirit to be with us. President Brigham Young taught that: “If bread and wine are blessed, dedicated, and sanctified, through the sincerity and faith of the people of God, then the Spirit of the Lord, through the promise, rests upon the individuals who thus keep His commandments, and are diligent in obeying the ordinances.” Elder David A. Bednar taught that: “The act of partaking of the sacrament, in and of itself, does not remit sins. But as we prepare conscientiously and participate in this holy ordinance with a broken heart and a contrite spirit, then the promise is that we may always have the Spirit of the Lord to be with us.” If the sacrament doesn’t offer a remission of sins in and of itself, as Elder Bednar indicates, and it is through the promise of the covenant and through keeping the Lord’s commandments that the Spirit of the Lord rests upon individuals, as President Young indicates, then I believe there is a fairly strong case that the ordinance is not the channel of grace in and of itself, but the covenants made during the ordinance are the channel of grace–i.e., so long as we live our lives in a way that we remember Christ, take his name upon us, and keep his commandments we can have the Spirit’s presence in our lives.
Thus, I think we can argue that while regular opportunities to gather as a community to partake of the sacrament to remember Jesus Christ and strengthen each other through observing our mutual covenants with God does help us stay in tune with the Spirit (and, ultimately, receive exaltation), we can say that weekly observance of the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper is not strictly necessary to achieve that goal, particularly in circumstances where our opportunities to gather are limited by circumstances like the COVID-19 pandemic. This is, perhaps, not much of a comfort to those who wish to participate in the sacrament but do not have the opportunity to do so at this time, but it does at least indicate that it is still possible to observe much of the spirit of the sacrament in difficult times like the ones we live in today.
- Chad Nielsen, “Why the Sacrament?”, Times and Seasons, 10 June 2019
- Chad Nielsen, “Frequency of the Sacrament”, Times and Seasons 18 June 2019
- Chad Nielsen, “Bread and Water,” Times and Seasons, 26 June 2019
- Chad Nielsen, “Water Alone,” Times and Seasons, 8 July 2019
- Kent Larsen, “Lit Come Follow Me: D&C 20-22,” Times and Seasons 1 March 2021
- Book of Mormon Central, “Come Follow Me 2021: Doctrine and Covenants 20-22
 Austin, Michael. Buried Treasures: Reading the Book of Mormon Again for the First Time . Kindle Edition.
 “Update: Gatherings of Church Members Temporarily Suspended Worldwide,” 12 March 2020, Church Newsroom, https://newsroom.churchofjesuschrist.org/article/gatherings-worldwide-temporarily-suspended. Accessed 2 March 2021.
 “President Russell M. Nelson and Sister Wendy W. Nelson Share a Message about the Sacrament,” Church Newsroom 28 May 2020, https://newsroom.churchofjesuschrist.org/article/president-russell-m-nelson-and-sister-wendy-w-nelson-share-a-message-about-the-sacrament.
 “Directions for Essential Ordinances, Blessings, and Other Church Functions,” Church Newsroom, 16 April 2020, updated 11 June 2020, https://newsroom.churchofjesuschrist.org/article/essential-ordinances-blessings-other-church-functions. Accessed 2 March 2021.
 Jana Riess, “When Latter-day Saint women can’t have the sacrament,” 13 May 2020, https://www.sltrib.com/religion/2020/05/13/jana-riess-when-latter/. Accessed 3 March 2021.
 Dave B. comment on hawkgrrl, “Returning to church…?” Wheat and Tares, 19 May 2020 https://wheatandtares.org/2020/05/19/returning-to-church/#comment-225513.
 D&C 20:75.
 1 Corinthians 11:26, NRSV.
 1 Corinthians 10:16-17, NRSV.
 D&C 20:40.
 D&C 20:77.
 Bruce R. McConkie, “Children of the Covenant,” General Conference October, 1950.
 Neil L. Andersen, “Witnessing to Live the Commandments,” General Conference Leadership Training on the Sabbath Day Observance at Church (April 2015). Available to priesthood leaders. See also https://www.mormoninterpreter.com/the-changing-forms-of-the-latter-day-saint-sacrament/#sdfootnote40sym for a more detailed discussion of this issue.
 Elder David A. Benar, “Always Retain a Remission of Your Sins,” CR October 2016, https://www.lds.org/general-conference/2016/04/always-retain-a-remission-of-your-sins?lang=eng.
 See Terryl L. Givens, Feeding the Flock: The Foundations of Mormon Thought: Church and Praxis (Oxford University Press, 2017), 202.
 In Conference Report, Oct. 1929, 61; see also Doctrines of Salvation, 2:341 and Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Joseph Fielding Smith (SLC: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2013), 100.
 D&C 20:75.
 The Complete Discourses of Brigham Young, ed. Richard S. Van Wagoner (Salt Lake City, UT: Smith-Petit Foundation, 2009), 2:729, emphasis added.
 David A. Bednar, “Always Retain a Remission of Your Sins,” CR April 2016, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/general-conference/2016/04/always-retain-a-remission-of-your-sins?lang=eng.