Autumn of 1999 was typically humid. We still had a month or so before hurricane season ended and the weather became bearable. Sacrament Meeting in the Boca Raton Ward found me in the foyer serving my shift in the Smith Family Toddler Reverence Training Rotation. I was actively encouraging Monica to fold her arms and to realize that the hard pew and monotone voices in the chapel were way more fun than sitting on a soft couch watching other toddlers do somersaults.
Suddenly the chapel doors burst open and another frantic mother carrying an equally frantic, screeching toddler joined the foyer fray. It was my friend, Kelly.
Upon seeing me, she struggled her way to my post and said, “You will not believe what happened to me this morning!”
The amazing event, it turned out, was that she was asked (by the executive secretary, whom we'll call “Jim” to protect the innocent) to give one of the Sacrament Meeting prayers. She agreed, upon condition that it was the opening one “because I'm usually out in the foyer with my son by the end of the meeting.”
Jim wrote down Kelly's name on the roster, only to have a counselor in the bishopric whom we'll call Mike because that's his name and I don't protect perpetrators of non-doctrine “correct” him by telling him that “only a priesthood holder can invite the Spirit into a meeting.”
We'll set aside Mike's ability to completely overlook the fact that he had just declared that the Spirit was absent at all Relief Society meetings, Young Women meetings, and many Sunday School and Primary meetings. Just relating her story to me had Kelly's head bursting at the seams and smoke coming from her ears. And I was mouth-hanging-open stunned.
My husband had been in this same ward's bishopric a few months earlier and I knew this wasn't something they had enforced then. So Kelly and I decided to take the issue to higher powers.
First, we read the handbook. Nothing there, it says both men and women can pray in meetings. Period. In desperation, we moved further. We called our parents.
I called my dad, which might not mean much, but he has served as a bishop four times and in multiple high councils and, at the time, was the executive secretary of his ward. He said it wasn't policy.
Kelly called her parents, too, which also might not mean anything, but her dad has been on the General Young Men Board, a mission president, president of the Missionary Training Center, a bishop, and a stake president. Oh, and did I mention that her mom was, at that very moment, serving as the General Primary President? They also said it wasn't policy.
My husband, who happened to be the high counselor serving over our ward, asked our bishop who had only recently moved to Boca from somewhere up north about it. His response? “Not here, too!”
Sam took the matter to the next high council meeting and asked the stake president. He took the matter further up the food chain to the general authority responsible for our area, Elder Monte J. Brough of the first quorum of the 70.
On November 14, 1999, Elder Brough said that a few weeks before his death, President Ezra Taft Benson made a comment about prayers that was misinterpreted by a few to mean that only men could open meetings. Unfortunately, some of those disseminated this information. Although this was officially retracted “within weeks” it had spread far enough to become “policy” to some who had heard various versions of it. Elder Brough was “adamant” that it was not policy, was not ever given as policy from the first presidency, and simply wasn't true. He said that the church policy is that it doesn't matter who gives prayers ?just as it is written in the handbook.
He then asked that the message be disseminated by the high council throughout the stake so that no further misunderstandings would occur which is how I came to hear the information.
So, to answer the title statement: Women aren't worthy to open Sacrament Meeting with prayer because someone made it up.
Glad to have a definitive answer, the Boca Ward went on it's merry way. Until we moved, two years later, women were allowed to open Sacrament Meeting with prayer. Except when Mike was conducting whenâ€”entirely by coincidence, I'm sureâ€”men always gave the opening prayer.
Of course, Mike also chided other leaders if they ever said, “Young Women and Young Men” or “Relief Society and Priesthood” instead of the “correct” way, which always named the men's organization first. Ahem.
When we left Boca, we lived briefly in the Sunset Heights 2nd Ward in Orem, Utah, where only men gave opening prayers. I asked my dad who asked his friend, the stake president, who confirmed that it was correct policy to have men give all opening prayers. My dad told him what had happened in our Florida ward. He reconfirmed it was correct policy. Sigh.
Move again, in 2002, to Eagle Mountain, Utah. We're in the Cedar Pass 1st Ward whereâ€”can you guess?â€”only men give the opening prayer. After a couple of years my husband and I approached the bishop and asked about it. He said he had no problem with women giving the opening prayer. But they were never asked to do it, so I assume someone had a problem with it.
One Sunday soon after, I got the Sacrament Meeting program. It listed “Kim Southworth” giving both the opening and closing prayers. You see, Sister Southworth is a Kim, and Brother Southworth is, as well. I watched to see what would happen.
After the opening song, Kim and Kim looked at each other and the female Kim got the nod (seemingly because she was closest to the aisle). As she walked up to the stand, there was some murmuring and rustling in the congregation. The man sitting directly in front of me (who had only been released from the bishopric a few months earlier) looked over in alarm, looked toward the bishopric, whispered to his wife, and began to stand. Then he sat down again, apparently after having suffered a coronary infarction at the heresy of it all.
Sister Kim walked to the pulpit, gave a lovely invocation, and sat down barely escaping the lightning strike.
In the five years I've lived in the ward, the only other time I've witnessed a woman open Sacrament Meeting with prayer was about a year ago when the bishop's wife prayed. I have no idea what prompted this, but perhaps it's related to the Law of Adoption, and she was deemed worthy to pray due to her close connection to the ward's ranking officer.
From experience I've already learned that this home-spun “policy” is not enforced universally. We can rejoice in that. But it's perpetuated often enough that it follows me from state to state and ward to ward.
Here's hoping that all counselors, bishops, and stake presidents will become enlightened enough to read the current handbookâ€¦and follow it.