On a very snowy Sunday, only the 1st counselor in the bishopric showed up (the bishop and 2nd counselor were either ill or snowed in). The 1st counselor conducted sacrament meeting and presided. In my EQ class, the EQ president spoke up in an almost boastful manner, saying that if the one member of the bishopric hadn’t showed up, he would have been presiding. I noted that the High Priest Group Leader and some other High Priests were present. His response was “But they don’t hold keys”. I always thought that an Elder could preside only if a High Priest was not present (D&C 107:10-11). What determines who presides in a meeting? Is it priesthood office? Priesthood keys? Or a combination thereof?
Your elders quorum president is correct that the important principle lies in who holds the keys. He is incorrect that the relevant keys are his. The bishop holds the keys for his ward and over the sacrament service. If he is sick or snowed in or even out of town he still holds the keys. In these modern times with ubiquitous communication technology the bishop can make a simple phone call to appoint someone to conduct the sacrament meeting. That could be the high priest group leader, the elders quorum president, or the brother with a snow plow. I would be surprised if your bishop didn’t first call his counselors to ensure that someone would be there to preside.
The bishop’s keys are important because without them a sacrament meeting cannot be held. A member can still preside over a meeting with talks, prayers singing, and such, but only the bishop can authorize the sacrament ordinance.
In the rare case that the bishop’s keys are not exercised, who presides over the meeting? This has proven quite the poser for me. I had a spirited discussion with a friend on the subject. Both the high priests and the elders have duties that can come into play with this scenario, but each duty has an aspect that leaves room for doubt. It is expressly the duty of the elder “to take the lead of all meetings. The elders are to conduct the meetings as they are led by the Holy Ghost, according to the commandments and revelations of God” (D&C 20:44-45). Yet we see the bishop conducting and presiding independent of the elders quorum. This is because high priests “have a right to officiate in their own standing,” and an “elder has a right to officiate in his stead when the high priest is not present” (D&C 107:10-12). But even these verses provide the caveat that the high priest officiates “under the direction of the presidency” and not independent of it.
I could share with you what some bishops think on this subject, but the important opinion is the one your bishop holds. He is the one who hold the keys, and in order to properly hold a sacrament meeting he will have to direct who presides in the absence of the bishopric.