Commentary: Why I’m going to trumpet the positive news for women in changes to Latter-day Saint temple ceremonies

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) The lights on Temple Square are switched on Friday, Nov. 23, 2018.

On Wednesday, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints announced — without actually announcing — important changes to its temple rituals.

In other words, the internet was awash with rumors about unprecedented changes, especially concerning gender roles in the endowment ceremony. But other than confirming that something unspecified has indeed been updated and urging members not to talk about those changes publicly, the church has been tight-lipped about what actually happened.

The Salt Lake Tribune is reporting from a witness who went through the temple Wednesday that important elements have indeed been altered, including:

  • GONE — women’s promise to hearken to their husbands, as the husbands hearken directly to the Lord. Men are no longer intermediaries between women and God in the temple.

  • EXPANDED — the role of Eve, who previously had no dialogue after the expulsion from Eden and is now purportedly more loquacious than Satan.

  • UNITED — women and men covenanting together to serve God, with the same promises, rather than covenanting separately with slightly different wording.

Over the last day I have also heard other attendees reporting about their experiences, and the changes sound far-reaching. This is not just window dressing but a full overhaul of many aspects of the temple. Without going into detail, I understand that these changes include:

  • A simplification of ritual clothing and how it is used.

  • A shorter overall length to the ceremony, with some repetitive language eliminated or changed.

  • A different temple movie that is primarily composed of still shots with narration rather than a live-action film.

  • Gender equality in the language of the sealing ceremony, where the bride and groom now apparently make the same promises to each other.

I’m thrilled about the changes, particularly for women. When I was conducting oral history interviews for “The Next Mormons,” I encountered a number of women who had difficult experiences with the temple. Here is what I wrote, much of which is now happily out of date two months before publication:

“The issue of gender inequality came up with surprising frequency in my conversations, as women (and it was almost always women) commented on how uncomfortable they felt with the same elements Miranda disliked: promising to hearken to their husbands while their husbands, in turn, promised to hearken directly to God; hearing they would be queens and priestesses unto their husbands while those husbands would be kings and priests directly to God; having to veil their faces during prayer; seeing Eve portrayed as subordinate to Adam; and having to reveal their sacred names to their husbands without receiving their husbands’ sacred names in return.

“Some women said the temple’s emphasis on women serving men who in turn serve God just doesn’t jibe with the marriages they have (or, in the case of several single interviewees, hope to have). Nor is it consistent with their own previously unmediated, direct, loving relationships with God — relationships they were taught to cultivate in Latter-day Saint classes, camps and programs. The language of the temple, mostly unchanged in this respect since the endowment was settled in the 19th century, feels like a relic from another age.”

| Courtesy Jana Riess Jana Riess, writer and editor.

Well, the “relic from another age” has been revised to more fully reflect women’s equal standing before God, and did I mention that I’m thrilled?

But here’s the part that does not please me: I am hearing that the revised endowment ceremony actually opens with a statement from church leaders that advises members not to discuss the fact that changes have been made at all.

If this is true, it takes the secrecy that has rightly surrounded three aspects of the endowment — the signs, tokens and sacred name that Latter-day Saints covenant not to discuss outside the temple — and applies it universally to the temple as a whole.

What’s strange is that at least to my understanding, nothing has been altered about signs, tokens, or sacred names. (Correct me if I am wrong about this, as I haven’t been this week myself to experience the modified ceremony.) The changes have happened to other aspects of the ritual that were not part of that holy triumvirate.

The ritual’s preface would seem to render us unable to talk about the important ways the revision is an example of continuing revelation. I can understand leaders’ desire to keep the changes out of the news if possible (though that is surely a losing battle in 2019), and I can also appreciate a reticence to explain the ineffable. One of the gifts of the temple has always been that we are free to exercise our own agency through prayer to determine what it means; no one in authority dictates its interpretation.

But complete radio silence is inadequate in this case. As Emily Jensen pointed out in an important blog post yesterday, it’s particularly damaging to women if we don’t talk about the changes. Jensen’s post was removed from its host site after a First Presidency statement Wednesday reiterated that temple “ordinances are sacred and are not discussed outside the temple,” so she has given me permission to republish a large portion of it here. I think her argument is vital:

“For as long as there have been temple ordinances, women in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have borne the brunt of covenanting and acting in a way that seemed contrary to much of what they were taught outside of the temple about their relationship with the divine and the eternities.

“This has now changed. If you attend the temple starting today, you will find that the endowment has been shortened. There are portions regarding women, including the wording of a covenant, that are no longer included.

“We have to acknowledge the change. Because if we do not, we as a church will continue to force women to bear the burden of wondering if they were wrong.

“Some women may wonder if they were wrong when they received strong testimonies about the specific way the temple, until today, taught them about their divinity. Or, if they questioned the temple but stamped these doubts down in honor of being obedient so they could receive future blessings for themselves and their posterity, some women may now feel the whiplash of their decades of unnecessary, soul-rending sacrifice.

“Women for generations have told their daughters and granddaughters, who looked at them with questioning eyes as they first went through the temple, that the specific form of the ordinance was necessary for their salvation. That it was worth doing something that felt wrong to ultimately gain something right, in a similar way it was worth it for Eve and the choice she made in the Garden of Eden. These women will now wonder whether they were wrong.”

In a way, the church’s request that members simply accept the change and not ask questions about it is par for the course; there has been a benignly intended pattern of Newspeak to previous changes, where it seems that leaders optimistically hope that the past will simply be forgotten if we don’t dwell on it. It’s wonderful to want to focus on a rosy future but not at the expense of denying any pain has been caused in the past, whether we’re talking about polygamy, race or now gender and the temple.

As Jensen puts it:

“I refuse to just be grateful that these changes were made. I refuse to be told by men in the church that they always understood the temple to be symbolic when it comes to gender issues so of course this change is welcome and we should just blithely move along. So many times women and concerned members have been told, ‘If only you understood the true meaning of the temple, you wouldn’t have these doubts and questions.’”

So in honor of the women I interviewed who had rough experiences with the language and ritual of the temple, I’m going to talk about these new changes — in fact, I’m going to herald them. I hope they will be a catalyst for many young women to have positive sacred experiences in the future, where they will feel equally valued to men in the temple. I also hope that some previous attendees who had made the aching decision that the temple was “not for them” will hear of these changes and dare to give it another try.

The views expressed in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.