Jana Riess: Why it’s important that Latter-day Saint women can now be official witnesses to a baptism

It seems like such a small thing: Women and girls of a certain age can now act as official witnesses to baptisms and temple sealings in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. They’re not getting the priesthood themselves; they’re just watching and recording the actions of men. No big deal, right?

It’s not even an unprecedented thing, though women have not performed this role at all recently. One example is when Camilla Kimball, wife of church prophet Spencer W. Kimball, acted as an official witness when her husband baptized a new convert, Mangal Dan Dipty, in the Yamuna River in India in 1961. “Sister Kimball was the official witness, though there were many curious onlookers,” Dipty recalled. “I was confirmed that evening.”

So it’s not new, but it is a major restoration of a long-discarded practice. Women serving as official ordinance witnesses has not happened in Mormonism since the sweeping centralization of the church’s correlation program in the late 1960s and ’70s. Correlation was not particularly kind to women. It is long past time for the church to dismantle this particularly senseless restriction.

The change is important for several reasons.

First — and correct me if I am wrong about this — I cannot think of any other scenario in the ritual life of Mormonism in which women are authorized to correct male priesthood holders about a priesthood ordinance. Here is what the 2010 Handbook says about the role of witnesses at a baptism:

“Two priests or Melchizedek Priesthood holders witness each baptism to make sure it is performed properly. The baptism must be repeated if the words are not spoken exactly as given in Doctrine and Covenants 20:73 or if part of the person’s body or clothing is not immersed completely.”

In a culture in which men typically lead and women are expected to follow, even something this small is significant.

As well, giving women a more important role in ritual life demonstrates that the Nelson administration values their robust participation. This follows other recent changes, including an overhaul of the temple endowment ceremony at the beginning of 2019, that have empowered women.

I expect that church leaders are alarmed by what is happening with members leaving, an exodus that for some is tied to the limitations the church places on women. In the United States, at least, “women’s roles” ranked as the third-most-common reason for leaving among women who disaffiliated from Mormonism, after “I felt judged or misunderstood” and “I could no longer reconcile my personal values and priorities with those of the church.”

Even among people who remain as members, there is a generational divide at work in the US: nearly six in 10 millennial Latter-day Saints say they are troubled by the fact that women don’t hold the priesthood, compared to just under a quarter of baby boomer and silent generation members.

In the United States, younger Latter-day Saints have grown up with the expectation that women and girls are equally capable to men and boys. The church’s culture and practices have been achingly slow to reflect the positive strides made by women in the wider culture, and younger members are quick to notice the discrepancies.

Finally, the baptismal announcement paves the way for future incremental changes. Every time a change occurs in the church, it makes future change more plausible.

What could those adjustments be? In The Salt Lake Tribune, Emily Jensen expresses her hope that women will be able to hold their babies while the infants are being blessed by male priesthood leaders; that female leaders can have more visibility in sacrament meetings and in church governance; and that women will resume the practice of healing others through the laying on of hands, as Mormon women did until the mid-20th century.

These are changes I long for, too. To that list I would add many improvements that have been suggested by author Neylan McBaine and others, including that women be called as ward clerks and Sunday school presidents.

All of these expansions are possible without giving women the full priesthood. Don’t get me wrong; I would love for women to have the priesthood. But I am also a realist and recognize that this is likely a long way off.

In the meantime, there is still plenty to celebrate.